When landscape architect Rene Fransen dons what he jokingly calls his “New York look,” he appears every bit the celebrity.
Picture the designer in a handsome black overcoat, a charcoal turtleneck, black trousers and shades, and you will understand why some have even called him a legend.
“I had to laugh when I was greeted that way once,” he said. “The fact is, I come from pretty modest beginnings.”
Modest beginnings or not, Fransen has worked tirelessly over the past 35 years to build his practice and develop a significant portfolio of loyal clients, not only here in his native New Orleans but also across the nation.
Three of Fransen’s landscape designs will be showcased Saturday, March 21, during the Secret Gardens Tour and will offer a small hint of what the master designer is capable of.
“I am fortunate to have worked with so many New Orleans clients and to have had the chance to develop designs based on our local vocabulary,” Fransen said. “Wherever I have worked, local materials and design themes are what I rely on.”
Fransen was no more than 5 years old and living on Gentilly Boulevard across from Dillard University when he became interested in gardens and plantings.
“I used to follow our next door neighbor around in the garden whenever she was working,” he said. “Every Saturday, you could find me at E.A. Farley, the florist on Gentilly Boulevard that specialized in cattleya orchids for corsages. When I was about 10, I became fascinated by Louisiana plantation houses and would sketch them along with their floor plans incessantly.”
So taken was Fransen by the architecture of the old homes that he planned to become an architect when he entered Louisiana State University.
“Back then, the programs were the same the first year and everyone took courses together. I decided at the end of that year that I would pursue landscape architecture instead,” he said. “I started my practice when I was 24 years old and fresh out of school.”
Beds are just a start
In the three decades since, Fransen has worked on designs for countless home landscapes, often in collaboration with architect Greg Pierce. An example on the upcoming tour is the home and garden in the 1200 block of First Street, where the project went well beyond laying out beds.
Instead, the design called for altering a side entrance to be more welcoming, building a rear porch for more gracious access to the rear yard, removing the original swimming pool and installing a new one, and constructing an elegant outdoor pavilion.
“The idea is to make the landscape design and the architecture of the house complement one another seamlessly,” Fransen said.
The same basic tenet applies on a much larger scale at a French Norman-style estate named Windy Hill, located in Columbus, Mississippi.
Collaborating with architect Ken Tate, Fransen drew inspiration from the sort of land-to-house relationship championed by British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll and architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century.
The scheme relies on cascading levels, semi-circular steps, vine-covered arbors, and a pigeonniere to produce a series of enchanting vistas. One element in the multi-acre design is the cat garden, with stone walls tall enough to keep coyotes out and kitty safe.
From N.O. to the Hill Country
A different esthetic prevailed at a 500-acre Texas ranch, where slabs of stone from the Hill Country were used to configure rugged steps and where enormous rough-hewn timbers were pegged together to create a rustic pergola.
Closer to New Orleans, on a vast tract in English Turn, a wide open space with a view of the bayou lent itself to the installation of a pool with a disappearing edge. A parking court on the same property was paved with cobbles laid in old European patterns, and a grove of small trees shades parking spots, rendering cars nearly invisible.
In the Garden District’s urban setting, Fransen has scaled his projects to considerably smaller sites.
At one of the homes on the tour, a new L-shaped pool and its seating area very nearly consume — at his client’s request — the entire rear yard of the house.
In another tour garden, the designer drew inspiration from Charleston’s traditions, where formal garden rooms are well-defined and spaces are separated by uses. Included in the mix are a parterre garden, a lawn, and a fountain wall.
First, build the soil
Although the visual impact of Fransen’s designs derives largely from the spatial relationships of their components and from their proportions, there’s no denying the importance of the plant materials.
“For healthy plants, you need great soil and our native soil has too much clay in it,” Fransen said. “We dig out and removed about two-and-a-half feet of dirt and then have good quality replacement soil brought in.”
A second must-have is an irrigation system, Fransen said, though he confessed that he has not always heeded his own advice.
“I didn’t have one at my own house until about five years ago, and it changed everything,” he chuckled.