For a recipient of both the prestigious Rome Prize and a Harvard Loeb Fellowship, landscape designer Andy Cao isn’t very academically minded. Cao (pronounced “Gow”) describes himself as a “bad student” at Cal Poly Pomona, where he got a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture in 1994. His creative coming-of-age happened after graduation, he says, when he was casting around for meaningful work and settled on the backyard of his own rental house in Los Angeles.

Two-and-a-half years and 45 tons of glass pebbles later, Cao had created the Glass Garden, an homage to the rice paddies and salt farms of Vietnam, where he was born. (He and his family left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon; he was 13 years old when they immigrated to the United States.) The project made his name and clarified his approach. Instead of narrative, he shifted his focus to materials and how they affect our immediate, sensory experience of place. “Through that process, I learned so much about myself—and I learned about landscape,” Cao says.

Soon after, at a garden festival in France, Cao met Xavier Perrot, a student from Brittany. “Something about his sensibility just clicked with me,” Cao remembers. In Perrot’s telling, they bonded over their shared old-fashioned pursuit of beauty and in wanting to expand the definition of what a garden can be.

Cao hoped to work with Perrot, and he got his chance in 2001, when he spent his prize year in Rome and Perrot joined him as his assistant. They continued to collaborate on and off for several years and formalized their partnership in 2006. This February, their firm, Cao | Perrot Studio, was included in the Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices program. Cao still lives in L.A., while Perrot is based in Rennes, Brittany. They bridge the distance with Skype and lots of emails.

Cao credits their “almost effortless” working relationship to similarities in their backgrounds, and Perrot agrees. “We had a common childhood,” Perrot says. “We [both] grew up not far from the sea, so we have this sensibility to changing light in our work.” Both designers spent some of their early years on farms, too, which may explain why they reject digital design in favor of the handmade.

In recent projects, Cao | Perrot has combined everyday materials like chicken wire with refined ones—such as Swarovski crystals—to otherworldly effect. The studio will often bend and ply materials until they seem transformed. For example, the designers recently fabricated a willow tree in a Texas lake out of stainless steel and 80,000 handcrafted mother of pearl leaves. “How the artificial works on the natural,” in Perrot’s words, is a constant preoccupation, but so is its inverse: a project made of steel mesh that the studio is working on now in Washington state, Bow Lake Cloud, may eventually be overgrown with moss.

Cao has more or less stopped drawing so that he can fully visualize a project in his head, then proceed to fabrication as soon as possible. Consistent with this design-by-the-gut philosophy, the studio avoids research, he says, preferring the freedom of trial and error. Perrot clarifies: “We do some research. He [Cao] just doesn’t want to talk too much about it, because that’s what everybody does.”

Indeed, Cao laments that designers spend too much time explaining their work as opposed to letting people experience it. During his Loeb Fellowship, he kept hearing the word “pedagogy,” and decided his practice would be devoted to “reverse pedagogy.” People “spend so much time trying to learn things,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s harder to unlearn them.”