Interview: Robin Templar Williams, managing director, Robin Williams & Associates

A world of fleeting trends and maniacal egos can be how the garden design industry is viewed. As in fashion, it is often the wildest creations that get the most column inches.

Robin Templar Williams: Credit: Robin Williams & Associaties
Robin Templar Williams: Credit: Robin Williams & Associaties

But as part of a dynasty that aligns itself with the philosophy of right plant, right place, Robin Templar Williams believes good design transcends fads.

"Good design stands the test of time," explains Williams, whose practice is based in the Wiltshire town of Devizes. "It is not about grasses this year or purple next year. Pigeonholing yourself as either a practice or designer is dangerous. Being a good designer is about being flexible. That also means responding to the client's brief, architectural style of the house and the surrounding environment.

"The world does not begin and end at the flower shows and some of the best designers I know have never set foot at Chelsea."

Despite that, the practice, which combines Williams's skill with the expertise of his now semi-retired father Robin Williams, has itself won a clutch of medals at RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows over the years. "The shows are great fun and I can see myself going back," Williams reveals. "But it is another commission and we are running a business."

That business aspect of the practice is about to intensify, as Robin Williams & Associates embarks on a new pilot. The company has employed an expert in project management - Mandy Blair, hailing from Kraft Foods - who has designed a new system that every scheme will follow. The idea is to bring every aspect of a project into one carefully-followed process to help eliminate problems.

"As a designer I find it quite frustrating that sometimes you can do an absolutely top-notch job but then problems arise when the design ends and other disciplines become involved," explains Williams, who is a past board member of the British Association of Landscape Industries and a fellow of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD). "It can be heartbreaking."

By employing someone from outside the industry, but with specific skills in project management, Williams believes the firm can strengthen its services for clients, who are increasingly more demanding.

"They are more worldly-wise about what to expect of their space and a lot of our clients are very in tune with the environment. I am always impressed when clients are willing to invest in natural features that will not benefit them immediately, such as woodlands."

Marketing expert Helen Westendorp, who has retrained as a garden designer, has also joined the firm to bolster business development. The pair met when Williams acted as a mentor to Westendorp through an SGD initiative.

Williams explains: "It is a creative industry and it needs to be. But we need people who've got their hands on the rudder." Applying skills from other industries to landscaping could be just what the sector needs, argues the self-confessed "workaholic".

"We want the process to be seamless and painless," he says. "It is easy for things to fall apart, but if that happens, it means costs for everyone involved. It is about recognising your own strengths. A lot of people who are craftsmen are not necessarily very good at running a business."

Having gained knowledge of the industry "by osmosis", through visiting sites with his father, Williams has applied his experience in a variety of roles.

A long association with the SGD - he is member number 27 and his father was a founder member - has combined with his help setting up the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) designer member category. "I didn't join BALI to set up a rival to the SGD," he stresses. "But the BALI designer member category has a great deal to offer."

Ideally, he would like to see closer collaboration between the groups - and the HTA-run Association of Professional Landscapers. "There are many people out there who are not competent," he points out. "However it comes about, we need to sit down and have that conversation (about regulation) and the market will drive things that way. We all need to pull in the same direction."

CV

  • 1978-87: Self-employed landscaper
  • 1985-86: Studied at College of Garden Design
  • 1992: Went into business with his father to officially form Robin Williams & Associates
  • 2002: Launched Garden Design School with Moira Farnham
  • 2008-09: Board director at US Association of Professional Landscape Designers
  • 2009: Launched Garden Design School in USA

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