Olmsted was a lover of nature from his earliest days. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1822 to a dry-goods merchant and the daughter of a farmer.
Olmsted spent much of his youth wandering fields and forests, often foregoing formal studies. He spent his young adult years in a variety of endeavors that eventually came together to create the profession of landscape architecture.
Olmsted worked in a New York dry-goods store and took a year-long voyage in the China Trade. He studied surveying and engineering, chemistry, and scientific farming, and ran a farm on Staten Island from 1848 to 1855.
In 1850 he and two friends took a six-month walking tour of Europe and the British Isles, during which he saw numerous parks and private estates, a well as scenic countryside. He also spent some length of time in the South as a reporter.
In March 1858, Olmsted and another designer, Englishman Calvert Vaux, won the design competition for Central Park in New York City. Over the next several years they refined their plans and oversaw construction of the park, which is considered one of the country's greatest urban parks.
The design of Central Park embodies Olmsted's social consciousness and commitment to egalitarian ideals. Influenced by his observations regarding social class in England, China and the American South, Olmsted believed that common green space must always be accessible to all citizens.
That notion is a fundamental principle of our current public parks system, but it was a radical idea during Olmsted's time.
Olmsted believed it was the purpose of his art to affect the emotions. He believed the tension created by the chaos and noise of urban areas could be eased only by nature -- and not just from a single element like a rose garden or a pond, but by the total design.
Olmsted's designs avoided hard edges, and embraced a constant opening up of new views as the user moved through the space.
The Long Meadow in Brooklyn's Prospect Park is an excellent example of his trademark style -- with its softly rolling hills and scattered trees, the viewer never sees the entire space at once, but gets a sense of infinite distance with no distractions or boundaries.
Olmsted and Vaux wanted the Long Meadow to be a more natural outdoor space, as opposed to the artificially delineated spaces of Central Park.
Olmsted created public parks in many cities around the country. But he also designed entire park systems and parkways, to connect greenspaces around a region. Two of the best examples of this are the park systems designed for Buffalo, New York and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In 1883, Olmsted established what is considered to be the first full-time landscape architecture firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. He and Calvert Vaux first used that term to describe their work. He called the home and office compound Fairsted, which today is the recently-restored Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.
Olmsted remained true to his philosophies as he turned his attention to landscaping around housing developments, government buildings and residential campuses such as universities and health care facilities.
Although the scenery Olmsted most loved was suited best to more temperate areas of the country, he developed separate and distinct styles for the South and the West.
In dry western areas, he focused on designs that didn't need a great deal of water. This approach is most visible in a half dozen projects in the San Francisco Bay area and in Colorado, most notably on the campus of Stanford University.