When Joel Loblaw first meets with clients, he hands them monographs on two legendary garden designers, Piet Oudolf and Luciano Giubbilei, and asks them to pick a favourite. “They are top examples of the extremes I like. One is very structured, and one is very loose,” says Loblaw, who operates his eponymous design-and-build firm out of a Leslieville office.
Structure and looseness could describe his approach to both art and real-life landscapes. “Together, they create a really nice tension in a garden,” he says. An accomplished abstract painter who has conjured dream-like creations for Nuit Blanche, Loblaw first determines where to build on the spectrum between structure and movement, and then places at least one arresting – but never showy – element that pierces the rest of the landscape. “Even abstract art has composition and balance – if it’s any good.”
In a recent project, he used a conservative, red brick detached home in Rosedale as the hard-edged backdrop for swaths of softer stuff. Out back, two separate stone-tiled patios float among beds of low-lying grasses and sharply pruned hedge shrubs. In front, those same shrubs and grass encircle a wrought-iron fence, which in turn encases a cluster of hydrangeas that frame a softly lit cube of glass – a living nesting doll of texture. That glass cube exemplifies how Loblaw thinks a signature detail should work. “It’s a subtle yellow light that doesn’t overwhelm you, but it still distinguishes the house from everyone else’s on the street,” he says.
That push-and-pull aesthetic defines projects that range from urban rooftop patios to small city gardens. Recently in Riverdale, he played off the rustic cottage look of a weathered garage clad in wood and steel by designing an entry to the pool with dock-like details. The unstained deck is lined with wooden posts and glass railings, tufts of tall beach grass, mismatched lounge chairs and, of course, the trademark detail – a path of wide tiles lined in vibrant green moss.
Loblaw often gives clients the same advice: invest in the plants, or what he calls the fourth dimension. “Elements like a front walkway are two-dimensional,” he says. “Most people won’t notice if they’re walking on $35 flagstone or $6 brick. What gives a project its glamour is the planting plan.” It’s the living things that look beautiful year-round, are animated from multiple angles and interact with all of the senses – from the smell of lilac to the rustle of tall grass.
Originally published in our Summer 2015 issue as Raw and Order.