LaGuardia Design: A Conversation With A Landscape Legend

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The Hamptons is a feast for the eyes. Whether you are panning the ocean or bay, hiking a trail, or even at the dog run with your pets, you are going to sense that there is nowhere else on this green Earth that comes close to the natural impact the region leaves you with.

The famous Hamptons light has an elemental way of adding an azure tinged aura around its natural bounty at a certain time of day. Then the sounds hit you. The summer breezes blow the ornamental grasses, hydrangeas and scrub oaks creating a melody that, accompanied by the local birds, is almost biblically deep. Go closer to the border gardens or the wildflowers off of the highway with its wild yarrow and tiger lilies and the scent that permeates the air creates a node in your psyche — you realize this magical place has just anchored itself to you as a place you’ll remember for the remainder of your life. That’s the Hamptons and why its natural beauty is a place like no other. And few have mastered its brilliance and how our senses are heightened here.

It all started with Chris LaGuardia, LaGuardia Design Group’s founding partner. He gets it in a deep way. Established in 1992 and located in Water Mill, the LaGuardia Design Group, a landscape architecture firm specializing in high-end residential and commercial design has been recognized in numerous publications and won more awards that we can list here. Their body of work is simply astounding.

“Contemporary Gardens Of The Hamptons.”

Now, anyone can walk through LaGuardia Design’s work through their first coffee table book, Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons. Pages and pages of images that transport the reader to stunning landscapes and gardens across the region is overwhelming in a good way considering its release is during a global pandemic — it could not have been published soon enough.

We caught up with Chris LaGuardia to learn more about the book, his methodologies, his firm, and so much more.

Congratulations on your new book, “Contemporary Gardens of the Hamptons” celebrating 30 years of excellence. It’s absolutely stunning! Did you think you’d have come so far since studying landscape architecture?

I didn’t really have a target in mind for how far I would come in this profession. It wasn’t until we started writing the book two years ago that I realized what a large body of work we had built.

The exciting part is that we are already thinking about our next book!

James Lane Post/AntoineBootz

Was landscape architecture a childhood dream? What inspired you to go into it?

I was not familiar with the profession of landscape architecture until I was in my first year in college. I saw a student with a drafting table in his room and asked him what he was working on.

It was a class in environmental design. I changed majors the following semester. I’ve always felt lucky that I stumbled upon the profession of Landscape Architecture. It appealed to me on so many levels. Drawing, plants, construction and working outdoors checked a lot of boxes for me. As my studies continued it seemed the world really opened up to me. I developed a great desire to travel and see all the great places and works of architecture which to this day stand as my inspiration for getting into this field.

Do you think it’s an innate talent or could anyone be trained to see a landscape and transform it into a vision like yours?

Anyone can become a landscape architect as long as they have a passion for it. The profession is so broad in its reach and diversity of practice I believe there is a niche for most anybody. From residential gardens to urban plazas to regional planning, the profession offers something for everyone interested in design.

My vision and philosophy of landscape architecture developed over many years of training and personal experiences. I would say one of the most important classes you will take in college is the History of Art, Architecture and Landscape Architecture. It’s very important to know and understand what came before you and how you might adapt those solutions to your everyday practice. It’s also very important to gain valuable work experience with the best possible firm you can land a job with. It’s a slow-moving profession to mature within so you have to be patient.

In addition, I would emphasize travel as a priority at an early age in the profession. There is just no substitute for seeing the built environment compared to photographs. Italy, Spain, and Japan are some of my favorite places to visit.

The pandemic has brought out a new awareness of home and garden. The idea of a refuge and place to hunker down revealed itself in a big way on the East End.

Alastair Gordon’s forward is compelling and aptly describes the landscape of the East End beautifully, even including the scrub oak, which is a mainstay that no one talks about. Can you explain what the region’s landscape means to you and why? 

One of the reasons I moved to the Hamptons was the rural resort feeling and the natural landscape. The mix of bay and oceanfront, agricultural land and woodlands reminded me in some ways of where I grew up in rural Upstate New York.

I love all the edges where water and sky meet the land, the ocean, bay and tidal estuary all present a certain quality of light, space and diversity that appeals to me. The East End is a very horizontal landscape with a lot of open sky. You have to be careful not to disrupt the inherent beauty of this landscape. You’ll often see in my work long sustained unbroken lines that reflect that greater landscape.

James Lane Post/Anthony Crisafulli

The book harkens a time when, say, Rizzoli was putting out marvelous coffee table books of design that we loved spending hours admiring the best of artists and what they brought to culture. What do you think LaGuardia Design brings to the region’s landscape legacy?

