For Judy Kameon, the most important role a garden can fulfill is to create community, so there is a poetic synergy in the fact that her career as a garden designer began almost by chance, in 1996, when she was hosting a pop-up restaurant in her Elysian Park backyard. Hotelier Sean MacPherson was one of her guests, and he was so taken with the terraced oasis she had created from an empty lot beside her 1920s bungalow that he hired her on the spot to design the landscape for his home. Kameon, who studied fine art at UCLA and is a self-taught landscape designer, founded Elysian Landscapes out of her garage later that year. Her artist’s eye for color, texture and shape—and her focus on native and sustainable plants at a time when clipped hedges and expansive lawns were more common—soon attracted a young, creative clientele that included Sofia Coppola and Mike D. of the Beastie Boys.
From the start, the Santa Monica native (whose late father is the modernist architect Herbert Kameon) was looking at the bigger picture. As a design/build firm, Elysian Landscapes could envision and execute dramatic overhauls of outdoor spaces, creating multi-level environments, built-in seating areas and fire and water features. And when Kameon realized there was a need for the sorts of elegant, durable, midcentury-modern-inspired furnishings that suited her plantings, she launched the outdoor-furniture company Plain Air with her husband, photographer Erik Otsea, in 1999. “We’d been to the Eames show at LAMCA,” she recalls, “and I was like, I think we should be like Ray and Charles!”
Elysian Landscapes’ current client roster includes major fashion brands, architects and urban developers, yet Kameon’s perfect balance of formality and wildness is maintained at every scale. “There’s this wonderful dialogue that happens between projects,” she observes. “What it boils down to is we’re all people, and that scale doesn’t change whether it’s public or private. How we inhabit a space is still at the scale of a human.”
In 2004, when it came time to grow beyond the secluded backyard dreamscapes Elysian was known for, The Parker Palm Springs, a ten-acre playground (to use Kameon’s word), allowed the firm to make an impact on a grander scale. Among the bidders for the job, Elysian was the underdog, but the firm’s vision of a variety of linked gardens with different moods and uses was ultimately chosen. Strolling the grounds today, one might come across a date-palm grove with hammocks; cozy seating around fire pits; or a private path lined with fluffy pampas grass and perfumed with lavender and citrus. A central fountain made of bright Moroccan tile was in keeping with the playful spirit of the Parker’s interior designer, Jonathan Adler. At the time Kameon was still new enough to the business that she physically placed all the plants herself. There were thousands of them, and it took her months. “I didn’t know any better,” she says with a laugh, noting that while she still takes a very hands-on approach, nowadays a crew will place the plants and she will make adjustments.
Marc Jacobs came calling in 2005, and that kicked off Elysian’s near-takeover of Melrose Place. The graphic chartreuse-and-orange composition created for the Marc Jacobs store’s courtyard led to a daring design for Balenciaga, which took inspiration from the space’s “lunar landscape” interior design scheme and a random mention of the film Blade Runner—“one of my absolute favorite films of all times,” says Kameon. “I was off and running.” Constructing a sculptural, otherworldly topography with oversize black lava stone, Kameon limited the plant palette to cool, black and metallic varieties such as silver torch cactus, a bronze velvet elephant ear and a pale-green ground cover. Planter shapes mimicked the store’s display cases, with succulents inside instead of handbags.
Down the block, but light years away conceptually, was the California home created for the boho chic Parisian designer Isabel Marant, who opened her L.A. flagship in 2013. The property was unique—a carriage house with a deep front yard that Kameon had had her sights on for 20 years. “They told me about the project and gave me the address, and I was like, I’ll be right there!” she remembers. An existing Chinese elm and an old olive tree were kept, and spiky variegated agave and columnar Mexican fence-post cactus added dramatic silhouettes. Riffing on a “California dreaming” vibe, Kameon came up with the idea to create a golden patch in the center of the garden to make it feel dappled with light, with progressively darker, leafier greens toward the perimeter.
In 2012, somewhere between the Balenciaga and Marant projects and shortly after moving into their current Westlake offices—a midcentury Harwell Hamilton Harris building whose proximity to Langer’s delicatessen proved irresistible—architect Dana Bauer joined the firm. Bauer brought a love of the arts, a rigorous intellect and a dedication to ground-level urban engagement that aligned with the direction in which Elysian Landscapes was expanding. Both Bauer and Kameon see the present moment as a golden age for Los Angeles, buoyed by a global awareness of what the city and its environs offer. And that coincides with a growing interest in landscape as it relates directly to architecture. “You can transform your environment completely with vegetation,” Bauer notes. “It feels like a lighter touch. And it’s in sync with our collective consciousness as a society—this longing for nature and the well-being of our planet and our city.”
A Buff, Straub + Hensmen residence in San Marino presented Elysian with the opportunity to draw from the region’s native environment as well as its creative culture. Indigenous plants were incorporated into the flowing design, which reflected the midcentury ethos of indoor/outdoor living, and a garage visible from the main house was used as a canvas for a graphic green roof inspired by the 1960s paintings of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis.
