Have you noticed, sometimes, those who come in from the outside often have a big impact on a school of thought or a profession? Garden design is an area full of great examples.
The first person that comes to mind is Nicole De Vésian and her iconic garden in the south of France. De Vésian spent her life in the world of fashion as a fabric designer and the last chapter of her career with one of the world’s most famous labels, Hermès.
It was in retirement that she built her garden and now people visit from all over the world and it is recognised among the garden elite as a prize example of contemporary mediterranean gardening but even more than that, as a great garden in its own right. De Vésian refined every element, considered and revised again, using a strict palette of plants mainly endemic to the region. The plant arrangements are deliberate without being stuffy and serious, but free enough without slipping into whimsy and cliché, and with the scale of the planting all composed toward the soaring view of the Luberon valley.
It was this keen eye for detail, developed from a career in the fickle business of fashion that was applied to the garden. A life spent in her trade no doubt gave De Vésian the experience to make clear decisions on the garden’s creative direction.
In his book ‘A French Garden Journey’, Monty Don writes,
“There are few pots and there were none in Nicole’s time. She apparently hated them, along with geraniums, red, yellow and orange. I always give a quiet three cheers for this type of quirkiness even if it clashes with my own preferences. The more opinionated, individual and provoking a garden can be, the more interesting and stimulating it usually is.”
It’s the clear identity of a garden like De Vésian’s that draws people in. And it’s that specific voice that comes through from her specific background and her specific skill set to say, ‘this is what I think a garden is’. Take it or leave it.
Another well-published work is the blue garden built in Marrakech in the 1920s by French artist Jaques Majorelle. It is renowned for the dominant use of cobalt blue, which has since been named after him. The planting scheme is composed of striking shapes of drought tolerant species, predominantly succulents and cacti. This is another example of a garden developing outside known convention only to become one of the world’s most recognisable works. Sadly I was outside the walls of the Majorelle garden about fifteen years ago and didn’t know it was there! I was a horticulturist at the time but not yet a student of garden design.
But what garden designer would be so bold as to use colour with the confidence that Majorelle exhibited? I’m sure you’ll find me an example, but you follow my point. As garden designers we can suffer from pandering to trends, as well as long held views.
Granted, gardens of the kind De Vésian built are often crafted with the luxury of time, through trial and error. Also, there is often a lack of formal garden education that allows a freedom of expression not suppressed by convention and expectation, giving a composition singularity, setting it apart from the crowd – the crowd being working garden designers like myself!
Other examples of great garden makers include architect Luis Barragan and artist Roberto Burle Marx. Both trained in different fields, both becoming more prominent in landscape than their earlier professions. Of course an architect, fashion icon, and two artists all share one thing in common, a knowledge of the underlying mechanics of visual creativity: form, line, colour, texture and scale.
And this is my second point – the clarity of vision and bold statements that these people can make in their gardens are underpinned by the universal principles of design. They show us that once this knowledge is mastered and applied in one field, in the hands of some, it can be applied across any field to outstanding effect.
This should be a clarion call to us as garden and landscape designers – be bold, don’t be afraid to think outside convention. Easier said than done, I know. Designing a garden is a partnership not just between you and the site, as we are all working within the parameters of a clients’ expectations. They will have their own notions of what a garden is, but it’s our job to extend their understanding. There will be budget constraints and time constraints, but this should not impair our creative response but rather focus it.
Of course professional garden designers do have the advantage of industry knowledge, of being ‘match fit’ as it were. A landscape designer must respond to a site, and a client, within a defined time frame, which requires an athletic sort of preparation. It’s the daily cognition of ideas that allows a designer to respond intuitively to a site. The American landscape architect Tom Leader recalls his mentor Dan Kiley in conversation:
“It’s just like skiing. You can’t go out and start skiing if you’re not in good condition, if your body isn’t ready to react. Once you’ve started thinking about which way you’re going to go, it’s too late; you’re already on the ground. So you have to be prepared to design; you have to be conditioned just like an athlete. That’s how I do it. When I’m confronted with a problem, I just react physically. My body knows where to go and what to do.”
I love this line of thinking and it is this advantage that professionals can have in their respective field. But this strength should not be allowed to become a weakness; we should remember what these masterful ‘outsiders’ bring – no rules and bold ideas. We should remember this because ‘match fitness’ could easily become a conditioned response and slip into repetition. Of course we need reliable answers to difficult situations. Heaven knows that building gardens that work is a lifelong journey, and any sure fire-response to a tricky situation is welcome.