Supper: June 2009

June 9, 2009

in Events, Suppers

thinkinGardens Supper hosted by London College of Garden Design

Attendees: Andrew Wilson, Chris Young, Catherine Heatherington, Anne Wareham, Lila Das Gupta, Stephen Anderton, Toby Bull, Stephen Crisp, Rosie Atkins, Colin Hicks, Gianetta Norsworthy

Is garden design a frivolous luxury in straitened times?

Personal summary

The answer to the question was always going to be dependent on the audience constituency. As a result, a lively and stimulating debate took place, but because the majority of people there were already connected to the garden world, the resounding answer was ‘no’ – garden design isn’t a frivolous luxury in straitened times. Maybe what was more variable was where you find yourself on the scale of the ‘no’.

Clearly, it all centres on one’s appreciation of gardens – if you have a personal, emotional, deeply connected relationship with outside space then you are going to be more passionately against the concept that garden design is a frivolous luxury because you know the benefit… and joy… and creativity that gardens can bring. So too, you are probably going to be less likely to need the services of a garden designer because you may be making/creating/designing/growing your own outside space.

However, and for me this is the main challenge, those consumers purchasing design (not garden making) are the ones who may feel the frivolity of garden design is one step too far in leaner times. People can often justify a new kitchen, bathroom or car, but gardens may be lower on the list. (Anecdotally, it seems that some garden designers are finding that clients are still willing to pay for new gardens, but that budgets are being reduced by a nought here or there, or a few tens of thousands.) If they can’t see, appreciate or engage with the benefit of a better designed space, then the likely outcome will be that they won’t pay for it – unless bonuses allow. Mix with this the potential that garden designers may not sell their services/benefits/outcomes well enough, and there could be a downturn in projects being undertaken.

Not only was the deep-seated relationship a human can have with his/her garden recognised, but so too the role of creativity, expression, learning and personal development. If such virtues are to be extolled, can design be democratised – is it an issue of cost? Is it an issue of engaging children younger and earlier? Is it about the national curriculum helping articulate people’s language and learning of design, art, creativity? Of course, it is about all of these things, but getting the message across to people are ‘non-believers’ is the real challenge.

For garden design to be better recognised for future generations – and clients – then it needs to be better understood. Collaboration, business acumen and media-awareness are necessary. Explanation by Colin Hicks (Director of Cultural Services for Quebec) of the role the Quebecois government gives in supporting and developing its artists – of all types – was fascinating. The end result is that the Quebecois government wants its artists to make money; to be businesses; to not need financial support from the state. The lesson was that business and creativity are bedfellows, not opposites. Such refreshing thinking costs – but can a price be put on creativity? And how can such a mindset be adapted to British artists and cultural events? Are there ways of working from the Quebec government that could be transposed to the UK?

And so we got back, more or less, to where we started – your take on design. If you understand it, appreciate it and value (emotionally and monetarily) you will pay for it. If not, then you won’t. And it is the latter group of people where most attention should be directed.

Overview of themes discussed

The debate verged from the specific (what client’s want from their garden; what designers should be providing; how they should be providing it) to the general (the role of a garden; business cases for creative industries; working with other design disciplines for collaborative effort). Some points of interest:

  • finance and culture are inextricably linked – one needs the other whether you like it or not (reference Colin Hicks’ incredibly useful overview of arts funding in Quebec, Canada)
  • British appreciation of gardens, and their implied value (ie something that is worth paying for), is totally out of sync with the benefits many of us believe they can give
  • appreciation, both aesthetic and emotional, both by some sections of society and the state, of public space is woeful and needs desperate attention – we cannot continue to under fund and ignore public space
  • ‘frivolous luxury’ is pejorative – what value do people put on gardens? What use do people have for them… to look at? To sit in? To work in?
  • what price garden design? Some attendees called for a much more affordable approach to purchasing garden design – especially if your budget is £1000, £5000 etc. (note that Andrew Wilson was blatant in his disagreement of this, saying it is not possible to run a business based on schemes of that budget)
  • the concept of a designer’s service being in part about ‘permission giving’ was explored; that in essence, some people want an affirmation from a designer that the clients’ ideas are sound, that they will work and be workable…it isn’t always about a designer coming up with lots of ideas (reference Rosie Atkins’ explanation of design team Gabriella Pape and Isabelle van Groeningen’s work in Berlin, whereby clients pay for design services of €1 per squared metre, but the onus is on the clients to work through what they like, what they don’t, how things could work together etc. – thereby giving clients ownership and understanding of the medium they are working with)
  • the above supports the notion of democratisation of design (maybe another topic for debate in the future…)
  • partnerships – it is essential to work with others to get things moving; whether it be thinkingardens or garden designers, we need alliances to make people hear and ensure new events take place
  • role of the media – stimulus of the potential audience; trying to engage different demographics; difficult to be convincing when there are no role models or examples that precede us

Chris Young

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