Book Review: Contemporary Designers’ Own Gardens

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Professional garden designers can be an enigmatic breed – rarely are we permitted to view their personal or private work outside of rare public openings. Any public commission is impractical (i.e. show gardens at Chelsea or Hampton Court) or too large to be economically and effort-wise feasible (public spaces with staff for their upkeep). Barbara Baker’s Contemporary Designers’ Own Gardens (2013; Garden Art Press, an imprint of Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd.) offers a voyeuristic glimpse and evaluation of twenty designers’ private sanctuaries.

Despite confessing that her selection is not comprehensive and somewhat personal, Barbara Baker has cast her net wide and far for the book is not Brit-centric or Euro-centric as Australian, Kiwi, and Japanese designers are profiled. Her dialogue with them gives the text substance instead of the customary fluff read for coffee table books. She clearly has special affinity with sensitive and spiritual individuals, such as Dan Pearson or Antonio Perazzi, who create gardens of subtle and sensual beauty.

For the most part, the distinction between the designers’ public and private gardens are slim. Renown for his vertical gardens, Patrick Blanc himself lives in a house literally cloaked in plants. The structural grandeur of clipped hornbeam, beech, and box, a signature flourish of the Belgian Jacques Wirtz, plays out well in his private garden. In all, the private gardens nearly always exist as experimental areas where ideas can be incubated before refined and implemented for clients. Aggressively self-seeding or spreading plants are permitted as the designers will ruthlessly edit them whereas they are either persona non grata or eventually introduced if the client or the staff can monitor them. Certain colors disliked by clients are permitted without worry and concern.

Sometimes the garden designers’ private gardens are a sharp departure from their commissioned work. It seems a rude jolt to see the British landscape conceptual artist Tony Smith’s pragmatic cottagey garden. The Kiwi designer Ted Symth whose work is minimalist and contemporary has a 1.6 hectare garden outside of Auckland that is more lush, dense, and jungly than what his clients would consider permissible. The structural accents are noticeably few – some urns, large stones, a skeletal boat, and Symth’s stepson’s sculpture. Instead, cycads, palms, and bromeliads supplant the manmade architectural details.

Significant is the fact that the gardens give enormous pleasure and relaxation for their creators just as they are for anyone who gardens. Isabelle Greene, the Californian garden designer, remarked: ‘I love sitting in my gardens. I love to go back to them…I think that is my greatest joy, since I am such an intense person and so busy, to let my brain loose. I almost inevitably experience euphorbia.’ Tom Stuart Smith wrote in his book The Barn Garden: “Making a garden for yourself is very different from doing it for somebody else. So much of the pleasure is to do with the coaxing and tending, the daily observance of smalll details and the accumulation of change over the years.”

If there are any quibbles, it is that editing is slightly sloppy – nomenclatural errors and misspellings, as Nasturtium ‘Mahogany’ rather than Tropaeolum ‘Mahogany’ and Erysium instead of Erysimum, can be noticed. Photographs, which range from inspirational to mundane, can be mislabelled – a bromeliad in the Ted Symth’s profile is misidentified as the South African Aloe plicatilis. At times, the profiles suffer a bit from the repetitive language, as any book that aims to profile several garden designers or gardens is susceptible. Fortunately these shortcomings are minor and do not detract majorly from the insights gained from the private gardens of garden designers in Contemporary Designers’ Own Gardens (2013).

~Eric

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