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Brian Kissinger, Horticulturist

2021 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Brian Kissinger

Horticulturist Brian Kissinger brings a masterful touch to the art of designing desert landscapes.

By Carly Scholl | Photography by Chris Loomis

As is often the case with visionaries, Brian Kissinger’s passion for plants began at a young age.

“My dad and I would be out in nature all the time, and we built a 20-foot by 40-foot greenhouse together—that was the beginning, that was my game changer,” the horticulturist explains of his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri. “When I was about 10 years old, we would dig up prickly pears and bring them back home. I started a cactus garden at our house.” Neighbors admired his handiwork and began requesting similar installations. “They had me putting gardens in everywhere.”

It wasn’t until 2001 that Kissinger realized his manifest destiny and made his way west. “I moved to Arizona because my partner is a pilot,” he recalls. “In college, I studied subtropical horticulture and learned how to push the limits in these environments, so it was a perfect fit to come out here. It’s a whole different ballgame to work in this desert and create beauty with the natural scheme of things.”

Just a few years after settling in Phoenix, Kissinger became the new director of horticulture at Desert Botanical Garden (DBG). “I met the senior team there when my residence was featured on a Phoenix Home & Garden home tour,” he notes. “A few months later, they asked me to apply for the position.”

During his tenure, Kissinger reinvigorated the institution with fresh ideas on how to broaden its scope and inspire visitors. “Brian is a creator who thinks big; nothing is off limits,” explains Tina Wilson, the current director of horticulture at DBG. “And that was what the Garden was in need of when it came to design. Brian was able to put that magic touch not only on new projects but also rework existing plant displays and exhibits for a vibrant look and feel.”

One of the horticulturist’s major legacies at DBG was expanding the plant palette to include species found in deserts all over the world, including in Madagascar, South Africa, South America and Mexico, all while keeping a strong emphasis on the Sonoran Desert. Kissinger implemented this globally inclusive scope as a way to challenge the more clinical notions of what a botanical garden should be.

“In the past, the common practice was, ‘put a plant in the ground, put a name on it and you’re set.’ But I think it’s more important that these gardens are emotional places,” he explains. “There’s so much competition among institutions, too, so we had to discover new ways to engage our public. We included the arts. We created detailed, beautiful landscapes that people can relate to, and they actually move people and pique their interest in the plant life they are observing.”

After seven years at the Garden, Kissinger sought a new direction and found a perfect fit as principal horticulturist at The Green Room Collaborative in Scottsdale. “I loved what I was doing at DBG, but I like to build stuff. I like to create,” he asserts. “The team here has a passion for celebrating the connection between people and places. We have a common design thread that emphasizes community and location while creating environments that elevate the people in them.”

Making the leap from public design to residential was a transition Kissinger’s collaborators say he managed seamlessly. “Brian and I met in 2014 when we worked together on a new horticultural center for DBG,” explains architect and fellow Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner James Trahan. “He is so lighthearted, clever and funny, and a master of his craft. Some professionals are more skilled in commercial work than private, or vice versa, but Brian is one of those people who does both so well.”

1. “Details are so important to me,” remarks Kissinger. “I tend to drive contractors crazy because the little things matter so much.” A small, expertly sculpted bonsai tree adds a hint of global influence to a project otherwise devoted to the desert. 2. Groupings of rounded golden barrel cacti contrast the home’s rectilinear form, while spiky yucca and agave plants echo its geometric lines. 3. “He always stays focused on desert environments and the plants that are suited for them, but he’s not afraid to try something new that could add that extra wow factor.” explains Tina Wilson, director of horticulture at Desert Botanical Garden. 4. Mirrored panels on the exterior of this studio space nestled in the desert reflect the grandeur of the surrounding landscape and the native flora that call it home.

Misha West, interior designer and frequent collaborator of Kissinger’s, concurs. The two met when West was redoing the exterior spaces at her own home, and sought out the professional’s keen eye for plants, spatial planning and cohesion. “When the project was complete, the house felt significantly bigger,” she notes. “The landscape truly felt like an extension of our home. Brian completely transformed the whole property through the landscape design.

One of the most recent residential landscapes designed by horticulturist Brian Kissinger balances out the home’s contemporary architecture with layered plantings and subtle hardscaping.

“He not only has impeccable taste but is also clearly an expert in his field,” West continues. “It’s impressive to see his array of work—each area harmoniously blending the landscape with its surroundings, no matter what the property style. His vision always feels natural and effortless, as though you couldn’t imagine the space any other way.”

While his expertise is highly prized in the residential sphere, Kissinger’s true passion lies in large-scale communal spaces. “My plan for world domination is to design public gardens,” he laughs. The horticulturist is currently developing concepts in such locales as Los Angeles, Canada and Qatar.

1. A pair of peach-faced lovebirds survey the landscape from their saguaro perch. 2. The main question Kissinger asked in the planning stages for the house was, “How do you work with modern architecture to make it play well with the natural surroundings and not look contrived?” 3. The clean lines and cool gray tones of the exterior architecture set the stage for lush desert species, including Texas mountain laurel, various types of yucca and golden barrel cacti. 4. “What I like about Brian is his ability to push the plant palette that you normally see in a Southwest design,” explains Tina Wilson, director of horticulture at Desert Botanical Garden. 5. “This house faces Camelback Mountain and it has all this interesting topography surrounding it,” explains Kissinger. “The modern architecture sort of pierces the natural desert landscape, and we wanted to echo that impact in the exterior design.”

“Brian’s vision feels natural and effortless, as though you couldn’t imagine the space any other way.”

—Misha West, interior designer

When asked about his design philosophy, Kissinger’s answer is that of the true artist, one who understands deeply the delicate connection between creator and creation: “A garden is never finished—it is always a work in progress.” In his expert opinion, the ever-evolving landscape requires constant reevaluation, patient nursing, and an instinct for assessing the needs of each space.

“You keep moving forward,” he notes. “My parents exposed me to wonderful art when I was young and you just don’t go backward from those experiences. In horticulture and design, you’re always looking forward to the next experience, the next inspiration.”

For more information, see Sources.

Architect (original): Thompson Pollari Studio. Architect (additions): Chen + Suchart Studio. Horticulturist: Brian Kissinger, The Green Room Collaborative.

A magnificent saguaro draws the eye up toward the home’s roofline and the mountains beyond, while smaller indigenous plantings ground the setting in the diversity of the desert floor.

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