Gary Radin: Making art and architecture meet at the Philly Flower Show

Gary Radin: Making art and architecture meet at the Philly Flower Show

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Call me kooky, but I’ve been enjoying the snow. Since I’m a writer, I’m usually home in a solitary little bubble, and snow days mean my 9-to-5 friends are actually home for a change. The minute the snow hits 6 inches I start inviting all my neighbors to come play at my house. But for the rest of you who have had your fill of winter, you can get a brief reprieve this week at the Flower Show. The PHS Philadelphia Flower Show is the world’s oldest and largest indoor flower show, and features large-scale gardens, elaborate landscapes and over-the-top floral creations. One of the most anticipated aspects of the Flower Show is the grand entrance garden. It sets the tone for the show and is always sure to elicit a gasp. The man responsible for creating the “wow” moment is this week’s portrait, Gary Radin.

PGN: Tell me about the first entrance piece you did for the Flower Show. GR: The theme was called “Jazz It Up,” and it was a tribute to New Orleans. We built a two-story building front with balconies that were typical of New Orleans architecture.

PGN: I remember that one! It had two huge keyboards and large-scale instruments in front. So I know this is like asking which one of your kids is your favorite, but what were some of the projects you enjoyed the most? GR: It’s hard to put my finger on an absolute favorite — there are unique things about every year — but I did enjoy the New Orleans entranceway. I liked the scale and the architectural elements. I also enjoyed the Hawaii garden where we introduced some technology into the design for the first time. That was the one where you came in and there was an underwater effect. We used projectors and sound effects to make it a multi-sensational experience. Of course we haven’t seen this year’s completed yet, but I expect I’m going to like it in a very unique and particular way. It’s a very abstract and contemporary design and it’s neat because the theme this year is not based on a particular location, so we had a little more creative freedom.

PGN: So if you tell me what this year’s design is, do you have to kill me? GR: [Laughs.] No, the overall theme is ArtiCulture, which is a made-up word fusing art and horticulture. The way that we look at this particular season is more abstract than usual: You have the horticulture, which is its own art; for instance, a flower has its own particular design and style when you look at the petals and the colors, then you open up to the landscaping, which has its own style of design and composition in and of itself. On the flipside, you have literal art and artists and the influence horticulture has had on them and vice-versa. A lot of the exhibits are inspired by different artists and specific artwork. The entranceway this year is inspired by the art of Alexander “Sandy” Calder. He’s a great choice because he and the Calder family have such great ties to Philadelphia. His grandfather is the sculptor who created the giant statue of William Penn that’s at the top of City Hall, his mother was a portrait artist who studied at the Sorbonne and also at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and his father, Stirling Calder, was a well-known sculptor who created the Swan Memorial Fountain at Logan Circle and many other sculptures found throughout the city. Of course, Alexander is best known for creating the kinetic mobile as well as the large outdoor sculptures that can be seen along the Parkway. The exhibit is going to be really cool. There’s an aerial dance troupe who will be performing above and within the display.

PGN: So do you come up with the creative design once they give you the theme? GR: Yes, along with another designer I work with. He consults with me on the Flower Show because it’s such a large project. It’s a give-and-take process. There’s exploration and concept development, where we go through many ideas around a particular theme until one idea rises to the top. I love the process. You never know where or when the inspiration is going to come from. It might not necessarily be in the board room during the design discussion. [Laughs.] The idea that may end up being the winner may come to you while you’re driving or when you’re in the shower! You never know when the winning idea will hit you.

PGN: Do you find your inspiration from things you see in your daily life? GR: Yes, that happens a lot. Architecture, landscape design, anything we see in our environment can be an inspiration, whether it be built or natural — either in a broad scope, like the way something may be laid out, or it may be in the details, like the bark on a tree or the texture of a leaf.

PGN: I read that the design period is about 18 months long. So do you already know what next year’s theme is going to be? GR: Yes, but that I can’t tell you! They will announce it at the end of the last day of the show though. It is true that the theme is solidified well in advance; the process starts about a year-and-a-half ahead of time so we’re already well-entrenched in planning the theme for 2015.

PGN: What are some of the considerations when you’re designing the entranceway? GR: That’s interesting. There are the usual things we concern ourselves with, like scale and color and form, but what’s particularly unique about doing the Flower Show is that we have all of this living plant material, whether they be plants or cut flowers; all of it is temperamental and responsive to climate. Since the Flower Show occurs in the winter, all the flowers have to be forced to bloom since they’re being shown out of season. I’m not responsible for that, but I do have to take into consideration that the flowers need to be watered and maintained. Everything has to be installed in one week and has to stay alive during the course of the show, plus you have to take into consideration that this is an event that will be attended by over 250,000 people, so you really have to make sure there’s a great flow through the space.

PGN: So where are you originally from? GR: I grew up in Connecticut and lived there through high school, then I moved to Boston and went to University of Massachusetts at Amherst,__ where I studied interior design with a concentration in architecture. I stayed in Boston for several years until I moved to Philly.

PGN: What brought you here? GR: Work. My sister and her business partner at the time had a business designing for television and music videos. I got to spend several years working with my sister, which was really great.

PGN: Just the one sibling? GR: Yes, an older sister.

PGN: And what did the parents do? GR: They were both originally teachers but then got into the corporate world and started working as executives for a cosmetic company. My dad also worked as a motivational speaker. He passed away 16 years ago. So I grew up in a family with an entrepreneurial spirit.

PGN: Did I read that you got your first job at 13? GR: Yes, that was my first paying job. I worked as a model maker for an architectural firm.

