08.17.22

The Beautiful World of Landscape Architect Robert Bell

Photo by Robert Bell

His breathtaking horticultural work can be seen in the pages of Architectural Digest, Veranda and Forbes as well as on HGTV. Earlier this year we had the good fortune of meeting the very talented landscape architect Robert Bell at the Kips Bay Designer Show House in Palm Beach Florida where we soaked in the sun surrounded by the elegant and whimsical garden he installed for the occasion. His unique contribution to the fundraiser, entitled “Darwin’s Deco” put on full display his flair for mixing classic garden ornaments with contemporary pieces to create “elements of fiction and fantasy” all while maintaining a careful sensitivity to the environment.

Photo by Robert Bell

His appreciation for natural beauty started at a young age and grew with his ability to see the potential in every garden space he directs his attention to. “I’ve always enjoyed architecture, art, design and gardening and was lucky enough to grow up on a farm with lots of space for little experimental gardens. My mom encouraged me to start a little herb garden around the age of 8 and that expanded into a garden takeover of the rose beds where I planted antique roses (which did much better in our hot humid Mid Atlantic climate of Maryland’s Eastern Shore than hybrid teas) and that led me to renovate an existing boxwood garden area from the 1920s which made think more about how to divide of spaces and create garden rooms and the importance of scale and proportion. Learning about the formal aspects of landscape design seemed like a good next step after that.”

Photo by Robert Bell

After having worked on the historic gardens at Mt. Misery Plantation in St. Michael’s Maryland as a summer job in high school, he continued his education with a degree in landscape architecture. “In college I was fortunate to get an internship with landscape architecture firm Oheme, Van Sweden and Associates who are noted for their introductions of sweeps of perennials and grasses to American Garden. Working with founders and my mentors Wolfgang Oehme and Jim Van Sweden cemented my interest in landscape architecture as a career as I worked with them on projects that ranged from homes in the Hamptons and Palm Beach to flower shows and botanic gardens and overseas embassies.  The scope and variety of the work there was incredible and made me resolve to base my own future practice on diverse projects that interest me vs specializing and getting too pigeonholed by a style or type of work.”

Photo by Robert Bell

Drawing on his early years growing up in Maryland as well as his current environment (he is currently based in Washington DC), Bell takes inspiration from a wide range of influences to create a one-of-a-kind design for each project he works on. “Talbot county Maryland has a unique relaxed style and pace and it’s known as the place “where land and water intertwine” given all of the bays and rivers and the importance of water and agriculture in its history.  I think growing up there will always affect my love of being near the water and for natural tidal landscapes, but I also have traveled quite a bit and love mountain and desert landscapes as well.  I’ve been based in Washington, DC for many years where the architecture has a heavy emphasis on Classical forms and symmetry like monumental marble buildings on the National Mall but also small and idiosyncratic like the quirky brick row houses of Georgetown. I love to design grand spaces with huge “wow” moments but also enjoy working with smaller, challenging projects with tight constraints that turn out to be little jewel boxes that clients enjoy every day.”

Photo by Andrea Scrivanich

Despite the amount of research, work and creative energy put into all of his projects, Bell’s greatest achievement comes from a finished look that feels as natural as possible, an outcome that appears effortless. “My goal in working with space is always to make it feel appropriate and as if it’s always been there.  The best compliment I hear is “But what did you DO?” When someone walks into one of my landscapes for the first time and isn’t sure what was there originally and what was added.  This was especially gratifying recently at the Palm Beach Kips Bay Decorator Show House when we installed fully grown palms and hedges, coral paving, and many garden antiques at a 1920’s era house that fit with the property seamlessly.”

Kips Bay Decorator Show House Palm Beach – Photo by Carmel Brantley

His goal of creating a space so custom that it would be difficult to imagine it any other way means his approach is anything but routine. While this approach is labor intensive, it is often Bell’s favorite part of the process. “We’re currently working on projects in Nantucket, MA, Southampton, NY, John’s Island, SC, Palm Beach, FL, Deer Valley, UT and Lake Tahoe, NV.  It sounds nerdy, but doing the research on local landscape codes, architectural styles, climate and native plants for each region is incredibly interesting and adapting my design principals for each area is a fun math problem where you know the desired outcome, but all the variables change based on region.”

Photo by Jennifer Hughes

With the constant creative output he produces, Bell is always on the lookout for inspiration. “Some of my influences are landscape architect and plantsman, Wolfgang Oehme and his love of plants (especially things some people consider weeds), Thomas Heatherwick (works in many fields, always brings the drama to his installations), Raymond Lowey (the Streamline Moderne style is my favorite) and Martha Stewart for being such a trendsetter and powerhouse in the home, garden, and lifestyle spaces before “influencing” was ever a thing.” His influences can also be found outside the world of landscape architecture as well. “I love reading things that are not about gardens or landscape so Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” exhibition catalog, “The Architecture of the Shakers” by Julia Nicoletta anything on Peter Faberge are all winners.”

Photo by Robert Bell

His love of varied, eclectic style can be seen in the way he decorates his own home inside and out. “My home’s style is a mix of family art (my grandfather and great-grandfather were both artists), things I’ve collected like antique silver and Art Deco glassware and lots of books.  I have a few very tough houseplants that can survive my work travel schedule. Sometimes they even do better when I’m gone!”

Photo by Robert Bell

Click here to shop Robert’s TLV Favorites.

5 Questions with Landscape Architect Robert Bell

 

TLV: What Era or design style that you are inspired by?

RB: I enjoy lots of them but the 1890’s-1920’s are my favorite time period.  The world was changing extremely fast at the end of the Industrial Revolution and the tension between handmade and craftsmanship was very hot.  Art Nouveau with its focus on nature and ornate curlicues led to the geometric Bauhaus which led to Streamline Modern with its focus on speed and energy.

 

TLV: What is your dream project?

RB: I’ve been approached to design two cemeteries but nothing concrete has happened yet.  I think cemeteries are fascinating, from their uses to commemorate and memorialize to preservation of green spaces in urban areas to the history they reflect.

 

TLV: Career highlight (so far)?

RB: Working on the design of the US Embassy compounds in Barbados, Nepal and Afghanistan.  It was such a wonderful combination of hard work, team problem solving, and garden and plant research that I love.

 

TLV: Favorite travel destination for design inspiration?

RB: Musée des Arts Décoratifs  in Paris or Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA

 

TLV: What are three words you would use to describe your work?

RB: Graceful, inventive, delightful

 

Read our coverage of Robert Bell’s work at the Kips Bay Designer Show House in Palm Beach here.

Profile Photo by Cassidy Duhon / Text by Liana Hayles Newton

 

 

 

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