Friday, 12 February 2010

A garden designer? What's the point of that?

Over at 'Successful Garden Design' Rachel Mathews recently posted an article boldly stating that the best gardens are created by owners with no design training, on the basis that their intimate knowledge of the site and interaction with their creation trumps anything a designer can do.  Well, yes...and no.
In support of Rachel's point, there are and always have been highly talented people who have no specific training in design who have, even so, designed wonderful gardens and landscapes.  Tim Richardson who writes lucidly and coherently in the Society of Garden Designers journal about design issues identifies the very greatest gardens, of iconic status, as creations of just such individuals.  I wouldn't deny it - but there are, in any field of activity, talented people able to create gardens, paintings, interiors and clothing (for instance) at the highest level without formal training.  A natural affinity with their chosen medium and, crucially, a lack of restraint fostered by the analysis and other baggage associated with the teaching process, allows them the freedom to express their ideas fully.  Given that gardens are expensive luxuries for most people, the trend-setters of the garden design avant-garde over the centuries have invariably been wealthy individuals as well.  These people are rare - one or two in a generation - but will have enormous influence over time.

Others, with vision but perhaps limited design ability, have worked with designers to create great gardens. These partnerships, developing over time, have allowed the designer to modify the initial design and enable the shared vision to evolve. I believe Dan Pearson and Tom Stuart-Smith work in very much this way, and no-one would question the exceptional quality of the results.  Gardens in sympathy with the site and the character of the client have a special feel - the space has been sensitively managed and the presence of the designer is evident, even if the effects are so refined as to be almost subliminal.  The designer is using the design grammar of the past to evolve something new, and with the support of a committed and discriminating client can achieve wonderful results.   For every Vita Sackville-West creating her Sissinghurst there will be dozens, maybe hundreds, of such garden owners, seeking to make a garden they can grow into with the guidance of a sensitive specialist in design.

Yet others, with little understanding of good design principles, recognise that their garden could be improved, but rely entirely on the designer’s interpretation of the site to achieve a satisfactory outcome.  The designer will supply a practical solution to the space, meeting the client's needs, and, probably, succumb to the request for a stainless steel water feature.  The garden will acquire some of the character of the people who use it, but it will always be the designer's hand most visible, for the client's involvement was limited - by lack of time, or interest. 

Those lucky few in the first group are outside fashion - genuine originals with the talent and means to successfully create the gardens they want.  Those in the second are the best sorts of client - committed to their project, open to suggestions, keen to work in partnership and willing to trust the instincts of the designer.  In the final group are, probably, the majority of clients - busy people who want to enjoy their garden more, have some idea of how they would like it to look, more or less keen to have a garden in the currently favoured style and placing their trust in the skills of the designer.  And this leads us to the crucial point - if the designer is simply churning out dull, predictable, uninspired work then these gardens will have no hope of reflecting the personality of the client - they will indeed be the clinical, spirit-less places that Rachel Mathews, among many, decries. 

The message is clear - if you want a great garden get a good designer and get involved!


  1. Dear Paul, This is a very well expressed and well argued posting. I agree with your points, the Vita Sackville-Wests of the world are few and far between and, as you say, appear seldom more than once in any generation. However, I should also argue that they are not actual amateurs, being well read, well versed in plant knowledge, artistic and, most importantly, with well honed visual awareness.

    It has often puzzled me why people will pay large sums of money to have a few kitchen cabinets installed, but are reluctant to pay for the services of a garden designer. Do they believe that, whilst a kitchen is beyond them, a garden is not? So many ghastly examples serve to prove otherwise.

  2. Actually, I agree with her on many points.
    But, you've both left out one very important group - those that don't have the means to hire designers, therefore have to do it themselves whether they have training or not. And some resulting gardens in that category are astonishingly amazing and beautiful - designer gardens without the designer. Imagine that.

  3. Oh Tina - I absolutely agree with you; my post was to justify the place of the designer in the scheme of things - there is a role to fill there, for those with the means, and it's not for everyone. As I said - expensive luxuries if you are buying the expertise in...