Alastair Gordon does a great job on the introduction of our book relating our practice to the great tradition of artists and architects on the East End. I was quite honored when he mentions our firm carrying on the legacy of what came before us. He mentions that something about the Hamptons was lost with all this development that has happened over the past thirty years. He recognizes our work holding onto and expressing that memory of a native landscape that people first came here to appreciate. In many ways our work seeks to reestablish that connection to the native landscape that was lost. I would hope our legacy to the Hamptons landscape was to begin a movement of landscape design that returns us back to a more contextual and biologically diverse planting design that enhances the natural environment while at the same time create enduring works of design that stand the test of time not only though craftsmanship but sound design principles.

The word, “contemporary” comes up a lot in the copy though LaGuardia Design is also known for creating landscapes that look ancient and native in its final composition. Take for example your award-winning “Daniel’s Lane Residence” which received the highest award for residential design in the profession, the National ASLA Award of Excellence, in 2013. That design was so complex but looks indigenous and untouched by modern humans. Do you prefer to undo a landscape or build up into your vision?

Land development and construction by its very nature “un-do” the landscape. There is a certain violence and assault on the existing landscape that occurs when new construction starts. It is often our job to rebuild a landscape from scratch. It’s not often a blank canvas. We like to preserve as many natural features as possible, existing trees, wetlands and topography are always respected and often enhanced and expanded during our design process. We like to design very architectural features in the landscape and then plant around them in a contrasting way with native plants. The tension of built elements and native plantings is a common theme in our work. Always try to do the most with the least regardless of budget. Having restraint and knowing when to stop designing takes many years of discipline and self-awareness.

Chris LaGuardia. Courtesy LaGuardia Design

What is so refreshing about the book is that during the pandemic we had to do a lot of armchair traveling — to experience beauty without leaving our homes and dream through our screens and books. In addition to celebrating your thirty years of work, is the timing also about making a contribution to the pandemic lifestyle of bringing beauty to people who are affected by the lockdowns we’ve all experienced?

The timing for the release of the book was always meant to be in the spring of 2021. The book was first started two years ago so the pandemic was not part of the timeline. I am grateful we were still able to work through the pandemic with our publisher the Monacelli Press and meet the deadline. It was a really great experience working with everyone at Monacelli.

Spring is a time where people really think about gardens and the re-birth of a dormant winter landscape. We thought that would be the perfect time for the book to come out.

The pandemic has brought out a new awareness of home and garden. The idea of a refuge and place to hunker down revealed itself in a big way on the East End. The population here surged, and part time homeowners suddenly become full time with a renewed focus on the outside. Our office has never been busier with requests to enhance clients’ properties.

The photography in the book is show stopping. They are images that let us be cocooned in a world by LaGuardia Design. Do you believe the 200 images you’ve showcased can inspire us to design our own gardens? 

The book is mainly a collection of photographs that we have accumulated over many years. One of the many things I learned from working with Norman Jaffe was his commitment to having his work professionally photographed by the best photographers.

When I completed my first big project I had it professionally photographed by Jeff Heatley, the photos were gobbled up by national magazines and earned us a few awards. Ever since that time we have worked with many very talented photographers to have our work shot and I owe all of them a great debt of gratitude for their artistic eye and captures in the book.

James Lane Post/Anthony Crisafulli

A photograph is worth a thousand words so I would say our photos speak for themselves and should inspire people to keep things simple and not over work a garden. Try to use native plants where possible as they enhance and provide sustenance for all of nature.

Do you believe in the famous Hamptons light? If so, do you design with it in mind?

The famous Hamptons light is a very real phenomenon. It’s not always present but occurs when there is a low cloud cover.

The sun shines through the clouds and reflects off the ocean; it then reflects off the underside of the clouds and forms this great distilled light where you see everything more clearly. Shadows are gray not black and lite surfaces are not overexposed. Painters and photographers love working in this light. We focus on light and space as a prime driver of our designs. If you are not making space, you’re being decorative which is not where I like to be. Providing spaces with proper sun and shade is paramount in the success of our work.

You’ve worked on legendary landscapes and with legendary people. Who are some of your favorites and why?

The LaGuardia design group has had the good fortune to work on many amazing properties and worked with some extraordinary clients, artists and architects. I don’t have any particular favorites as each project is an adventure in itself. I have learned so much from my collaborations over the years and am eternally grateful for every opportunity and relationship. To be honest my favorite project is the next project.

