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Walter Cudnohufsky – Cultivating the Designer’s Mind

Cultivating the Designer's Mind

Walter Cudnohufsky’s book Cultivating the Designer’s Mind

Walter Cudnohufsky says “Design is Optimism Personified.” I saw Cudnohufsky’s design and optimism myself, one day about 11 years ago.

“Keep talking. Keep talking,” Cudnohufsky said as my Heath neighbors, Lynn Perry and Rol Hesselbart, brought out all their concerns about the landscape surrounding their new garage. I was invited to watch Cudnohufsky at work. It was a lively consultation and I was amazed at how patiently he listened, how carefully he observed the area.

Lynn visited me last week with all her notes of that afternoon, and the sketch Cudnohufsky created during the two hour consultation. “It made me so happy going through all those notes.” Lynn said. “That was a wonderful afternoon with Walt. And we did everything he suggested. There was nothing authoritative about him. And nothing was wasted that afternoon. He gave us what we needed and was gone,” she said.

Walter Cudnohufsky

Walter Cudnohufsky

I have seen Cudnohufsky at work since then, and become aware of what a good and encouraging teacher he is. Everyone who goes to him for a landscape design will get a lesson.

He has been teaching for over 40 years. During the first 20 years he founded the Conway School of Landscape Design in his renovated Ashfield barn. Fifteen students attended that first 10 month intensive program of learning and doing. Since he retired (mostly) from the Conway School he has continued his landscape practice. He is now sharing his expertise and teaching with a larger world.

Cultivating the Designer’s Mind: Principles and Process for Coherent Landscape Design, written by Cudnohufsky, with Molly Babize is a book that sets out to explain what design is. It also defines the many benefits of good design. Mollie Babize joined his practice about 35 years ago, and besides being a workmate and friend for all these years, she was at his side at the writing table. She was “striving to get my thoughts and make them coherent”. Cudnohufsky said.

The 313 page book is organized in ten chapters beginning with What is Design? One chapter talks about Understanding the Designer’s Role which is what Walt did when consulting with Lynn and Rol. He was listening and asking questions. He made a graphic rendering and continued talking and exploring more. This is an excellent chapter because it is not only for designers. It also provides information for the client about what to expect, what to think about, and what kinds of information the designer needs to make a good design.”

Cudnohufsky said that when he began more than 40 years ago he felt “a sustained and growing frustration with the general quality of design decisions. This was leading all too often towards fashion and decorating for dollars, rather than the higher order tasks of landscape design, first serving multiple environmental as well as human needs and desires, . . . as well as being aesthetically appealing. Good money is too often being spent unwisely when the same investment in landscape could often serve better ends.

“I have proven over decades that with a little elbow grease and focus, design is fun. A proportionally better designed result is possible. It is all within reach. I place a capital D on design because it is more than trivial.”

The book also includes case studies. One detailed case study illustrates how to build a basic map of a property, how to identify the views of adjoining properties, what plants are in good health, what are the impacts of trees on their surroundings and more. What are first impressions of the property? Cudnohufsky explains, “First begin with existing assets. Then look for constraints. Consider the topography, slopes and flatland.” There are sketches and drawings to show the various aspects of wind, light and shade, notes about electric lines and other important elements that are in place. Learning to see all this is as important for the client – or a house buyer who will come to see the need for a Design.

This book is intended for designers, young and experienced, as well as home owners. Understanding more about the needs of a site, as well as what they want from a sight will help them become better clients or self-designers. It is also hoped to be useful to the sister professionals in architecture, engineering, urban design, and planning.

I felt some of the exercises Cudnohufsky asked of his clients were useful to me as I work on creating my new urban garden. “I’m aware – I imagine.” In my garden I am aware of the movement of the sun – I imagine making a place that will provide shade for social space. There is also “I wish.” I wish I had more shelter in the garden. I wish there wasn’t so much water. Those wishes certainly tell me what I should be thinking about.

Cudnohufsky doesn’t seem capable of not designing and teaching. He said, “Beauty is not a luxury. It is a central human need and right – beauty leads predictably to reverie and sustaining human experience.” His book provides many lessons for all of us as we tend our domestic landscapes.

Between the Rows   March 23, 2019

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