The garden designers breaking the boundaries

Why more designers are taking on commercial projects with landscape colleagues.

Battersea Power Station: Andy Sturgeon has been working on three high-spec roof gardens for the redevelopment - image: Andy Sturgeon
Battersea Power Station: Andy Sturgeon has been working on three high-spec roof gardens for the redevelopment - image: Andy Sturgeon

The highlight of the garden design year might be over but that does not mean that RHS Chelsea Flower Show designers and their contemporaries are retreating behind closed fences. Their work is more in the public eye than ever, as they look for and win commercial work on a variety of projects.

Garden designers working on commercial projects is not a new phenomenon and while designing for high-end private gardens may still be their main source of business, designing for commercial clients appears to be a growing trend. BALI recorded 20 garden designer members in its 2014-15 directory, 11 of whom were happy to take on contracts worth £100,000 and up. In its 2017-18 directory the trade body lists 33 garden designers, including 30 offering services on unlimited commercial contracts.

Current or recent high-profile examples include Andy Sturgeon's work on three of the high-spec roof gardens at the Battersea Power Station redevelopment; Thomas Hoblyn, Alys Fowler and Tom Dixon's collaboration on the Greenwich Peninsula Garden park; new gardens by Dan Pearson and Christopher Bradley-Hole at London's Garden Museum; and Dan Pearson's planting design for the Garden Bridge - should it ever be built.

BALI design director and director of Janine Pattison Studios (JPS) Janine Pattison can see a clear trend. Her practice works on a number of public-facing projects including a current scheme for the Royal Brompton Hospital. "The boundaries have blurred between garden design and landscape architecture over the past few years and there just aren't the same rigid boundaries between what people used to do," she says. "My background is horticulture and garden design but increasingly we are getting involved in landscape architecture-size projects."

JPS is one of the growing number of garden designer-led multidisciplinary practices where garden designers employ landscape architects to broaden their offer. Dan Pearson works with several. Others - such as Sarah Eberle of Sarah Eberle Landscape Design; Tom Stuart-Smith of Tom Stuart Smith; Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam of Wilson McWilliam Studios; and John Wyer of Bowles & Wyer - are qualified as both landscape architects and garden designers.

For the co-founder of what is arguably the UK's newest garden design practice, Charlotte Harris of Harris Bugg Studio, it brings both business and creative benefits. "There are quite a lot of examples of garden designers and multidisciplinary practices taking commercial work on," she says. "I think as you start to grow as a practice you look to be able to diversify your team's strength. In any practice of any design discipline, working with a broad range of skilled people ups your game as a collective."

Harris Bugg has five members in the team - Harris, whose first show garden at Chelsea this year won a gold medal, fellow Chelsea designer Hugo Bugg, two landscape architects and a project manager - with freelance help engaged on a project-by-project basis. "We want a multidisciplinary practice because we are very ambitious," says Harris. "Garden designers tend to have a better understanding of planting and soils. Landscape architects are strong on construction. It can be a really strong marriage."

While 80 per cent of the practice's current jobs are high-end domestic projects, commercial projects, such as the design for the new 420ha Royal Botanical Gardens under construction in Jordan, are often much larger. "We take on different projects. We want to keep stimulating ourselves creatively. We never want to churn it out, we always want to be creative and innovative," says Harris.

Adding diversity

Pattison agrees. JPS has a garden designer who used to do fine art working alongside landscape architects. "It gives us diversity and is more exciting," she explains. Garden designers can give the finishing touch to a high-end development that helps it sell, she adds.

"Developers have woken up to the fact that you can't just chuck a bit of turf down and a few shrubs and they are done. I think they realise it's a competitive market now to sell premium properties to buyers demanding a higher-quality green space. Developers need to get some really good advice from either garden designers or landscape architects. It's definitely a growth area. We're picking up a lot of work from developers.

"All developers watch each other. They are very quick to look at what the competition is doing. If you've got a £2m house and you want to sell it, it's good to stand out from the crowd. That's when better-quality detailing could make a sale over another similar property."

This year's Chelsea best-in-show and gold medal-winner James Basson is not too keen on his practice expanding beyond what he describes as an enjoyable lifestyle business, but that does not mean he is averse to commercial opportunities. He cut his teeth designing community and hospital gardens in London before moving to the south of France to establish Scape Design in 2000.

Basson is working on a mixed-use development in France that features a hotel, 40 houses and apartments. He says designers are now in the same position interior designers once were as interior design took off. "The landscape architects are brilliant but they have an architectural aesthetic and it's not very human," he adds. "Garden designers have a bit more of a connection with the public."

Fellow Chelsea gold-winners Wilson and McWilliam are also sought after by housing developers. They recently designed a scheme in Milton Keynes, Kent's Hill, which won a Society of Garden Designers award, after the developer "asked for a Chelsea theme".

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