On being a landscaper, and getting lost in a world of earth, plants, light and water.

15 Minutes with Lucy Schnell, CDS landscape designer


Landscape design is defined by ScienceDirect as the art and science of arranging land so as to adapt it most conveniently, economically, functionally, and aesthetically to any of the varied wants of people.  Academic skills required of prospective landscapers to ‘make it’ are listed as active listening, verbal communication, creativity, critical thinking, reading comprehension, and computer skills.

But really… landscape design goes deeper than this. There is the obvious love for plants; the vision of what could be – or restored to a more organised natural state; the desire to take something natural and will and shape it into a creation equally as natural, but more pleasing; being able to layer and dress in rock, soil and foliage a space that invites exploration by humans; understanding what it is that lends comfort to people in the act of getting engrossed in their natural surrounds, and the proclivity to seek joy and solace through a direct interconnection with nature.

And this is how I have come to know and appreciate Lucy Schnell, senior landscape designer and studio manager at Contours Design Studio. Painting the world around her in hues of earth, plants, light and water. And getting totally lost in thought on the topic, if given the chance.

A journey through the landscape with Lucy Schnell

Would you say you are a free-flow-creative thinker or an analytical planner? A multi-tasker, or do you go into your own quiet place and let the magic happen, one footpath at a time? What is your unique process?

I love stories, so I unconsciously look for the story in every garden that I design. It helps me organise my thoughts and process around a central thread, which I need because I’m not naturally organised. It’s a little bit like journeying down the garden path on an idea to find the treasure at the end but enjoying the scenery along the way. Sometimes the inspiration comes from the client and my sense of them, other times it is the location, shape, colours or needs of the site itself, and sometimes it is an image that pops into my head that seems to be ‘just right’ and there is an urge to explore its’ fit’ to the project at hand.

At which point is it that you find yourself letting go and getting completely lost in the art of planning beautiful, traversable natural spaces for your clients?

Starting to sketch is the start of the journey: solving the technical aspects, shaping the garden, thinking about materials and finishes, imagining moving through plants and the textures.  I can get stuck in a design ‘tunnel’ and lose track of time.

When assessing a new client’s land or garden, do you see in your mind’s eye the seedlings of your end-product? Or do concepts develop more slowly, over time and through further consultations with the client?

When I assess a client’s garden I’m unconsciously searching for the bones that will organise it. It’s a process of trying to absorb the site whilst also listening to the client and their needs.  Somewhere in the mix of all the incoming information (visual and audible) is the key.  Sometimes this becomes quickly evident on-site, but at other times, especially if the site is highly technical or very large, I need to remove the distraction and work on paper to unlock it.

Does landscaping ever feel like work to you? 

All of the numbers-parts of the job feel like work to me because they do not speak to my strengths, so I’m required to be pedantic about them. They are, however, a very necessary part of understanding the project, so there is no easy way to avoid them or hand them off to someone else. The sheer thrill of seeing something that has existed in my head find expression on the plan, and then into a multi-dimensional living entity creates an endorphin high that more than makes up for any of the bits that may feel like a drudge.

Your most challenging, but also most rewarding project so far?

Very uneven sites that we are able to open up to easy, close-access to the plants so that clients are drawn through to enjoy as much of the space as possible are the most challenging to design. Truth is, they are all rewarding because every client and every site is different so every site has its unique challenges. I love them all, but the ones that I have a chance to go back to are the ones that ultimately are the most rewarding because I get to experience them when they’ve had time to mature. Like a good wine – always better with just the right amount of turning and clock-ticking.

Do you find it challenging to distance yourself from your own personal style when designing for clients? How do you create a vacuum that celebrates and invites the individual personalities and interests of your clients, which allows you to be sensitive to their unique taste? 

I don’t find it challenging to distance myself from my own personal style. I love all well-designed spaces, no matter the style. We listen to the client and the site’s likes and needs, and then design to the client’s brief. Having said that, I can see the gardens my colleagues have designed look a bit different from my gardens, so I guess every designer has a particular ‘signature’ which will creep into their work. Mine is probably movement and light – I find I am drawn to these qualities, even in the natural landscape.

If you weren’t a landscape designer you would probably have been?

A book editor.

What is the most out-of-character thing you have done in your life? 

Bunking out of the hostel in my matric year right before prelim exams. I’m normally a fairly compliant individual. I think I simply got tired of being compliant and a little trouble so close to the end couldn’t be SO bad. Besides, I didn’t intend getting caught.

What would your advice be to anyone who wants to invest their time, love and hard-earned cash in a beautifully landscaped outdoor space or garden?


Landscape design is to outdoor space what an architect is to a building, or an interior designer to inside space. Like them, what we aim to do is to create a space that is a joy to be in, but also highly practical and functional.

However, because much of our palette is made up of living material, we have to design with 5-dimensional complexity – length, breadth, depth, but also seasonal growth and change over time. Landscapes are not static. Clients need to remember that pictures they see in a book are captured moments-in-time and are not always aware of the long-term care that has gone into that moment, or what might happen after that moment.

I like to keep a gentle eye on the gardens that we have installed because that way I can nudge them gently into their best performance – with just the right amount of care.


“The deep satisfaction that is invested in a well-designed landscape goes beyond colour alone and comes from a multi-dimensional sensory experience that shifts and changes with the seasons and over time, but is nonetheless deeply rooted in its specific location.”



N.D. Landscape Technology SACLAP registered Pr LM

082 422 2466  | 021 300 3398

lucy@contoursgroup.co.za | hello@contoursgroup.co.za


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