James van Sweden Biography

James van Sweden, FASLA, (1935 - 2013) an innovative designer and prolific author, passed away at his home on Friday, September 20, 2013, following a long illness. He and the late Wolfgang Oehme created the “New American Garden” characterized by native grasses and perennial plantings in tapestry-like drifts. The style celebrated the seasonal splendor of the American meadow while promoting its inherent ecological and sustainable values.

James van Sweden - Photo by Roger Foley, 2010

“Jim was an extraordinary person – exceptionally talented, intelligent, warm, and witty. For him, landscape architecture was artistry and his work was very painterly,” said TCLF Founder and President Charles A. Birnbaum. “When we learned of Jim’s illness we immediately went into production with a video oral history about his life and career. Thanks to the support of the National Endowment of the Arts, a number of Jim’s former clients and the assistance of his successor firm OvS, headed by Sheila Brady, Lisa Delplace, and Eric Groft, the Web-based oral history insures that Jim’s ideas – in his own voice – will inspire future generations.”

Rockefeller Park, Battery Park City, NY - Photo courtesy Oehme van Sweden, 1995

Van Sweden was the son of a building contractor and grew up in a large Dutch community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. From an early age he had a love of gardening and plants. He sharpened his gardening skills and love of design in the small backyard of his family’s suburban bungalow in Grand Rapids and during winters in Fort Myers, Florida. In 1960, at the age of 25, he earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Michigan and went on to study landscape architecture at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. After three years he returned to the U.S. and became a partner at Marcou, O'Leary and Associates. In 1975, he founded a partnership with Wolfgang Oehme. The Washington, DC firm, now known as OvS, encompasses architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design. The Federal Reserve Board Garden (1977) is considered Oehme and van Sweden’s breakthrough project, introducing their signature “New American Garden” style to a wider audience.

David M. Lilly Plaza, Minneapolis, MN
David M. Lilly Plaza, Minneapolis, MN - Photo by Wolfgang Oehme, 1989

Inspired by Jen Jensen’s approach to Prairie Style landscape architecture, the New American Garden Style is a metaphor for the American meadow. It reflects the beauty of the natural landscape, in all four seasons, liberating plant materials from forced and artificial forms, allowing them to seek a natural course as they weave a tapestry across the garden plane.

Oehme and van Sweden at Freedom Plaza, Washington, D.C. -

Van Sweden’s clients were lifelong friends. In August 2010, one of them, Marilyn Melkonian, contributed one of the many brief reflections that accompany his video oral history. It reads, in part:

“I have known and loved Jim Van Sweden for more than 45 years … He became and is my teacher, mentor, exemplar in the magical world of urban design and philosophy, and a great friend (and, from time to time in student years, houser of last resort) … Jim and I have worked together over the last 25 years in more than 25 places creating beautiful spaces and gardens that flow from his imagination and great talent. He has brought his special vision to unexpecting places in America’s urban neighborhoods, changing the less than ordinary into the extraordinary. The rich are not his only beneficiaries.”

Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL - Photo by Nate Matthews, 2015

In addition to a large residential practice, the firm’s work includes the New American and Friendship Gardens at the U.S. National Arboretum, World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, the Gardens of the Great Basin at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the United States Embassy site in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden.

National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C. - Photo by Roger Foley, 2006

Van Sweden promoted the firm’s ideas through lectures and books, including Bold Romantic Gardens (1990, co-authored with Mr. Oehme), Gardening with Water (1995), Gardening with Nature (1997), Architecture in the Garden (2003) and Art in the Garden (2011). He received the American Society of Landscape Architect’s Design Medal in 2010 along with honors from the Garden Writers Association of America, the American Horticultural Society and many others.