Ever since Stonehenge, humans have been spotting rocks and thinking, "That has my back yard written all over it." But where in one's back yard? And in what particular pose? These questions and many more were answered when I sat down with Mike Zimber recently in Stone Forest's garden.
Mike Zimber is the owner, artisan and visionary behind Stone Forest, a source for stone fountains, garden ornaments, and "functional sculpture" (vessel sinks, carved tubs, and more) for the kitchen and bath. But this is not your grandma's birdbath joint. Stone Forest is an international presence on the design scene, and has received plaudits from Architectural Digest, Better Homes & Gardens and the Wall Street Journal as well as an appearance on HGTV.
Although the Stone Forest showroom, which consists of an intimately scaled adobe house and an outdoor garden, is a significant presence on the Santa Fe design landscape, Zimber does relatively little retail traffic there. "We sell to 500 showrooms in the United States at the wholesale level, so we're on the phones and computers a lot managing that. The great thing is that having the garden here pulls us out and away from the office work. When people do come here, it's nice to walk around the garden with them and have a conversation."
And come they do. Some come just to picnic on the benches, among the lovely trickling sounds of multiple fountains. Many come to choose an outdoor piece. And some see Stone Forest as a destination. "One guy was here recently from Dallas. He said, "Stone Forest was one of the main reasons I decided to visit Santa Fe.'"
One of the elements that makes choosing a fountain, bench, or lantern a challenge is placement. It can be maddening. Where exactly will the big hunk of gorgeously finished stone shine the brightest? They're not exactly the lightest things to re-site, so it's helpful to have a sense of what you want to do before the workmen leave.
"First I find out how defined the site is," says Mike. "It's actually easier if the space is more defined. I look at the sense of scale and the existing elements-a large tree or grouping of trees-that will play off the ornament in relation to it. If there isn't already a focal point, then the fountain or garden ornament must be the focal point. The fountain anchors the space." And how does he decide where that point should be.
"I use a divining rod," Zimber jokes. "No. It really depends on the space. If it's a courtyard, with seating, you don't want the fountain right on top of you. Something that's a little off-center is nice. How prominent do you want it to be? In terms of color, how much do you want the piece to pop? Or do you want it to assist other elements in becoming more prominent?"
We took a walk around the garden to see Zimber's judgment calls in action. Three tall, dark, monolithic fountains made of granite and basalt were spaced out and displayed plainly, the way Richard Serra sculptures would be placed in a museum hall. "These big guys need space. You can't have clutter around them." Some facets of these fountains are left in their natural, oxidized state, reminding me that these bold, elegant sculptures start out as plain old rocks.
In contrast, a short, mushroom-shaped limestone fountain, with a rippling, petaled flat top, nestles into a bevy of moss and low flowering bushes. It seems to emerge from the moss's embrace, which creates a compelling, kinetic interrelation of ornament and nature. Here in the middle of Santa Fe, with traffic zooming by mere feet away on St. Francis, I suddenly get John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" for the first time.
Another little fountain, an egg-like boulder with an incised and etched center, peeks out from a cloud of purple flowers. "The way you encounter this fountain surprises and delights," Mike comments. He stops at a Japanese-style lantern resting in the shade of a tree. Made by stacking light gray, weathered rounded rocks atop each other, it emotes a soft timelessness. "This lantern's top stone is actually made from an "off,' or a discarded piece from one of the larger fountains," Mike reveals, taking obvious pride in using something someone else might toss.
We follow a bend in the pathway, landing in front of a polished stone basin that rests on a large flat boulder. "I like to set things up so you can feel like you are exploring and discovering something as you come around a corner," Mike says. "Here, we've juxtaposed the natural with a polished surface." Another basin is placed by itself in a small space, perpetually filled by a traditional, weather-aged Japanese bamboo feeder, which looks like a wooden faucet with a crane's profile. "This is in a defined space because it's small, and we wouldn't want it to get lost."
Mike Zimber initially came to Santa Fe to work for Outward Bound.
"At some point, I felt like I needed to get a real job. Stone Forest came out of my interest in the joy of being outdoors," Mike recalls, "of appreciating rock and water and other natural elements. When I was outdoors, on the river, or climbing, hiking, I always felt an expansion of consciousness. I wanted to bottle that and bring it into the home and garden. I figured if I could do that successfully, I could probably make a living."
"As I got deeper into it, I discovered that the Japanese had been working with that concept-distilling the essence of what's out there in nature-for hundreds of years. I began to study Japanese gardening. In 1989, we launched a line of traditional Japanese garden ornaments-lanterns and stone basins. From the Japanese tradition, I borrowed the belief that when you work in a natural material, you never overshadow the natural material with overly fancy design. Keep it simple. Allow the underlying natural material to shine through. And that is still true of all of our products, although we have moved away from the strict Japanese design to a more contemporary style. I look at a lot of fountains and think, "That's too gaudy for me.' I love the play of water and stone in a natural environment."
One of Mike's favorite New Mexico sources for inspiration is Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier National Park. Other places Mike declines to mention, showing a conservator's protective sensibility. "I used to be a river outfitter, and Frijoles Creek eventually runs into the Rio Grande."
Around town, Stone Forest fountains turn up in the Tomasita's courtyard, the Awakening Museum's meditation garden, and, of course, Stone Forest's own expansive space. And surely Mike must have a garden that makes his neighbors bite their fists with envy.
"Nope," Mike admits with a rueful grin. "I don't have anything." Another case of the cobbler's wife having no shoes? "Yes, but we're finally starting to plan it out. I'm going to choose my favorite stone pieces, a fountain or two, nice stone work and stacked stone walls...." Here Mike is interrupted by a phone call.
"That was my wife. She wants to take the kids and the kayaks and meet me at the pool." And he's up for it.
Mike may have let his previous Outward Bound lifestyle slide into the past, but he has found a way to go forward while combining his passions and interests into an enduring, lucrative and fulfilling business. Now, can he bottle that?
The Stone Forest is located at 213 Saint Francis Drive in Santa Fe. 505.986.8883.