PGN: How did you even get interested in the field? GR: When I was 10, my family designed and built a custom home. I was really interested in the whole process and started doodling around and drawing layout and floor plans, and a lot of the things I came up with were used in the final product. It really inspired me to learn more. I was lucky in that there just happened to be a famous architectural model maker in our town, and with my dad’s help I was able to get a job with them, even though I was underage.

PGN: Were your little fingers good at putting together those tiny models? GR: Yes, I made lots of little trees.

PGN: I understand you and I both have a love of cardboard. When I was a kid I took a bunch of refrigerator boxes from the nearby appliance store and made them into apartments in my backyard. I then rented them out to friends of mine for a small fee. GR: Ha! One of the first companies my parents worked for had a distribution center with a big warehouse. My sister and I used to take the boxes that the cosmetics came in and we would line them up and tape them together and build cityscapes. We would draw on them and cut windows out and make a post office and a bank with a drive-through teller, really elaborate cities. I think it’s one of the things that really sparked our interest in design.

PGN: Speaking of which, tell me a little about your company and what you do aside from the Flower Show. GR: My company is called GMRdesign and we do a lot of different things. We do a lot of live-event design like conferences and conventions, trade shows, as well as corporate work. I also do a lot of set-design work for cable-television shows. We also do architectural and interior design, and a lot more.

PGN: Do you get to travel much through your work? GR: Enough to make it interesting but not enough to make me homesick. I like a balance: I enjoy traveling both personally and professionally, but I also enjoy my home life.

PGN: What was a memorable travel moment? GR: When I was in college, I had a chance to travel to Thailand. There was an architect who was a friend of one of my professors and I had a chance to meet up with his family. They were quite wealthy by local standards and I got to have a very traditional dinner at his house. He had a car pick me up and take me about an hour out of the city, which kind of freaked my parents out since they had no idea where I was going. There I was in a foreign country traveling with someone I didn’t know to a place I’ve never been. I was only about 18 so that was quite an adventure.

PGN: Were you a very adventurous kid? GR: Not really, I was a bit conservative. I found myself struggling socially until my junior year, when we moved to a different town. The new school had a notable theater program that I got involved with that really helped me pursue my creative interests and meet new friends.

PGN: When did you come out? GR: When I graduated college. It wasn’t a particularly eventful moment. Not unimportant, but uneventful. My family was very accepting.

PGN: So your father was alive when you came out? GR: Yes, he died in 1998. He had a very rare neurological brain illness, Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), a form of dementia. When we got the terminal diagnosis, I purchased a townhouse in South Jersey so they could move here from Connecticut and my sister and I could help take care of him. I was 26 and my father was only 54. I spent about three years being a live-in caregiver and it was a life-altering experience, which I wouldn’t trade for anything. It was a real experience to move through my fears and to learn not to take things for granted and to go after things that I really wanted. That was a philosophy that my dad lived by, which thankfully he did because if he’d waited around until his retirement to do the things he wanted, he would have never lived to see them. While I am a responsible person, if there are things that I really want to do, I do them, and if I have something to say to someone, I don’t hold back. It was an early life lesson that I learned.

PGN: And now you’re teaching some of those life lessons through your foundation and book. GR: Yes, my family started the Caregivers Relief Foundation to support other caregivers in need who were suffering like we were. At the time there was little to no help for health care available through insurance or the government or private agencies because of his age and financial status. It wasn’t considered a disability and there was no consideration for the families and how it affected them. The mission has changed a bit as things have progressed and advanced over time. There is now more help available but it’s still a struggle. I wrote the book because at the time there was almost no information available about his type of dementia, which was often confused with Alzheimer’s. I did a lot of my own research and learned a lot about the subject. After he died, I wanted to share the knowledge I’d accrued with other people. Over 20 extremely generous health-care and other professionals took the time to write chapters for the book with the goal of creating a comprehensive guide addressing every aspect of caring for someone with FTD. I’m very proud of it.

PGN: And you also have a cookbook? GR: Yes, it’s a collection of my maternal grandmother’s recipes that we had lying around on cards and note papers and in an old handwritten cookbook. We came up with the idea of archiving them and inviting family members to give a few stories and photos that we included.

PGN: If you had to design a house and couldn’t have any input, who would you trust to design it for you? GR: Oh, that would be so hard. I already designed and had my own house built, I can’t imagine handing it off to someone else without being able to put my stamp on it! Possibly Richard Meyer.

PGN: What kind of architecture do you like? Are you more of a Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater type of person or are you a Dubai hotel skyscraper type? GR: Definitely more Fallingwater. Frank Lloyd Wright happens to be one of my favorite architects. I have a book of his architectural drawings and they are fascinating to me.

PGN: If you could walk into any painting and experience the moment, which would it be? GR: It would probably be a Mondrian: There’s something about the simple geometry and organization that talks to me and yet it’s still very colorful.

PGN: I didn’t ask, do you have a partner? GR: Yes, his name is Vince and we just celebrated our 17th anniversary last week. He’s in the HR field but he is a writer at heart.

PGN: Since you design for television, any favorite celebrity encounters? GR: Well, when I first moved here and I was working with my sister, we did a lot of music video sets for groups like Boyz II Men so I got to meet a lot of people, but my closest celebrity encounter was probably with Ben Affleck. He was in town working on a movie and we had to set up a studio for him to do interviews. He left his T-shirt behind so I am now in possession of Ben Affleck’s T-shirt.

PGN: Nice souvenir!

For more information on Radin or his book, “What If It’s Not Alzheimer’s?” visit www.garyradin.com. For more information on the Philadelphia Flower Show, visit www.theflowershow.com.

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