Conspicuous Design by Tim Richardson

August 7, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

I am very grateful for the generosity of Tim Richardson and the editor, Sarah Giles, of the Garden Design Journal for permitting me to use this piece, which I think raises an issue, as Tim says, of special importance to designers of small gardens. (as opposed to small garden designers..)

I  don’t have handy examples of over-design, so you’ll have to make do with flowers for once.

Anne Wareham, editor.

Euphorbia griffithii and Lysimachia ephemerum 'Firecracker' at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Euphorbia and lysimachia

Conspicuous design is a matter of taste – but how do the clients and critics react if presented with an ‘over-designed’ garden?

Tim Richardson:

I was sitting in a (very good) fish restaurant in northern Lille, ruminating about what you might call ‘over-design’. The topic sprang to mind because the high-end French restaurant is perhaps the mode most vulnerable to this curse. This particular joint was fatally over-designed, with billowing white muslin drapes separating the tables, an unremittingly charcoal colour scheme – brrrr, is it just me or is it cold in here? – those fabulous uncomfortable chairs we all love so much, and a general sense that the diners have been allowed in on sufferance because their presence might ruin the look of the thing.

The French are wonderful in their way when it comes to over-design. I once stayed in a Philippe Starck hotel in New York where I slept on the ironing board, thinking it was the bed, because it was bigger. (Joke… but nearly not.) Anyway, you know where I am going with this. In fact the over-design issue is not that bad in British garden design –  but it is worth thinking about. It’s not just a matter of cramming too much in. We all know that’s not a good idea. It’s perhaps more about how demonstrative the sense of active design is, how evident the designer’s ‘signature’ is on everything. Perhaps the crux of the matter is whether we want to be designing gardens that look designed, anyway?

There are different schools of thought on this, and different kinds of client expectation. High-end designers working in the classical Arts and Crafts tradition like to say that their aim is to create something that looks effortless and undesigned, as if it’s always been there. That’s a reflection of British upper and upper-middle-class lore, this sense that visibly paying for something to be designed is simply vulgar. It’s analogous to the jibe about having to pay for one’s own furniture, as opposed to inheriting it.

Campanula lactiflora at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Campanula lactiflora

Foreign clients won’t get that idea at all – they want the garden to look chic, and the furniture to be new, and couldn’t care less who knows it. Their snobbery works in different ways.

On the other hand it is the case that some British clients will want their friends to be well aware that they have paid out for a new garden. They may not want you to put a gold tap on the garden-hose outlet, but not far off.

It’s a class thing, to an extent. Some clients actually don’t want originality, or don’t have the confidence to go down that route. They want something that looks smart and designed, which is no more and no less than what you might see in a glossy magazine. And it is perfectly reasonable that there are designers out there willing to supply this. Just don’t expect commentators to jump up and down saying how original it is.

Hosta Krossa Regal at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Hosta. (you guessed)

It is also perfectly legitimate for designers to want to create gardens that are self-evidently their own work. Away from the well-heeled southern Shires, it’s not necessary to play the class game and pander to this idea that a garden should look as if it has simply evolved, all on its own. So conspicuous design is not in itself something to be avoided – as long as it lives up to its own billing, of course.

But to go back to this issue of over-design. One gets a sense of this most strongly when the ratio of ‘hard landscaping’ to soft is too weighted towards the former. It becomes more apparent when a range of materials has been utilised – brick walls, for example, along with gravel, pavers, steps, decking, water, wooden furniture and so on. Some of the most successful small gardens I have seen exhibit a narrow range of hard-landscape materials. The Modernists got this right, back in the day. For inspiration it’s worth looking at books such as The New Small Garden (1956) by Susan Jellicoe and Lady Allen, or early John Brookes.  More recently, the garden-design manuals have been too much of the ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ school.

Smaller gardens, then, are particularly vulnerable to over-design. One of the paradoxes of the garden profession is that those who are lower down the food chain tend to get the smaller jobs – and these can be concomitantly harder to execute really well. Life ain’t fair!

Tim Richardson

Tim is an independent garden and landscape critic. For his books see here. This article is published with the kind permission of The Garden Design Journal, where it originally appeared in the May 2013 edition.

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william martin August 9, 2013 at 1:02 am

The bleedin obvious!

Paul Ridley August 8, 2013 at 11:06 am

Some truth in all of this, of course, although over-design can cut both ways. There are ‘minimal’ landscapes and interiors so chillingly clinical thanks to their overdesign that they belie the fact that they are the arena for human activity – I think this often occurs in the case where a budget is insufficient for high quality materials. For me a truly minimal space needs to combine the clarity of spatial organisation with a richness in surfaces and materials that have the capacity to take the place of ornamentation. Equally there is overdesign which leads to excess – although I often find this is in the planting palette rather than the hardscape. Our long history of plant hunting and breeding along with the peculiar British obsession with plants and horticulture means that gardens are invariably overloaded with plant varieties, and this is a particular evil in small gardens. I’m getting a bit bored of this knee-jerk impulse to ram designs with mountains of perennials (and have to guard against it in my own work, not always successfully, I must admit!) – most of the time it just reads as heaps of green ‘stuff’, and has very little to do with the real business of garden design which in my view should be about the organisation of the space.

Vanessa Gardner Nagel August 7, 2013 at 5:11 pm

What an excellent post! ‘Tasteful’ versus ‘original’ is a particularly difficult concept to get across to clients. Original also does not mean over-done. Just this past week I toured gardens in Detroit with the APLD and saw an excellent example of over-design. One garden’s home set the tone with at least 5 different types of siding on the house. The structure was quite original but it was painfully obvious that the owners could not make up their mind about siding. Translated into the garden, the structural aspects were well-done, but there was a different type of ‘art’ at nearly every step. The art of editing was not evident.

Marie McLeish, My Garden Coach August 7, 2013 at 11:22 am

Well said. I think over design belies a lack of confidence in the potential of a space, and an over reliance on a tick list of elements. Such schemes invariably leave me with a pain in my head and a sense of unrest. Good design in contrast reaches one on many levels, aesthetically, energetically,and intellectually and is in harmony with its site. We need lots more of that in our public spaces!

Marie McLeish
My Garden Coach

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