The view from your windows and the path to your door affect the way you feel each day. Feng shui masters have long professed the profound impact our surroundings have on our peace of mind and even our life’s good fortune — or lack thereof. When it comes to the spaces that envelop your home, landscape architect Randy Purnel believes in the subconscious power a well-designed garden has in promoting happiness and tranquility. Plants are the designer tool he uses to do just that with skill, simplicity, and restraint.
The Native Desert
Born and raised locally, Purnel delivers compelling designs with a foundation in “truly desert landscape architecture,” he says. “I work primarily with material I see as representative of the area. Then we move beyond that with some of our plant and flower selections.”
While he understands that curating each detail of an exterior environment can be a subjective business, he also has a passion for his distinctive approach. Purnel’s finest work tends to be simple and contemporary. He uses a light and subtle hand with an often Zen-like result. Even when clients request a more lush design, he works with their needs and desires to introduce some desert plantings. “Sculptural forms can be dynamic in the garden,” he says, citing the more than 200 species of agave that draw the eye with their large rosette centers and spiky arms that reach for the sky. An artistic succulent indeed.
“Unlike other plants, they are very static in their form,” Purnel says, which makes them dependable in keeping true to the original landscape design. “They may grow larger and change a bit in color, but I can count on them to retain their shape and place.” Unlike a shrub that can grow wild or be trimmed poorly, “if the gardeners leave the agave alone and let them retain their form, they will always be what I intended them to be,” he says.
TIP: Your landscape architect may be able to downplay any architectural elements you’re not fond of, counterbalancing them with the landscape. Ditto for property views, which can be altered through skilled creativity and exacting placement.
Regarding his design philosophy, Purnel speaks of a subconscious feeling we all share about what soothes us and what creates tension. “I try not to be too chaotic in the color, texture, and forms. I try to be more minimal,” he says.
“I keep it very simple and try to be very selective,” Purnel adds. “I believe there is a fine balance between not going far enough and taking it too far.” It’s a tenet that can become challenging when clients are excited about many different plants and want to use them all: “More color and texture generally feels tense to me. It’s too much.” Clients generally come to understand that less can be more and balance is key.
Outdoor art can also add a layer of calm in addition to making a personal statement. “We recently worked together with a client on the placement of a piece from their collection,” he says. “It’s now part of the view from their large dining room window. It’s an example of supporting the art and the space and the view. We never want to let the landscape overpower or take attention away from what’s important. There was just enough to support it.”
TIP: Consider new technology in low-voltage landscape lighting, which Purnel often employs. It allows each fixture to be controlled, dimmed, and matched individually to its specific aim.
A Place They Love
Organized clients know that a tranquil abode requires harmony between the beauty that lies both inside and out. On a current Smoke Tree Ranch project, Purnel’s design team is working closely with the client’s architect and interior designer. Perfect transitions become possible in this mindful orchestration. “The stone paving we’re designing will move right into the house versus stopping at the threshold,” he says. “Then the interior designer will take it from there.”
Out in the garden, Purnel chooses “plants that will sustain forever.” From a staggered row of tall cacti that lends privacy to a seating nook along the golf course to a cascading planter of hardy and fragrant rosemary that softens a ledge and sits near an outdoor barbecue for convenient snipping, Purnel wants his designs to last.
“There’s no use in putting in a plant that has a limited life,” he affirms.
So, what about flowers? “A lot of people like flowers and color, but it can be a little dated in my mind when they are spread throughout the garden. This also calls for a high use of water and changing out the flowers seasonally, which becomes costly,” Purnel explains. “So I use them in key strategic locations.”
Pots play into that strategy well. When pots are used correctly, they can stand alone as a sculptural element. “A single pot can really draw attention to something that is a bit minimalistic and become a strong focal point,” he says. They can also bring the garden right up to the door or in other places that planting may not be an option.
Once Purnel discovers a client’s preferences for aesthetics, he considers the functions of the space and the way they live and entertain. Then he blends in his own style for calming those spaces and creating an environment his clients will love.
“If they say, ‘I like to go out first thing in the morning and take in the day,’ then they should be able to come out of their bedroom every morning and have that shaded patio waiting there for them,” he says. “It’s something that resonates with them daily.”
Purnel’s vision as a landscape architect touches everything outside the footprint of the structure — from the living, breathing plant life to lighting, concrete paths, fabric shades, and water features. Integrating artwork and furniture is as crucial as planning the views that look out to the garden as well as framing the vistas beyond the property’s edge.
“We’re working on a house with a great view, so we wanted to capture certain parts and conceal other parts,” Purnel says. “We try to collaborate with the homeowner all the way through. Rather than dictating what needs to be done, I really listen. I’m like a sponge. Then I just put the puzzle together.” Piece by simple piece.
TIP: If possible, bring the architect, landscape architect, and interior designer on board at the same time — and make sure they are comfortable communicating as a team.