Poetic Ground

The lyrical vision of landscape design practice OR.CA honors the secret life of plants
A beautiful, modern hut with skylight set up.

Above Image: A rendering of OR.CA’s landscape for a new guest camping space at Sagra Farms’ Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales, opening in April. Rendering by Winter’s Studio.

By Alisa Carroll

As we inscribe ourselves more deeply into the land while sheltering in place, Molly Sedlacek reminds us to tread lightly. The ground has a life of its own, one we can honor through respectful interventions, and by striking a balance between wild and tended—a state of being that, perhaps, we all hope to attain. Sedlacek is the founder of landscape design studio OR.CA, short for Oregon and California, where she grew up and where she now lives, respectively. Sedlacek’s poetic approach reveres the life force of plants and raw materials; she gently sculpts them into environments that are both expressive and embracing—they appear as if Richard Long or Donald Judd might have made visitations in the night to secretly place stones or stack wood into serial structures. OR.CA’s current projects include Booker Vineyards, with interior designer Katie Martinez, and Sagra Farms, a retreat company that welcomes visitors as guests at sustainable farms. From residences to restaurants to wineries throughout the Bay Area, Sedlacek is bringing an organic artfulness to clients who appreciate her respect for the natural state of things. As she writes on her site, “The work embodies the cycles of nature: The pent up energy of a seed, a rock carved by years of water, old growth redwood with a journal of scars, the native grass that persists season after season to claim its land, the decay and death of matter…We are a collaborator with the natural flux of the wild.”

H: To start, Molly, would you share how you collaborate with interior designers and architects?

MS: We love partnering with the trade, because we complete the space by carrying their thought through to the outdoors. Designers and architects are great partners—they approach OR.CA with a built space, a remodel, a home, or a commercial space and ask, “What should we do outdoors?” It’s highly collaborative and a lot of fun building on what’s already been established.

Three images displaying different materials. One is a firepit, one is a set of stairs from a deck and the other are stump seats on a deck.

(L-R) Sculptural project details in limestone and cypress. Photos by OR.CA.

H: When you work with a collaborator who might not be as fluent in your holistic language, how do you begin to educate them?

MS: People seek us out for what we call “underdone,” a term for materials and spaces that feel as untouched as possible. Whether from designers or directly from clients, we often hear, “We want things to feel inviting and the texture of the materials to show.” So, we invite them into our world—OR.CA has a library of materials, and we’re able to advise on the look and feel, as well as the functionality, of these materials, so designers can confidently say to a client, “We’re going to go with this wood in this treatment,” because of a particular use case, aesthetic, or budget. When it comes to working with designers and architects, the more conversation there is, the more success we have.

H: You’re coming at this from the place of a poet, in my opinion, with a very lyrical sensibility.

MS: It’s interesting that your issue is titled “Living Fully,” because to be quite honest, sometimes I don’t even see us as a landscape design company. Our philosophy is that through nature, the body, mind, and spirit are rejuvenated. And during a time of retreat and of new meanings for home, land is more sacred than ever. Yes, it is landscape design, but it’s also connecting people to something that they’re seeking deep down, even if they don’t realize it until they touch it, feel it, and exist in it. We’re fortunate to be able to act as this vehicle between nature and humans.

H: I’d love to see the reading list you might give to collaborators. Perhaps Wordsworth and Robert Macfarlane…

M: I have been reading a book on building minimal-footprint homes using only materials from the land you are building on. It was written in the 1970s, and given to me by my father. It talks about Buan, the beauty of building with what nature provides. The materials we use will one day decay back into the earth. And that’s what we do: We build things, we build spaces that are completely impermanent. And the beauty of it is that our clients get to witness the growth and death of these materials. It’s a process, which is what’s wonderful about outdoor design—it’s going to go through a journey along with you.

Small guest house with a variety of surfaces of decks and growing areas.

H: When we come out of COVID lockdown, do you think people will maintain that connection to the land around them, and to what you’ve created?

M: That’s a great question. I would think so. Do you know the online publication The Plant Hunter? The author, Georgina Reid, wrote something at the beginning of the pandemic about breaking patterns. Lockdown has really inspired people to break patterns, and part of pattern breaking is returning humans to nature. We get in this cycle, this turn and churn of life, that distances us from very primitive actions. What the pandemic has done is literally stopped people from being able to repeat their patterns, and allowed them to reimagine those patterns. People are valuing land more than ever before because of that. It’s our space to have a quiet moment away from the day, away from the computer, and all the things that are now normal at home. Pattern breaking is a very positive thing for us to go through.

Young woman with long hair in knit cap looking up at a large green bush.

OR.CA founder Molly Sedlacek. Photo by Cass Cleave.

“It’s our challenge as designers to consider: how do we create emotion in a space? How do we transport someone back to their childhood, when imagination ran wild?”

– Molly Sedlacek

H: And do you agree that sometimes what seals our connection to the land is emotion? A kind of resonance that a human being feels with something in their landscape that you’ve created?

M: Absolutely. It’s very emotional, down to the sensations a garden evokes. When I go home to the garden I grew up in, I walk into it with tears of joy, because there’s the unforgettable sound of gravel crunching beneath my feet and the overwhelming smells of Oregon native plants. It touches all the senses that drive emotion. And it’s our challenge as designers to consider: How do we create emotion in a space? How do we transport someone back to their childhood, when imagination ran wild?

