HULLS COVE—Garden design merges nature with culture through art using painting, sculpture, ecology, architecture and engineering. These disciplines are drawn upon to create a harmonious and meaningful work of art and are what occupies the time, mind and visions of long-time landscape designer Dennis Bracale.
“In landscape architecture, you are creating a future that never has a point of arrival, that is always changing… what I really consider myself is a designer who specializes in landscape but dabbles in everything else,” he said.
Although he has designed homes, Bracale was trained to master the art of landscape architecture. “It’s a very complex system to work with nature. Instead of creating an object, you are creating a field. There is no time when the composition is complete as it is always changing,” he said.
Bracale became fascinated with culture, history, religion and philosophy while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. Upon graduating from high school, he worked on large construction projects for eight years while he earned an associate degree.
Bracale then transferred to Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic. While there, he was awarded a Thomas J. Watson fellowship, during which he traveled to 18 different countries in 19 months, “visiting cultures that developed a landscape aesthetic based on religion, philosophy and culture,” he said.
After the fellowship, Bracale launched his firm, Gardens by Design, in 1990.
“I started a business without even trying. I was just asked to do projects,” he said.
He then received a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.
A big part of Bracale’s research is studying gardens and ancient spaces around the world, something that he pursued through three traveling fellowships. After graduate school, he continued to travel. “I would go away for two to four months every winter from 2000 to 2020, which was a full–time job. I would choose a culture to research, bring my design work with me and work on my designs while away,” he said. “Some of my projects reflect East Asian modernism, but I’ve created everything from arts and crafts to Italianate to gardenesque,” he said.
During these research trips, Bracale traveled to Rome, London, Paris, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and throughout Asia. As he completed design projects, he would send them to his office in Maine. “In early 2000, I was really one of the few people that was working remotely,” he said.
Though Bracale does not advertise in the phone book or online, a steady stream of clients continues to contact him. “People ask, when do I take time off? The only time I’ve ever taken off is when I’m too tired to create. [Designing] has been my life for the past 27 years,” he said. Bracale considers his career all-consuming because he has a very short period of time to conceive and figure out an immense number of moving parts.
Whether it’s wood or stone, the designer enjoys creating structures that are appropriate for the assigned site. His firm collaborates with craftspeople from all trades to suit specific projects. “To name a few, I’ve worked with Japanese craftsmen, amazing stone workers, bronze workers, carpenters and sculptors,” said Bracale.
Throughout his career, Bracale has designed about 170 gardens on Mount Desert Island and about 30 off the island in Maine or in other states. He has worked for a variety of clients in Seal Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Bar Harbor and other towns on the island. “Most people know my work,” Bracale said, adding that his clients will often request a concept similar to what they saw at another home. “If I don’t think it [the design] is right for the location, I will offer a different option,” he said.
“My job is to marry somebody to their land. It’s not my dream, it’s theirs,” said Bracale, who explained that “they are going to live in this place so it has to fit their lifestyle and be appropriate for their families.”
Land has a life of its own, which is an idea Bracale believes gives each place a certain possibility. “What I really try to do is take who they [clients] are and build them an appropriate garden that fits their land.”
With the goal of harmonizing with nature, Bracale’s work follows a series of principles. “One of the principles I use is creating an indeterminate border, meaning you don’t know where the garden ends and nature begins,” he said. With this principle, Bracale uses similar colors and materials and mostly native plants so his projects blend harmoniously with the surrounding land.
“Another principle I use is creating a morphological echo through large massing—the distant view is mimicked in the closer view with the two relating to each other,” he said.
Bracale also joins inner and outer space, which he claims “makes one feel like you’re actually outside in these incredible landscapes.”
Currently, Bracale has around 15 different designs in various phases of design and construction.
“I’ve always been able to walk into a place and see what it could be. It just transforms right in front of my eyes. I’m very lucky because the thing I’m good at is what I do for a living. I will probably be a designer until my brain doesn’t work anymore,” he said.