CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gates send mixed messages.
They say "come on in" or "keep out." They block a view or encourage a look at the space beyond.
Once inside, occupants leave through them or are held inside. Their design is sometimes utilitarian and practical, sometimes artistic. They often reflect the owner's personality or the space within the gate.
Charleston landscape designer Beth Loflin considers a gate's purpose, the style of the home and the space beyond and whether the owner considers the gate a focal point or something that should blend into the garden when she works a gate into a design.
"A gate is the first object you see when you enter a space. It sets the tone," she said. "It can be welcoming or not so welcoming."
Loflin's choice of a simple loop of rope instead of a sturdy latch to secure the picket wood gate into her own backyard reflects her personal message. "Everyone is welcome. All you have to do is lift the rope. Latches are too hard to work," she said.
When Bill Mills, Charleston garden designer and general manager of TerraSalis, steps out of his car to open the gate on his driveway, he appreciates the transition from his home into the rest of the world and vice versa.
"Coming into the gate, I let myself into my own private refuge," he said. "When I open it to leave, I peer out into the world beyond."
He designed and built the substantial wooden gates that open into his secluded Fort Hill home and property. He first planned to build stone gate pillars, but was inspired by the simple wooden gates friends in Vermont chose for their property.
"They described them as unpretentious, which is perfect for my home," he said.
A look into a few other Charleston backyards and gardens reveals a variety of styles, materials and purposes.
Donna and Steve Mallory's gate is both artistic and functional. They commissioned blacksmiths Matt and Tessie Wallace to create unique gates into the courtyard entrance of their Fort Hill home. Their house number appears twice on the gate. An easily visible "400" in the upper left provides clear identification. Upon closer examination, a more abstract "400" can be seen in a large "4" on the left gate and a circle within a circle that's part of the geometric pattern on the right gate.
The imaginative design was long in the making. The Mallorys first talked about replacing the old wooden gate that kept their border collies in the hilltop yard of their contemporary home about five years ago. "We wanted something different that was easy to open and close. It had to be something our dogs couldn't get through, but that our friends could operate," said Donna, who labels herself "gate-impaired."
Steve eventually found inspiration in the website of a graffiti artist whose geometric designs resonated with him. He drew a rough sketch. "I thought we could adapt something like that into a gate," he said.
He showed the Wallaces his design of squiggles, numbers and geometric shapes, which they used to forge, weld and install the wrought-iron gates. Matt worked a small dragonfly into a corner of the taller gate when Donna mentioned that she liked dragonflies.