Two images of metal fireplace on a loose stone base.

The sculptural coreten fireplace designed for Fairfax restaurant Stillwater. Photos by Cass Cleave.

H: It’s a site of memory, but also—forgive the pun—an implanting of sensory information. One project element that really made an impression on me was a fireplace you created for Stillwater restaurant in Fairfax. Would you share the story behind it?

M: Stillwater is interesting, because it’s a commercial space. I find commercial spaces to be quite possibly some of my favorite things to design, because they are experienced by community. The question “How do we infuse commercial space with nature?” is a challenge I embrace happily.

The fireplace flute you’re speaking of is a corten steel structure that we fabricated and embedded into a dry-stack stone wall. Since completing it, we’ve done it in residential settings, too.

H: I mean, who wouldn’t want that? It’s so totally cool—witchy and architectural at the same time. It looks almost like a Robert Therrien piece.

M: And it’s got a Star Wars feel to it.

H: I didn’t think of that. Like Kylo Ren?

M: Exactly. If OR.CA had a wardrobe, it would be a Star Wars wardrobe.

Three images highlighting succulent and desert plants.

Botanical details from a residential project in Acacia. Photos by Cass Cleave.

H: Do your clients get engaged in the shepherding of these spaces? Do they like to learn about natural cycles and biodynamics?

M: They do. Either we attract those types of clients, or as they get to know us, they gain interest in it. But in almost all our conversations in our first meetings with clients, we’re talking about where materials come from, how they age. For example, our stone we bring in from a quarry in New Mexico that we work with directly. And that relationship and sharing that story with our customers is a very special bond, one that the clients then are able to form with the material. And the same goes for the wood. I think wood is the cornerstone of OR.CA conversations.

The garden depends on us, and we depend on it. It’s a mutual reliance. It depends on us to care for it, to feed it, to oil the wood, to sand the wood. I think our clients are really interested in that and understand that they’re going to take care of this living, breathing space they have. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.

H: It’s equipoise—the place between letting something go wild completely and taming it.

M: I think we land somewhere in the middle. One of the reasons I got into landscape design is that I felt things were too controlled—don’t try to control something that by nature wants to become something else. I think that’s what really struck me: There’s an aesthetic direction and an ethos to how outdoor design can be approached.

H: And the idea of animism—of each of these living things having its own soul that shouldn’t be dominated.

M: Totally. Yeah. Oh yes.

H: It’s encouraging that you’re finding so many clients that empathize with that. Can we also talk for a moment about the philanthropic work you’ve been doing with City Slicker?

M: OR.CA has been super fortunate to have people who ask if they can do more. There’s always been a general team spirit, and we’re incredibly fortunate to have those type of people to work with. It started with volunteering, and then we began talking about the fact that it’s a privileged experience to be able to have someone design a garden. And then, for other people, a garden is for growing the food that sustains them.

I felt that if our work is with the world of design and people that have access to this luxury, we should be raising boats elsewhere, aiding access to gardening for those who can’t necessarily afford it. We have a one-to-one model: For every raised garden bed we build in an OR.CA client garden, we sponsor a garden bed to be built for City Slickers in low-income-housing neighborhoods.

City Slickers is amazing, because their program not only installs the beds and the irrigation, but they go back to the site and maintain it for two years after. They’re active with growing the food—they even take the seeds and the starters each season. It’s a very sustainable model that to me felt like a way for us to genuinely contribute to the community. It’s very aligned with what we do.

H: And I think it merits a moment to acknowledge that you are a small business and you’re still taking the time, devoting your billable hours to volunteering. There are other ways of giving back that aren’t financial.

M: I’m glad you brought up small business too, because it really was like, we have hands, we have wood, we have heartfelt people. What can we do with those three things? Being an incredibly small business—this is our second year in operation—there are very creative ways to get involved. And there are so many amazing groups in the Bay Area to partner with. That’s one of the beauties about being in this community—even our clients work on projects and nonprofits, and it’s inspiring to see what people are doing.

H: The design community, as you know, is such a supportive ecosystem, too. May I ask what you did prior to founding OR.CA?

M: I worked in organic textiles. I did creative production and art direction for ten years. My mom is a landscape contractor and designer, so OR.CA is a product of my entire life. It’s the perfect balance of what I love doing every day: raw materials, earth and land, human relationships, physical work, and composition. As it happens, landscape design honors all these things.

Intersecting layers of deck with long grasses as accents.

A series of geometries intersect in a walkway. Photo by OR.CA.

H: It’s so inspiring that you made that shift.

M: It was a shift. And it felt so right. I’ve always collected rocks and wood and created structures. It’s always been there, it was just a question of how to make it into something that other people could apply to their lives.

H: And as a writer, I have to ask, who wrote the beautiful text on your site?

M: I did. I think that gardening is writing. Writing, photography, landscaping—it’s all creating relationships between words and materials, or light and shadow. We’re just telling a story. At the end of the day, that’s how I see it.

Two Henry Adams Street, Suite 2M-33
San Francisco, CA 94103