How does the process work when a homeowner hires you? Are you part of the conversation from the beginning or do you come in once the home is fully designed or built?

The process can vary quite a bit depending at what stage the property is in. Ideally, we get hired before the architect and set forth site parameters for an architect to work within. It’s a collaborative process where we go back and forth with an architect and then collectively present to the owner our ideas.

The process can be very rewarding. As you can see in the book, we have many repeat collaborations.

We often start the process with some very loose hand sketching and inspiration images. The design and drawings slowly evolve through thoughtful collaborations with architects and clients into a beautiful master plan.

We also produce wonderful 3d renderings to help clients visualize the project. A lot of time is spent in the field making adjustments to the design as we see fit. Within our firm this is a total team process which makes it fun and rewarding for everyone involved. I have taken great pride in developing some really good talent in our office that offers great service to our clients. They expect a great design from us, and I feel it should not be an arduous process to build it.

LaGuardia Design Group partner Daniel Thorp. James Lane Post/Courtesy LaGuardia Design

As we get closer to the end of the Covid epoch, how do you think people will change the way they use their landscapes? Do you predict anything that we can take away from your experience?

The use of outdoor space has really become a priority for many of our clients. Entertaining outdoors makes people feel safer and psychologically more comfortable knowing the air is clean and healthy. So many of our new projects incorporate all the elements you see at an outdoor resort.

Covered dining areas, fire pits, outdoor kitchens and grills, pool areas with multiple seating options. Vegetable gardens are also very popular now as well. All these elements are designed to site within an overall landscape that expresses a certain feeling of relaxation and integration.

How did the pandemic affect your business and/or methodology? How are you personally coping?

The pandemic was hard for our employees who all had to work from home for many months. Many of our employees are younger and live in relatively small apartments so it was pretty claustrophobic and lonely for them.

I’m proud of how they handled it and came through it. We are all back in the office now full time and everyone is very happy about it. From a business standpoint we have engaged Zoom and GoToMeetings big time.

We even took an office wide seminar on how to present and behave during a zoom call.  The zoom calls have been hard for me in that I really like to look into someone’s eyes and see how they are reacting to what I am presenting and if necessary, change gears or go in another direction. Zoom is more of a broadcast and then reaction which isn’t great. Interviews have been tough as well trying to make connections with someone over a screen has been challenging.

Personally, I am very grateful that our business was able to work though the pandemic. It was hard but not nearly as hard as friends of mine with restaurants and retail stores. I also feel very sorry for all the school and college kids missing out on such an important and formidable year in their lives. I do believe we all learned some valuable lessons from the pandemic and hopefully become more considerate in our thinking.

LaGuardia Design Group partner Ian Hanbach. James Lane Post/Courtesy LaGuardia Design

The book is an epic testament to your work, Chris. Thank you for letting us into your world, which is so so beautiful. 

I would like to add that the book is a selected retrospective on my firms work over the past thirty years here in the Hamptons. I have been getting a lot of individual attention on this but in reality it has always been a true team effort. I would like to give an enormous amount of credit to my wife, Jane, who has worked with me in the office for the past twenty years and helped me manage all aspects or the business as well as raising our children together.

We both still work very hard and yet find great reward in working with our talented team. My partners, Ian Hanbach and Daniel Thorp, also have been big factors in the growth of the company over the past seven years from a small practice of five to a 20-person mid-size design firm. We all are very excited about what the future holds for us.

Currently we have branched out to other areas of the country including many parts of New England, Florida, and the Caribbean. One of our future goals of the firm is to take on more public type work including institutional and public spaces. We love all our private gardens, but it is also very rewarding to see our public projects work well for everyone to enjoy.

As a firm we believe our office culture and physical office environment offer an amazing opportunity for young people to develop into seasoned professionals. We work by a strict motto to “have fun and do great work!”

Having enthusiasm, passion, and a belief that the profession of landscape architecture can make a difference in our world is paramount to working here.

I believe our next book will be even better! Stay tuned.

To learn more about LaGuardia Design, visit

Ty Wenzel

Co-Publisher & Contributor

Ty Wenzel started her career as a fashion coordinator for Bloomingdale’s followed by fashion editor for Cosmopolitan Magazine. She was also a writer for countless publications, including having published a memoir and written features for The New York Times. She is an award-winning writer and designer who covers lifestyle, real estate, architecture and interiors for James Lane Post. Wenzel is also a co-founder of the meditation app for kids, DreamyKid, and the social media agency, TWM Hamptons Social Media.

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