Outdoor Artistry

A modern Mequon retreat blends an architect’s eye and artful landscaping.


Wisconsinites are mindful of making the most of the fleeting summer weather. James Drzewiecki, principal designer at Ginkgo Leaf Studios, says the best way to take advantage of warm summer nights is creating an outdoor oasis you’ll never want to leave, and to consider adding a fire feature to stretch out the use of your patio in spring or fall.
“Pergolas are great for creating a sense of a space, or being in a room,” Drzewiecki notes of the popular addition to backyard designs. “They add verticality and having something over your head and really makes a space feel more room-like.”

An architect by trade, Beata Major knows the value of hiring just the right professional to bring out the best in a home, inside and out. So when Major and her partner, K. Paul Petersen, built their house on a brand-new plot of land, she admits to shopping around for the perfect landscaper to help bring her vision of a relaxing retreat to life.

Hailing from a Polish family, Major met Ginkgo Leaf Studio’s principal designer James Drzewiecki, APLD, — who reflects the same Polish heritage and professional ideals — and knew she found a kindred spirit.

“Being an architect and designing my own house, I had very high standards for a landscape design,” Major notes. “I searched for many months, trying to find someone who was a good fit, and actually interviewed many other landscape designers. Knowing [James’] architectural background, I immediately felt that he was the perfect match for my vision for what the landscape should look like around the home.”

“Unlike most of the neighborhood, which is made up of traditional homes, she wanted something that was more modern and eclectic,” Drzewiecki adds. “She felt like I really understood what she was going for.”

Having gotten to know Major and her design expectations a bit better, Drzewiecki completed a conceptual design to show the couple. Major came back with only a few minor tweaks, and the plans were redrawn, approved and put into motion.

Plants, grasses and trees not only add pops of color, but can also create a divide between patio areas you may want to separate. Ornamental grasses also add colorful interest in fall and winter months.
Drzewiecki added pebble runnels between the slabs of concrete for an added element of interest and a modern flair to the beautiful walkway design.

Though the landscape did not integrate Polish-specific designs, Drzewiecki explains that the home offers a refreshingly contemporary, international aesthetic. “She wanted it to have a little bit more modern- European feel to it,” he says. “She really didn’t want to look like the rest of the neighborhood.”

Because the home was a new build on the last lot in a subdivision, Drzewiecki and Ginkgo Leaf Studio had a clean slate to work with —  “an empty yard of dirt,” Drzewiecki muses.

“She [requested] a dining area and a lounging area, and she was interested in a fire pit, and she definitely wanted a pergola for some shade,” Drzewiecki continues. “We set about designing a patio that has multiple spaces, or ‘outdoor rooms’ in it. The pergola is over the dining area. There is a very modern fire pit, a cast concrete bowl with gas, but those two spaces are centered on each other, and there’s a subtle inlay in the bluestone paving that acts like a connecting stripe between the two spaces. Bluestone can be used in very traditional patios and oftentimes with brick, but we’ve paired it with concrete to really keep that more modern aesthetic.”

Drzewiecki also incorporated beach pebbles into a dramatic front walk that highlights Major’s love of originality.

“She wanted an interesting entrance,” Drzewiecki explains of opting for a unique combination of concrete and pebble inlays. “We wanted it to have a more modern flavor, so the front walk is panels of concrete that are separated by runnels of pebbles. The first section when you come off the driveway starts right and then most of the walk jogs to the left, and then it jogs back to the right to get up to the front porch. I knew most clients probably would be a little shocked by a front walk designed that way, but she loved it immediately.”

Next, Drzewiecki added live elements that complement the design, incorporating a line of Skyracer grasses that can grow upward of 7 feet tall and a line of river birch trees with multiple trunks that add another element of visual interest. “Then we repeated those two plants in the same way in the back yard, so those same tall grasses actually split the fire pit area from the dining area,” he says, “and then next to the fire pit area is another line of those river birch.”

Drzewiecki selected flowering and ornamental plants both for low-maintenance beauty and year-round appeal. “All the flowering plants are either perennials or flowering shrubs,” he says. “We’ve also mixed in ornamental grasses for fall and winter interest, and grasses also tend to fit with the more modern landscape. … Every plant in her yard, even including the trees, they’re all very hardy. We don’t do designs where plants need a lot of extra care. They really have to fend for themselves after that first year that they’re getting established.”

To keep the yard’s ecosystem humming along, Drzewiecki discovered he also needed to think outside the box with the backyard’s drainage system.

“This happens a lot when you’re the last person to build in a subdivision, because the neighbors on either side of you have already determined where they want their backyard to drain, and oftentimes there’s an issue that’s been created because of that,” Drzewiecki says. “So we did have to do some creative grading, and we even had to put in an underground drainage system to get a lot of the water out of her backyard.”

Drzewiecki says working with homeowners and bringing their ideas to life is always rewarding, but the amount of trust and free rein that Major and Petersen afforded him made for a truly unique and exciting project.

“Our best clients are the ones who care about the design side of it — not looking for the cheapest answer,” he says. “So that was definitely very rewarding and fun. The freedom she gave me to do more out-of-the-box designing and the level of detail we were able to do were nice,” he says.

For Major and Petersen, Drzewiecki’s understanding of the art of architecture and landscape resulted in a perfect blend of beauty, form and function.

“We’re a design only firm, so we really focus all of our time on the design,” Drzewiecki says.  “I think that’s extremely important. … A lot of homeowners have great ideas, but they either can’t figure out how to put them together or they’ll take those ideas and just start doing it themselves and it never feels like a cohesive end result. That’s why [landscape artists] exist; to bring it all together along with our own thoughts to create something that is really beautiful.”  MKE