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Charlie Baker on "Making Order Out of Crazy Natural Elements"

Photos by Chuck Baker

Last Christmas, Madison Avenue passersby didn't see anything remotely froufrou in the windows of the Hermès flagship, and that's all thanks to Charlie Baker, a late-20s landscape architect and designer who runs a studio out of Long Island City, Queens. Baker was tapped to create window displays to showcase Les Maisons Enchantées, the latest porcelain collection from the French fashion and housewares brand. "I own an Hermès tie—that’s the extent of my Hermès wardrobe," he irreverently told the New York Times in December. Baker founded Baker Structures in 2007 and has since garnered a reputation for turning reclaimed antique wood and tree parts—twists, knots, roots, branches, and all—into whimsical patios, gazebos, pergolas, and decks. He's also behind line of more modern, although similarly inspired, light fixtures and furniture. Let's talk to him, shall we?

If you had to, could you put a label on your aesthetic?
It's kind of a tough thing to put a label on exactly, but when it comes to outdoor garden stuff it seems like most of my clients that come in are looking for the more natural approach and I enjoy making things look like they grew into the form or they've been there for a while. A lot of the structures that I do using natural material I try to make it look as though it's grown into the form that it has. When it comes to bringing that indoors, I like to kind of incorporate some modern elements and some natural elements for furniture or light fixtures.

Your dad's a fine-art photographer. How do you think growing up in an artistic environment impacted your overall perspective?
Both my parents are pretty artistic, and growing up we had lots of school projects and things where they helped me out—I probably ended up looking a little too good for a 10 year old! When i grew up we had a fix-up house out on the end of Long Island—they bought a run-down, very old house on the water—that was an ongoing project from when I was 10 years old almost through high school. They did most of the design themselves; they were always summer projects. When I'd be home for weekends helping out with various things in the gardens, I'd say that definitely sparked an interest then, but I didn't really put it together that it was something that I wanted to do for living until a few years out of college.

Do you find one kind of project—a chair, a trellis, a light fixture—most pleasing or interesting? Which?
I enjoy outdoor structure because it's something that really changes the landscape for the client. I feel it really improves their outdoor way of life and I think as I'm building it I feel their enjoyment out of it. When it's a completed project my work really changes the amount of time they spend outdoors. It's something I consider to be a functional work of art; it's not just a generic gazebo or deck or whatever.

Particularly since you're based in NYC and probably have lot of clients from NYC, outdoor space is particularly of the essence.
Yeah, but I've always wanted to get a client who wants to do a country garden in the city—the kind where you kind of create a really calm room that contrasts with the surroundings. Like a little oasis. Most of the urban gardens that I've done have wound up looking a lot more modern than that.

You live in NYC. Do you have outdoor space? What's it like?
I live and work in Long Island City [Queens]. I do have an outdoor space in both where I live and my workshop—they're both rentals so it's a matter of when it makes financial space to do something with them. I'm dying to build my own garden, but for now they both have grew views and they're nice places to hang out, but I haven't fully had the chance to build anything.

Did you enjoy the process of working with Hermès on their holiday windows?
It was interesting—basically a large part of it was doing set building, and I'd never had any experience with that. The idea of trying to cram as much as possible in very small spaces—there were very small entryways so everything had to be designed to come apart and be attached again. I think some of my experience working in Manhattan gardens helped with that in terms of carrying things through tight corners and trying not to break anything. We'd hau these large pieces of roots past these perfume cases, where they were like, "Watch out for that, it's worth 20 thousand dollars."

Were you given free reign, more or less? Or did Hermès provide the direction?
They had a line of plates and soup terrines and teacups and things, and they had an artist do a rendering of whimsical forest scenes—that was the general concept. But they gave me free creative reign to come up with the concepts for each windows.

Would you do a window installation again?
I think it would be great to score one of those every holiday season. I don't know if I'll ever get quite the scale of that and the freedom of that, because it was kind of a dream thing to do everything the way i wanted—they weren't even that concerned with how the product would be incorporated. But it turned out that each window did have a nice platform for the platform displays.

Name some favorite media to work with lately.
I certainly wouldn't say I'm the first person to use it as a medium, but I love reclaimed antique wood, which is a very big industry—salvaging wood from old construction sites and older buildings. I think I like the combination of that older milled wood and the combination of that with the natural wood—it has a nice harmony to it.

In your life, what outdoor space has made an impact on you?
At a pretty young age I saw the gardens of the Alhambra, in Spain, and that had a pretty big impact on me. Also the Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island—those two certainly sparked my interest in garden in general. I wouldn't say I developed the aesthetic that I have now—a lot of that has been through books and learning as I go what I like and don't like.

Sorry, but I've got to ask: are you a "forest for the trees" kind of person?
That is a tough one. I would say yes. We'll leave it at that.

And what about this: if a tree falls in a forest and no one's around, does it make a sound?
I do believe it does because—animals have ears, as well, and there's bound to be an animal or two anywhere a tree falls.

· Baker Structures [official site]
· Charlie Baker on Creating Windows for Hermès [NYT]