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Landscape designer shows how to extend living space outdoors

Imagine a house where no flat-screen TV dominates the living room. Instead, seating faces the sliding-glass doors, looking out on a backyard that is integrated with the home's open architecture.

Allison Olson, of Dreamscapes Landscape Design, will be offering a lecture class at Palo Alto's Gamble Garden, on Oct. 15, informing homeowners on low-cost design changes to transform and expand their living space. Her lecture will cover mid-century housing and gardening, including Eichler homes.

Joseph Eichler, 1950s real estate developer, borrowed from the architectural stylings of Frank Lloyd Wright to bring cohesive, unifying design to the masses. These kinds of design gestures involved atria, foyers, a closeness to the land and open spaces lacking specific designations from one another. Walls, opaque doors and low barriers are absent in these houses -- the user chooses how to occupy the space.

Olson will talk about how to properly connect the garden of a house with the house itself. She will cover a vast array of topics, ranging from what plants to surround the house with as well as the shape of the garden itself. One of her points -- to curve or not to curve -- deals with the validity of curvilinear forms used in the garden of a house with strong rectilinear elements. What matters most is that the garden and the architecture of the site match; a lack of communication between the two creates an overall disjointed living space, she said.

"I like to find out a person's comfort plants," Olson said. She encourages homeowners to think about what kinds of plants they feel most comfortable with, beginning with the homeowner's idea of home -- perhaps what they grew up with.

"Creating a space" is most important, she said. These spaces will rarely, if ever, be the same, depending on the individual.

Environmental responsibility remains a strong factor in her design, as well.

"I consider myself a steward of the land," she said, looking out over the eco-lawn she just installed for her client in Los Altos Hills. Despite the larger size of the site, the design tenets remain the same: a heavy use of succulents, hand-selected plants by the user all in coordination with a larger theme, and a strong placement of these plants from the most visible spots within the house, inviting the user to extend the living space beyond the physical borders of the inside.

Much of Olson's lecture will discuss focus on vegetation that requires less frequent watering and can survive easily in the California climate.

"Form, function and flow," Olson said, briefing her design process in a few short words.

Pragmatism pushes strongly in her design, doing away with waste and refuse. Sometimes a client will ask for something that may be a nice idea, but won't really be used. Olson said she would discourage a project that didn't make sense.

Born in Beaufort, S.C., Olson quickly moved to Los Angeles when she was 2 years old, living there for the majority of her life. At the age of 4 her mother took her to a Frank Lloyd Wright site in Pasadena, where she had her "first real revelation of a sense of place." Her interest in architecture and spatial understanding would develop over the years, her mother pushing her forward into art as she got older.

Before starting Dreamscapes Landscape Design, Olson explored architecture by working as an interior designer. Later, she would go to Foothill College in the Environmental Horticulture program for landscape design and soon realized her passion. Interior design was too "static" as she put it, not allowing for as much control because the space itself had already been created. Landscape design is a different story.

"There's serendipity with these plants -- they're alive. There's tens of thousands of plants so you can play. You've got a huge palette to play with, especially in California," she said.

What: Garden Design for Eichler and Mid-century Modern Homes

When: Saturday, Oct. 15, 10 a.m. to noon

Where: Gamble Garden, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto

Cost: $35 for nonmembers, $25 for members

Info: Gamble Garden or 650-329-1356 ext. 201

-- David Ruiz can be emailed at

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