Stone artist Shane Schaaf doesn't take on avant-garde artsy projects only. His company, Earthscape Stoneworks, designs and installs some fairly traditional patios, fireplaces and retaining walls.

But he's become a go-to guy for those who want something unique for their landscape: a mosaic wall, dog caves, courtyards studded with stained glass or semiprecious gems, gravity-defying stone columns that appear to bend like overcooked spaghetti.

His slogan is "Teaching old stones new tricks."

"My goal is to create a sense of joy and wonder for people within their home and landscape," he said. "Everyone can have a wonder-filled space."

Stone isn't his only medium. He also works with metal and "woodgraph," a term he coined to describe the art of stacking reclaimed wood. "But I enjoy the freedom that stone offers," he said. "Stone is a very versatile material. Anything you want to build with stone, you pretty much can."

Many of his designs look fanciful but they're always designed to address a client's practical need. "Someone needs something for a reason," he said. "It can't just be cool. Otherwise, I'd just build in the studio."

A cloister for a cul-de-sac

In one client's front yard, for example, Schaaf designed an elaborate walled courtyard with a water feature and amethyst geode sensor lights, because the client was seeking "a private, intimate space in a very suburban cul-de-sac," he said.

"The Cocoon" -- arches of curved metal rebar that run along one side of the house -- was designed to create a zone of privacy between the house and the one next door. There wasn't room for a garden in the narrow corridor, Schaaf said, but eventually, ivy will cover the rebar and form a leafy green tunnel.

"The people and the property drive the ideas," he said. "I wouldn't come up with any of these ideas if it wasn't for them. The truth is, anytime I build something cool it's not because I had a grand idea but my relationship with the client takes it to the next level."

Schaaf, a native of Willmar, Minn., became interested in outdoor fireplaces while working at a resort in Arizona. "Every restaurant and house had one, but I had hardly seen them here. I thought, 'If people in the middle of the desert enjoy outdoor fireplaces, so should Minnesota.'"

Old techniques

He started studying Old World masonry techniques, working both with mortar and the dry-stack method of fitting stones together without mortar. Often he combines the two methods, such as dry-stack stonework embedded in mortared stonework "to give textural contrast," he said. "I like the combination of organic and formal, natural and controlled."

Some of his clients' landscapes are long-term works-in-progress, and that's the way he likes it. "People rarely think of doing things in phases, but the truth is, you can't do everything you want all at once. People try to get as much done as they can, within their budget, versus trying to be creative and expressive. Stone is something you'll have a long time. It's going to be there, longer than you."

So what's in his own yard?

"Nothing like this!" Schaaf said with a laugh. "People in the neighborhood walk by and say how nice it looks, but the funny thing is, my wife's done most of the landscaping."