Based in the Black Hills of South Dakota and with project experience from the Mississippi River Valley to the Pacific Coast, Tanya Olson specializes in landscapes for the High Plains and Mountain West. For the past six years, Olson, with husband Matt Fridell, has been operating Tallgrass Landscape Architecture, an emergent firm with deep roots in the landscapes of the American West.
Olson has worked in landscape architecture since 1996 in areas as diverse as campus, park and community master planning; playground and park design; wetland mitigation of banks and streams; and firewise landscapes. Some of her recent Dakotabased projects include the Whitewood Creek Improvement Project, Dinosaur Park Master Plan and Skyline Wilderness Trailheads, city of Lead South Rim Parks Master Plan, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Campus Routes ADA Study and Phase One Utility and ADA Compliance Projects.
Out of the garden, Olson is completing her sixth and final year as a Custer School District school board member, is the school board liaison to the Custer Parks, Recreation and Forestry Board and a member of the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative Board. In 2015 she was the recipient of the South Dakota Outstanding School Board Member award. She is the current chair of the American Society of Landscape Architects Women in Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network.
Proudest moment in the landscape business: When a civil engineering firm we frequently work with told us that they depended on us to bring the creativity to their projects. In a region that highly values pragmatism, being recognized for bringing greater value to what would traditionally be civil engineering projects in our region is a huge win.
Biggest business challenge: We really have two significant challenges: 1.) Learning how to run a business, and 2.) growing our firm. Being a small firm of three people, we do all project development, design work and firm management ourselves. While our education and past experience set us up to tackle the first two, it has been a steep curve learning about the economics and daily requirements of running a business. Fortunately, I have prior work experience in accounting, so the accounting aspect wasn’t entirely new.
We would like to grow our firm as a rural studio that serves rural communities. It seems that the majority of potential employees, particularly recent college graduates, want to practice in urban areas, so finding those adventurous landscape architects who want to join a rural studio is challenging.
Best sources of landscape design/build inspiration: Another of the challenges of a rural design firm — finding new inspiration! All of us at Tallgrass attend and are active in organizing local, regional and national ASLA conferences and always find ideas and inspiration there. I read lots of design magazines and follow the work of other landscape architects and architects I admire. I get the most inspiration from working with our allied design professions — architects, interior designers and other landscape architects.
Favorite plant or plant combination: My favorite combination is aspen or birch trees with medium-height grasses on the ground plane. This combination can look either wild or orderly and sculptural.
Monday morning motivation: We recently renovated and moved into a new office with enormous south-facing windows that look out into treetops. It’s a beautiful place to go to work every day.
Business worry that keeps me up most at night: Like most small business owners, it’s cash flow. We are often sub-consultants in our industry, so we are providing services many months in advance of payment.
Landscape design mentor: Jane Marx, one of the partners at the first landscape architecture firm I worked at, is an incredible designer with an unwavering ethical compass and strong head for business. I love to talk with her about design, and she’s been a wonderful resource for business decisions.
Favorite landscape design book: I could never choose just one — we have a bookcase in our office that is 3 feet tall and 12 feet long filled with books on design, landscape architecture, architecture and construction. If this is a “desert island” question, then it would probably be Piet Oudolf’s “Landscapes in Landscapes” and “Cutler Anderson Architects” by Sheri Olson. Piet Oudolf’s work is rich, saturated with texture, color, seasonality and movement — it brings me joy to see. Cutler Anderson’s work has amazing relationships between the structure and landscape, using beautiful materials and thoughtful spatial organization.
Landscape design/install project that makes you smile every time you drive past it: Eighteen years ago I worked on a creek restoration that was an eroded seasonal creek with no trees in a cow pasture. Today, it’s an overgrown, shady creek appearing undisturbed like other natural creeks in that region with the same species composition and hydrological functions.
Where do you see yourself in five years? To sustain our spirits and creativity, I’d like our firm to have the artistic, hands-on, creative design practice of the studios of Charles and Ray Eames; the focused design exploration of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects; and the originality and free thinking of my favorite artists. To sustain our sense of purpose, I’d like our firm to maintain our strong collaborative relationships with our clients and allied design professionals. Where will I be? Figuring out how creativity and purpose sustain moderate business growth.
Year company founded: 2011
Client mix: A mix of commercial, municipal, school district, state and tribal clients with some residential design.
Service mix: 100% design
Business motto: “Landscape architecture for the American West.”