Completed in 2016, Platform—a high-end shopping and dining destination on the site of a former used-car lot in Culver City—was Elysian Landscapes’ first urban-development venture. The Brooklyn-based women’s boutique Bird took over a former bindery next to the lot, and since owner Jen Mankins and Kameon are lovers of pattern, the two went to town, reveling in unusual combinations of plants and colors. “I was actually a little bit terrified it was going to look like the crazy clown garden,” Kameon admits. “There’s fuchsia and stripes, things with polka dots, hard color contrasts. But it totally hangs together, and it definitely pops when you drive down the street.”
As it turned out, the landscape had not been taken into consideration when concrete was poured for the walkways and plazas of the rest of the 128,000-square-foot Platform development. But that led to a creative solution: Kameon and her team walked around chalking out shapes on the concrete that were then cut with a saw, a process that was “more of an excavation or deconstruction,” she says.
For Platform’s main planted area there were California live oaks already on site, and these were incorporated into the landscape with a variety of blue yuccas, native succulents and cacti. In another spot they planted a “bamboo alley” to create a lush, leafy arcade. The colorful and exuberant plantings in the cut-outs leading to the parking garage—including rock purslane, which has vibrant fuchsia flowers on thin stems—formed a relationship to Jen Stark’s Technicolor Drip mural. “Just as they didn’t treat the site with one brushstroke, we thought it would be interesting for the landscape to reflect the same idea, changing and evolving as you move into the space,” says Kameon.
The Spring Street campus in DTLA—anchored by David Chang’s Majordomo restaurant at one corner and mixology mecca Apotheke at another, with creative companies inhabiting the former warehouses by day—would seem geared toward a similar population: young, sophisticated and creative. Its needs, however, were very different. Given Spring Street’s proximity to the L.A. River and the Los Angeles State Historic Park, taking the native ecosystem as a starting point was Elysian’s first inclination. But the poor quality of the soil caused by decades of industrial activity at the site made it more pressing to simply determine what would grow there.
“Maybe the soil will become rehabilitated over time as part of the habitat, but our concern was managing the poor condition,” says Bauer. Brilliantly colored and resilient palo verde trees now dot the Spring Street campus, while a variety of ground covers and wildflowers add vibrancy. A combination of native fescue grasses was planted along the central thoroughfare, and a stepped concrete platform flanked by olive trees offers a casual spot to gather. The planters ringing Majordomo explode with blooming aloe and asparagus fern.
As more of L.A.’s urban areas get developed, technology plays a progressively more important role in the landscape, helping to monitor water usage and providing solutions for planting on top of a structure without adding excessive weight. “You’re very rarely planting into the ground anymore,” says Bauer. “You’re planting into a podium. So then you’re in this world of, What’s the lightest-weight soil? What will grow in twelve inches of soil? What will grow in six inches?”
While each Elysian project has its unique identity, there are also through-lines linking them, and in some cases—as the firm’s gardens spread across the city block by block—physical connectivity. Bauer notes that Spring Street is one of several projects within walking distance of a new Chinatown development whose mission includes amenities for the public instead of just for tenants and patrons.
Designed by Studio Gang and spanning almost an entire city block, the Chinatown project will include a hotel and a residential tower and nearly 60,000 square feet of landscape, thanks to a commitment to providing equal amounts of indoor and outdoor space. For the towers, Elysian decided to turn the modernist ideal of indoor/outdoor living on its side, quite literally, and create balcony gardens that cascade down the edifices—working in concert with nature and gravity. For the vivid plantings in a massive central courtyard they took inspiration from the sculptures of Ken Price, with their striated, almost geological layers of glaze, creating a topography that will respond to light conditions. As part of the developers’ commitment to the community, there will also be a marketplace, and they are looking into building a tai-chi plaza for local seniors. “Usually it’s the city pushing up against developers who want to do the minimum, but lots of our collaborators are making substantial civic contributions,” Bauer says with a smile. “They already drank the Kool-Aid.”
Other notable future projects include the Gehry Partners-designed Children’s Institute in Watts, whose mission is to support kids and encourage connections between fathers and their families. Surprisingly, they learned that one of the garden’s main purposes would be to give the therapists themselves a place to take a break. The landscape will offer intimate enclosed spaces as well a leafy open courtyard with sculptural plants that are hardy and fun for children to touch. Golden foliage will echo the building’s proposed gold brick. As Kameon points out, “the concept is never some kind of generic idea about, We need some trees here so there’s shade. It’s, How do we reinforce the vision for the project?”
Elysian Landscapes is also behind the bold black-and-white terrazzo plaza and the plantings at the new Kelly Wearstler-designed Santa Monica Proper hotel, opening this summer, and they have just begun the early design phases for the final three acres of the Parker Palm Springs in collaboration with Adler. When they first worked on the hotel, in 2004, the owner said he planned to address these three acres about six months down the line. But apparently things took a little longer than expected.
If there is one thing landscape design teaches, however, it is patience. “A garden is a relationship,” Kameon notes. “People make a commitment to caring for it, and it can take years to achieve the intended design.” Her hope is that clients learn to recalibrate their expectations so they can find satisfaction in the slow, steady growth of every plant. That’s no small feat in a 24/7 culture. “We’re so used to the pace of life where everything is available at all times,” Kameon adds. “But gardens don’t exist on that timetable.”