“In the Office I Think. In the Garden I Do.”

Posted inEllen Shapiro
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Bounty from the garden. “At our annual late summer garden parties, our friends marvel at the grand garden we have created,” says environmental graphic designer David Gibson, who shares this 19th-century Greek Revival house in the Catskills with his partner Rich Kiamco.

“In the office I think. In the garden I do.” So explains New York environmental graphic designer David Gibson about the garden he and actor and comedian Rich Kiamco, have designed and nurtured at their country house in Ferndale, New York.

At Two Twelve Associates, the design firm Gibson has headed since 1980, he is a designer of public information design systems, signs, and communications in the urban environment. In the Catskills, among the country weekenders, he is getting cred as a bona fide garden designer as well as a great party planner.

“Why do I need to spend my weekends doing more design in the environment?” Gibson asks, somewhat rhetorically. “During the week, it’s phone calls, presentations, team meetings, strategy sessions—the tasks of the design executive. But at the end of the week, frankly I’m sometimes not sure what there is to show for my efforts,” he admits. “Sure, beautiful design is being created all around me, and my efforts keep things moving forward. But amidst all the collective action, it’s hard to pinpoint my personal contribution. On the weekend, it’s garden layouts, color selection, weeding, planting, the work that makes for dirt under my fingernails. The rewards are immediate. When we pull up carrots and beets for dinner—or see the drifts of bright yellow sedum and deep blue catmint—I know I made it happen. Rich and I planned and planted these things and can see and taste the bounty.”

Gibson and Kiamco named the farm Buddha Barn after the 600-pound stone statue Gibson found in Beijing and had shipped to Ferndale, New York.

“The garden itself started off as a weedy, abandoned kitchen garden where we thought we’d grow a few flowers for fun,” says Kiamco.

An 8-foot hollyhock from English seed in front of the gateway pergola Kiamco made from scrap lumber, inspired by structures and scrollwork seen during his travels in Southeast Asia.

Much like design firms, the garden is a partnership. “Rich and I play to our strengths,” explains Gibson. “He’s the scientist, but also the bold and intuitive one who does what feels right. I’m the planner, the one who worries about the juxtapositions of colors and the massing of forms. Together we can accomplish a lot and create a place of great beauty.” The partners recently won the grand prize in a regional garden design competition, the 2010 Catskill Harvest Market Garden Contest.

Like many partners, they don’t always see eye-to-eye on everything. “On our first trip to the nursery, while I was agonizing between packets of zinnia and morning glory seeds, David was pushing a cart loaded with three-gallon perennials to the car,” Kiamco recalls. But both agree the results have been beyond expectations. Says Kiamco, the scientist, “Four years after planting those first seeds, we’ve got an 175’ x 70′ fenced plot where we grow flowers, veggies, fruit, and berries. And we have an experimental 25’ x 200′ unfenced testing site in which the deer nibble on just about everything except the 600-pound stone Buddha. Says Gibson, the planner: “By late August, after our annual garden party, we’re able to stop and actually enjoy the garden, walk the paths, and admire the abundance and the magic of the space we’ve created.”

David Gibson (right) with partner Rich Kiamco, is the winner of many design awards—and now a regional garden design contest. Thinking and making are the dual roles of the designer, and the garden gives them a special opportunity to do both.

The garden has apparently also transformed Gibson—author of The Wayfinding Handbook—into a poet. He writes, “Right now, in early October, the late-bloomers are flourishing and the garden has a remarkable calm. The curves of fading plants signal the end of another growing season. Once tall, erect, bright green sunflowers are now bent over, dull green-brown showerheads releasing a spray of seeds to the birds swooping down and critters scampering on the ground.”

“As the summer season winds down and I’m ready to spend more weekends in the city, I’ll see friends, go to museums, and explore the city. My global travels will resume too, time to nurture the urban designer in me. But then as if on cue, long cold winter nights will begin to awaken the gardener hibernating within. Come late February I will be itching to get out to the garden once again.”