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All in the Family

Nord Eriksson grew up in Arcadia, the son of a landscape architect who took him to job sites almost as soon as he could walk and encouraged him to scavenge pool tiles, bits of paving and plants to make his own garden vignettes. By the time Eriksson reached high school, a career-oriented aptitude test predicted that he would join his dad’s profession. He did.

Today Eriksson is a principal at EPT Design, the firm his father Robert co-founded in Pasadena during the early ‘60s and retired from in 1995. Nord Eriksson still makes vignettes, though now on a far more complicated scale. For 23 years he has designed residential gardens, parks, large-scale corporate and institutional settings, and landscapes and master plans for universities. Along the way, his taste has evolved, but four years ago, when he and his wife Cynthia, a clinical psychologist, moved from a 1911 Monrovia Craftsman to a flat-roofed modern in Altadena, he felt as if he’d come home. “Though I work with a lot of great revivalist architecture,” he says, “I love simple mid-century style.”

His low-slung, boxy house, built in 1949 on one-third of an acre, demanded a quiet front garden to echo its pared-down forms. “My approach is always to carry architecture into the landscape,” Eriksson says. Here, the guiding lines were especially strong--a concrete-block house with horizontal joints and long horizontal windows. The surrounding land was nearly bare, and once Eriksson removed a space-wasting circular drive, he began etching it with the geometry of the house. Between the street and the front gate, he imposed a series of rectangles to create an arrival zone. He laid a path across the space, interrupting it with long steps he describes as “a homage to my dad and his modernist training. Steps like this are one of his signatures.”

At the same time, another design tenet to which he--and his father--subscribe is that mystery is crucial to gardens: “You shouldn’t see everything at once. Certain parts must be left to your discovery.” For this reason, and because the property fronts a busy street, Eriksson built a wall around the courtyard that adjoins the house, turning a vaguely defined public space into an open-air living room.

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He linked his public and private rooms with paving and plantings. Between the street and new wall, he wove a textural carpet with fields of concrete, Arroyo cobbles, Del Rio gravel and Mexican beach pebbles, interspersed with strips of plantings. In the courtyard, the paving reappears in a gravel floor edged with pebble-seamed concrete “rugs” that sidestep to the front door. Courtyard beds repeat the street-side plantings in the same graphic masses and color tones that Eriksson picked up from existing olive trees and the nearby San Gabriel Mountains: blue rye grass, hairy awn muhly grass, senecio and bronze flax.

Most intriguing is a stream that bubbles up from a shallow fountain near the street and slips through a channel into the courtyard via an opening in the wall. There it enters a pipe, disappears inside a concrete bench and reemerges to spill into a pond. “I like the idea of water moving through a space as opposed to staying still,” Eriksson says. “It flows, it vanishes, the sound changes. You get so much out of one element.”

Including, in this case, a place to sit that recalls the practicality of modernists, who made gardens to be used and not just admired. They also valued plants that need little care, and so does Eriksson. In the courtyard, he preserved an existing yucca “because it was sculptural and alive.” In the same spirit, he used succulents, grasses he has to prune only once a year and pebbles in place of lawn. “I’ve got one hour a week of weeding, and after summer we hardly water,” he says. “I almost wish there was more to do.”

But his sons, Noah, 4, and Ian, 1, are always busy in the garden, spading gravel into buckets and leaving neat piles on the walks. Nord watches patiently, as his father did. So will the boys follow in his footsteps?

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“If they want to. We won’t push,” he says, smiling. “Who knows? They do love those rocks.”


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