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Photograph by Dean Kaufman

Tools of my Trade: Ken Smith on Hotels, Lawrence Halprin, and Inspiration

The landscape architect shares the tools and inspirations that help him breathe life into the artificial.

Ken Smith is not one to blend in. The New York — based designer moves beyond earth and stone in his work, often employing surprising elements such as bright synthetic flowers and plastic rocks. "Landscapes are made up of all sorts of synthetic things, and most people try to hide it," he says. "I don't."

1. PLASTIC ROCK

Pieces like this hollow rock, which Smith is proposing for a roof garden atop a new Conrad hotel in New York's Financial District, make sculptural statements while sidestepping weight restrictions. ($131, lowes.com)

2. MODEL OFF-HIGHWAY TRUCK

Smith's business-card holder is a model of a Caterpillar truck normally reserved for earth-moving jobs. "I'm always pushing things around, so this appeals to me." ($69, shopcaterpillar.com)

3. REFERENCE BOOK

"The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, by William H. Whyte, is insightful about how people use spaces," he says. "It's something I've always carried as an agenda — to have socially good public spaces." ($35, amazon.com)

4. HOTEL NOTEPADS

"I was never good at carrying a sketchbook — I'd just lose it," he says. "These hotel pads are great. I make lists, notes, and small sketches — and they remind me of a great trip."

5. GANESHA SOUVENIR

Smith bought this figurine from an airport gift shop while on a project in Mumbai. "I'm a bit of a crow, and like buying little things," he says, adding that he also collects garden gnomes for inspiration.

6. TUMI TRAVEL BAG

"This bag has seen well over 800,000 airplane miles," says Smith. He uses it for essentials — pens, camera, laptop, sleep mask, sunglasses, Band-Aids, and aspirin. ($165 and up, tumi.com)

7. SALT CRYSTALS

When Smith was invited to lecture at Utah State University, he accepted with one condition: "They had to take me to Spiral Jetty," the 1970 land artwork by Robert Smithson. He recovered these salt crystals from a nearby puddle.

8. MEMENTO

On his desk, Smith keeps a photo from a meeting with the late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, in the Donnell Garden in Sonoma. "He made a commitment to the renewal of cities," Smith says. "He was a mentor."

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