Christopher OwenGarden design, from the outside in

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.

La Louve, the garden of Nicole de Vésian. Photo courtesy Louisa Jones, from her book Modern Design in Provence: the Gardens of Nicole de Vésian

La Louve, the garden of Nicole de Vésian. Photo courtesy Louisa Jones, from her book Modern Design in Provence: the Gardens of Nicole de Vésian

La Louve, the garden of Nicole de Vésian. Photo courtesy Louisa Jones, from her book Modern Design in Provence: the Gardens of Nicole de Vésian

La Louve, the garden of Nicole de Vésian. Photo courtesy Louisa Jones, from her book Modern Design in Provence: the Gardens of Nicole de Vésian

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.

Jardin Majorelle. Photo Helen Young

Jardin Majorelle. Photo Helen Young

Jardin Majorelle. Photo Helen Young

Jardin Majorelle. Photo Helen Young

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!

Fuente de los Amantes, by Luis Barragan Photo Esparta Palma

Fuente de los Amantes, by Luis Barragan Photo Esparta Palma

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.

Burle Marx Edmundo Cavanelas garden. Photo Paul Urquhart

Burle Marx Edmundo Cavanelas garden. Photo Paul Urquhart

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.

Burle Marx Instituto Moreira Salles

Burle Marx Instituto Moreira Salles. Photo Paul Urquhart

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.”

Sitio, Burle Marx. Granite pond and surrounding bromeliads. Photo Paul Urquhart

Sitio, Burle Marx. Granite pond and surrounding bromeliads. Photo Paul Urquhart

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.

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Christopher Owen

About Christopher Owen

Born and raised in Sydney and trained as a horticulturist at Swanes Nursery, I later went on to work as a landscaper and gardener for Spirit Level and Myles Baldwin and spent a special three years as head gardener at Bronte House before dropping out of design school and starting my own garden design practice working from a little office in Surry Hills. Catherine has allowed me on board the GardenDrum bus, which is exciting for me, and I promise I will do my best to keep the grouchiness to a minimum.

7 thoughts on “Garden design, from the outside in

  1. Really enjoyed reading your story and look forward to more.

    • Christopher Owen on said:

      Thank you Helen.

  2. And isn’t it amazing when an individual garden (nearly always owner-designed (by, as you say, a non-garden designer)) can alter the way a generation thinks about gardening. I vividly remember the first pic I ever saw of Nicole De Vesian’s garden, and I reckon it would date back to the early 90’s. That one image has contributed (albeit in a totally unrecognizable way) to every garden I’ve made since. The same would go for the worldwide influence of Lawrence Johnson’s Hidcote and Vita and Harold’s Sissinghurst throughout the 20th Century. The only current Australian example I can think of is William Martin’s extraordinary Wigandia (though like N de V, he’s designed gardens since). Once you’ve seen Wigandia – as many did when it was all over the garden media a decade or so ago – you never quite garden the same again…

    • I also much enjoyed reading these thoughts. Just a few additions: Nicole did not spend a lot of time letting her garden mature. She made it in only ten years, 1986-96, (ages 70-80) and it was already stunning when I first saw it in 1989. The first photos of it appeared in my book Gardens in Provence (published 1992, pictures shot by Vincent Motte and myself in 1990, but cut–would you believe!–from the later paperback edition!) Excerpts from many magazine interviews with Vésian are included in my recent book on her, Modern Design. She did not “go on” to make other gardens but made some when first working on her own, so she could buy plants and pay workmen (Chabaude, now mostly disappeared, Prieuré de Saint Symphorien, Trabari, still maintained) She did some later work also under financial duress, notably the Clos Pascal probably the best maintained and most faithful of her gardens still existing outside la Louve. But by 1996, she felt constrained at La Louve and was ready to move on–after only ten years!–and had bought a site elsewhere in the village, begun pruning existing trees and moving stones, when she died suddenly. A shame we could not have seen that garden too…(a few pictures remain). Many people, many professional designers, have been influenced as Michael describes by even just one picture of that garden, without ever having seen it in person. This says something about visual appeal too in a garden that was also full of scent and texture, and about how we use photography. Again, thanks for this commentary.

      • Christopher Owen on said:

        Thank you Louisa, ‘Modern Design In Provence’ has accompanied me to quite a few client meetings, though Sydney is not truly a mediterranean climate, there are crossover plants that can be utilised from Nicole’s garden and of course the great pics convey the striking plant forms and the simple use of materials.

    • Christopher Owen on said:

      Thanks for the lead on Wigandia Michael, I will have to find some images.

      Yes for me the pics of Nicole’s garden illustrate the fundamentals of good garden design in very clear terms. I would say the same for the writing in ‘The Gardenist’! (is this required reading in garden design schools world wide yet?)

  3. The only current Australian example I can think of is William Martin’s extraordinary Wigandia (though like N de V, he’s designed gardens since). Once you’ve seen Wigandia – as many did when it was all over the garden media a decade or so ago – you never quite garden the same again… Thank you Michael.

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