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Washington doesn’t export a lot of aesthetic ideas, and the exceptions only prove the rule. Yes, the city can lay claim to the Washington Color School, more than a half-century ago, but that always feels a bit like the region’s claim to culinary fame, the crab cake: predictable, ubiquitous and uninspiring. But what has become known as the “New American Garden” did indeed take root in Washington before going viral, and its larger impact is so pervasive that it almost goes unnoticed.
The National Building Museum has devoted an exhibition to the local design firm founded by Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, which popularized the New American Garden, a loose but luxurious style of landscape design, full of layers and texture, and an abstract sense of color, shape and topography. Beginning mainly with private clients in the 1970s — and eventually taking commissions from major public gardens, federal buildings and commercial entities — the firm became one of the busiest and most influential in the country. Van Sweden died in 2013 and Oehme in 2011, but the office continues under its new name: Oehme, van Sweden OvS.
The exhibition underscores the local roots of the company with a painting borrowed from the National Gallery of Art: Pieter de Hooch’s “A Dutch Courtyard,” from 1658-60. Also included is a large-scale reproduction of Helen Frankenthaler’s 1973 “Nature Abhors a Vacuum,” also in the National Gallery. […]