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Thinking Without Mortar

Lew French began his career as a general contractor with an affinity for stone. He came to Martha’s Vineyard more than twenty years ago and built his first fireplace in a common spec home with boulders gathered from the beach and forest. Today, his uncommon fireplaces and landscapes are renowned in Washington, D.C. and Potomac as well as around the globe. He rarely alters his materials and instructs owners to spray the lichen creeping across the stone so it can bloom. Grout lines do not exist—his compositions do not rely on mortar, which is only used for safety. I learned this while driving with Lew French to several projects on Martha’s Vineyard on a windy Thursday last spring. What was unusual about this day was that when we reached a project, we spoke very little. We sat and stared at it, long past the moment when an awkward silence is broken. Eventually, we would talk about the work. What I realize now, after several conversations with Lew, is that he was showing the stone the ultimate respect, allowing it to speak first. Annapolis Home shares an interview with you as well as some of his projects on the following pages. French’s work expands our conception of landscape terrain and hearth and home, which is why this story fulfills Annapolis Home’s mission to bring to our readers those producing the most challenging work of our time.

Why do you work with stone?

There is a power in stone, the more you leave it alone and study it and let it be what it is, it’s more powerful. It’s doing what it is supposed to do. My job is to augment it, not dominate it or force it to do something it’s not capable of. I try to respect and understand it, not just lump it together. I read the stone to the best of my ability, but I only go as far as I can go.

 Do you design before you build?

Often, the final outcome is dictated by the materials. I have an idea and change the design to what material I have. I do have the luxury of time. Stuff has to make sense. I hate that artistic, hokey stuff [stone work] that’s out there.”

 Why do you choose one stone over another?

Why you choose a stone is critical, it’s the most important part. I pick each one for its potential. A stone is a visual thing, it’s about acknowledging what it is and choosing it. There is thought behind each stone I use. I look at basic thing, colors, sizes, shapes. I have a tendency to pick certain stones, shapes and sizes that excite me visually. Basically, it’s a visual thing. I like to look at stone.

 What are your little stone houses all about?

They are like little hobbit houses, little shelters, like the same thing I’m doing now for a project in the Airondacks. When I was a kid, I loved Walt Disney. I loved Bambi. It’s almost like you could see Bambie running through the ancient woods. It’s a fairytale thing that in my mind. They have an organic feel, yet they are structures, they are controlled.

 What are you working on now?

I am working on rediscovering an ancient landscape on a thousand acre old ski resort on top of a mountain in the Airondacks. I am trying to rediscover the bedrock already there. The owners built a house and never landscaped it. I am clearing about 3 acres, creating trails, fine tuning and plantings and have already carted away 150 truckloads of soil covering a great outcrop of stone. I will create vertical walls with small stones, but it is a work in progress. This is not something you can do with a blueprint or by drawing up a design. I am trying to recreate nature, getting rid of soil that is not appropriate and creating a total natural landscape. I am stripping stuff away to its essentials. This is not what a landscape architect would do, but that is not what this needs. You need to let a stone be a stone, a fern be a fern. You don’t need to see here fields of lavender and poppies.

 Lew French has a new book forthcoming. His first book, Stone by Design can be purchased at www.amazon.com

 

By: Kymberly Taylor
Photography By: Alison Shaw
From Annapolis Home Magazine
Vol. 3 ,No. 1 2012