Environmental Design alum Seth Baker
Environmental Design alum Seth Baker at the Huntington’s California Garden, photo by Juan Posada

profile / alumni / environmental-design
March 07, 2019
Writer: Solvej Schou

Environmental Design alum Seth Baker brings his love of design and nature to the Huntington

To say that the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is a Southern California oasis—with gardens, galleries and a research library spread across 207 acres—is an understatement. Just ask Environmental Design alumnus Seth Baker (BS 13).

Head gardener of the Huntington’s 6.5-acre Frances and Sidney Brody California Garden and Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center, Baker has worked at the San Marino institution—a 10-minute drive from ArtCenter's South Campus—for 13 years, and almost five of those years in his current position. “For me, there’s no better designer than nature,” says Baker. “This is a really dynamic work place, and no day is the same here.”

On a weekday afternoon, golden light filters through gray-green fruitless olive trees and Acacia baileyana “Purpurea” trees—whose purplish leaves cluster around yellow flowers—lining the garden’s long path from the Huntington’s main entrance. Baker rolls up in a golf cart. After chatting with a gardener about pruning some myrtle, he pinches the shrub’s leaves and breathes in its licorice scent. The garden includes more than 50,000 California native, drought tolerant and Mediterranean plants that also smell like mint, curry and other scents.

Leucadendron "Pom Pom" at the Huntington's California Garden, photo courtesy of the Huntington
Water runnel at the Huntington, photo by Martha Benedict, courtesy of the Huntington

“Growing up, I was always intrigued by plants, and would go to plant nurseries in the summer and select plants for our yard,” says Baker, who was raised in Bishop, California, and often visited his grandparents’ spectacular home garden in Monrovia. “With gardening, you can see the future start to take shape,” he adds. “There’s a lot of overlap with design, and trying to see what’s around the corner and anticipating it.”

After initial ambitions of becoming an architect, Baker worked in various industries, including film special effects, and would landscape his own residences in Los Angeles. Then he took an ArtCenter at Night course taught by former Environmental Design Chair Peter Di Sabatino, former faculty member Jean Di Sabatino and James Folsom, the director of the Huntington’s Botanical Gardens. The goal? To design or redesign a garden at the Huntington. “That course made me fall in love with the Huntington,” says Baker. “Our director’s enthusiasm for plants and this place was contagious.”

He then took, through ArtCenter at Night, two degree courses taught by Fine Art Chair Laura Cooper, who “opened my mind more than probably anyone else at ArtCenter,” Baker says. Her Humanities and Sciences course was on portraiture, English landscape architecture, and the history of gardens; her Fine Art course was on installation art. For the course, Baker worked on an installation in the Huntington’s Australian Garden. That led to Baker being offered a job at the Huntington as a staff gardener.

Acacia chinchillensis at the Huntington's California Garden, photo courtesy of the Huntington
Environmental Design alum Seth Baker at the Huntington, photo by Juan Posada

While working at the Huntington, he was accepted into ArtCenter’s Environmental Design degree program, and started studying at the College in 2008. “I knew my talent needed to be honed, and I saw ArtCenter as the place that could take what I had and make something of it,” says Baker, who received multiple scholarships.

In the 2011 Environmental Design-led Designmatters course Teen Art Park, taught by Environmental Design Professor James Meraz and former faculty member Chris Adamick (BS 07 Environmental), Baker and other students designed an art park, Hub, for safe and artistic expression by at-risk teens in greater Pasadena. A system of components, the Hub concept included an umbrella-like seating area and both static and rolling stools. “There was a central space where people could commingle,” he says.

Poppies at the Huntington's California Garden, photo courtesy of the Huntington
Part of the Huntington's California Garden, photo by Seth Baker, courtesy of the Huntington

He also cites former longtime Environmental Design Professor Rob Ball (BS 83), the newly appointed lead faculty and managing director of ArtCenter’s studio in Berlin, where Baker studied for three months, as a big influence. “He always saw the best in people,” Baker says. For Baker’s Grad Show project, he created outdoor classroom space at ArtCenter’s Hillside Campus and integrated it with green systems. “What’s drawn me most to design is making things that improve quality of life, and how that dovetails with problem solving,” Baker says.

After graduating, Baker took his newly sharpened designer skills back to the Huntington. In 2015, the Huntington opened the California Garden and Koblik Education and Visitor Center, designed by Scott Kleinrock, then head landscape design and planning coordinator at the institution; landscape architect Cheryl Barton; and Baker. Baker infused the garden with his passion for water conservation and sustainability. “A drought tolerant landscape doesn’t need to be gravel and a few succulents,” he says. “It can be exuberant, lush and inviting.”

That lushness includes African Kniphofia, or red hot poker, a plant with fiery red spiky flowers that wave in the wind behind Baker as he points out different parts of the garden. He refers to the spaces to the sides of the main path surrounded by hedges and dotted with benches as “hedge rooms.” Golden grass moves in unison to the chirps of birds. “There’s still plenty I’m learning about this place,” he says. “Something is always growing or dying, and there’s always a new challenge.”