January 23, 2021 5 min read

I aim to capture visual attention by challenging the predictable in many different ways. Taking objects out of context and presenting them in unexpected surroundings can cause people to stop mentally in their tracks. Placing a fragment of a garden statue in the entrance of my New York apartment startled visitors in the same way as the torchere in an East River apartment in New York. There I converted a grand-scale garden urn into an uplight, sitting on a pedestal which actually concealed stereo speakers. Suddenly a dissonance was created. People’s perceptions were subliminally reshuffled, causing them to wonder “Is this indoors or out?”

The use of wall painting to bring the garden indoors has a long and distinguished history. In one of the houses in the ancient site of Pompeii in Italy, the walls are adorned with remarkable decorative frescoes depicting a beautiful orchard of trees and flowers behind a low fence. Although unaware of the techniques of perspective, the artist pulls the viewer into the imaginary garden with a fence that bends in the middle of the room, and actual-size trees. This bewitching scene causes the occupants of the room to rethink their surroundings and wonder “What kind of space is this?”

The Pompeiian wall is an early example of an artist striving to break out of what I call “the tyranny of the box,” the six planes composed of four walls, a ceiling and a floor, through visual illusion. It is a form of trompe l’oeilpainting which was later developed and used to create imaginary space, to transform a mundane rectangular box into something spectacular, reaching a peak in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe. I am very fond of this kind of ambiguity.

I love enigmas that force the viewer to rethink the boundaries of the real world. The profundity of the Impressionist painter Degas’s observation that “To be a great artist you must be a tenacious liar” led me to turn my fascination with enigma into a principle in my own design work. I delight in the ways in which architecture mimics painting, and painting mimics architecture. I am drawn to things that are not what they seem and I pursue illusions that rearrange perceptions of reality. In art, unlike life, celebrating an untruth can have great merit.

I enjoy turning the commonplace upside down and shaking anticipated perceptions; it provokes people into seeing anew. But small rooms, especially those not much used like a dressing room or powder room, are the best ones in which to create the most fantastic effects, where one won’t get bored by the shock – you wouldn’t want a jack-in-box going off in your face all the time. A favorite trick of mine is to put the light switch in a dark powder room at an unexpected height; the impact of the surprise when the light is finally switched on is even greater because of the pause for the search.

 By exploiting the “gullibility” of the eye – its capacity to be deceived – you can make a modest room seem larger or more important. If you paint the entrance hall a rich, dark color and paint the living room beyond it a pale color, you will find that as you pass from one to the other, your perception of the light-colored living room will make it seem larger by contrast with the dark entrance hall.

Other classic tricks include using the same color on all six planes – walls, floor and ceiling – of a room. This makes a seamless envelope, the dimensions of which are hard to perceive. It is also a good idea to use furniture that stands on legs that you can see more of the floor area; and in low-ceilinged rooms it is best to keep all the furniture as low as possible – avoid high-backed sofas, for example. Hanging an overly large painting or tapestry will imply that the room is grander than it is. Of course, for this device to work successfully, some of the other furniture in the room must be underscored, especially the lamps, which will destroy the illusion if they are not modest in scale. Creating a floor-to-ceiling window treatment also visually increases the size of a room. It increases the feeling of “air,” and prevents the exterior view becoming shut off from the occupants’ sight when they are seated.

Little is more dramatic in a garden than a performance arena, whether this is a theater or a stadium. The oval “green theater” at the Villa Imperiale at Marlia, near Lucca, has an auditorium and a raked stage with an arcaded backdrop and footlights in clipped yew. Dating from 1690, it remains a superb demonstration of the power of a “proscenium” to frame a view, and a lesson in how to manipulate sight lines in a garden.

The magic of ceremonial space made with living greenery inspired me to create an outdoor room at Las Tejas based on the idea of a Roman racetrack. When I saw the lozenge-shaped area, I felt that the original landscape architect must have seen the Piazza Navono or the Circus Maximus, both of which were used for chariot races. At Las Tejas, existing mature trees become the architecture of the circus while the spectators are represented by a pittosporum hedge. The columns at the end mark the royal box – conjuring up the possibility of Caesar appearing; and instead of horse-drawn chariots, there are beds of cella lilies racing around the track.

The concept of giving emphasis to a vista by framing it or using false perspective to create the illusion of greater space can overlap with axial planning. At Robbin Hill I use birch trees like curtains in a theater, to frame the performance in the garden; they represent the draperies pulled back on a stage. The Allee becomes narrower as it recedes away from the house, and the impression that the space is much deeper than it is in reality is reinforced by planting larger trees at the start and smaller ones at the end. If it is feasible to make a path culminating in ascending stairs, this will further increase the sense of space.

The theatrical impact of the chief vistas at Hidcote is increased by monumental topiary birds on massive pedestals. Not only do they frame the view, but the sheer unexpected scale is dramatic in itself. In my garden there is a pair of huge peacock-like topiary birds that loom over the smaller plants at their feet. Large-scale topiary is inherently theatrical – in the tension between the forces of nature and the controlling hand of man – but when it is placed where it towers over its surroundings, its size and effect becomes more exaggerated.

You can create drama on an operatic scale in a garden. Sheer over-the-top abundance is rapturous when you know that the effect is fleeting. The notion is similar to passing quickly through a dramatic entrance hall in a house. At Robin Hill, 7,000 Narcissus poeticus bulbs herald the arrival of spring in the orchard. (I managed this by shamelessly asking friends to put in a few bulbs every time they come over.) It was the love of coup de théâtre that determined the seasonal planting of the Allee. In scenes that enfold one after the other, 2,000 white tulips in large diagonal drifts appear beneath the trees in the spring; in early summer these are replaced by masses of white foxgloves, which are followed by scented white ‘Casablanca’ lilies.