September 13, 2020 8 min read

The concept of being part of a continuum of time is important to me and a recurring theme in my work. Any fragments from the past, especially those that you can touch, connect you to the makers of those pieces, making you aware that we are threads in a great tapestry of time. Antique mirrors are perhaps the best examples as they literally held images of the past -- think of the people who have looked into them over the years. I also think of the craftsmen who made those mirrors. Mercury glazing was a dangerous occupation and early artisans gave their lives for their craft, dying young when the mercury infiltrated their bodies and poisoned them. Historically, mirrors have been so highly prized that it is not unusual to find European wills listing mirrors left in an estate even before the land.

For me, connecting with the past plays a prominent role in planning the restoration of, or an addition to, an old house. When my late wife and I had our first house, an eighteenth-century forge, it fell to us to add a kitchen. We used old wood, scratch-coat plaster, and wide oak floorboards, and we partly concealed the refrigerator and stove, so that the room resembled an old pantry with pieces of antique furniture along the wall. We were proud of the resulting effect and eager to show it to my parents who were visiting the house for the first time. When my mother walked into the kitchen there was a gasp, followed by, "Oh my God, it's going to cost you a fortune to riout all this old wood."

Even when I am building or designing a modern house with twenty-first century materials, I try to incorporate those that will age gracefully. For example, aluminum has the unattractive feature of developing pits as it grows old, whereas wood always looks wonderful. It is important to choose materials that will offset some of the newer technology and ensure the beauty that come with passing time.

I like to think of an interior as incomplete, as a fragment of a time continuum. I have an abhorrence of everything being perfect; most modern homes seem too slick and shiny. This is why I often use materials not generally regarded as finished surfaces. I like the surfaces of corroded concrete, raw silk, weathered wood, and worn leather. I take inspiration from archaeological excavations where classical shards, and fragments are strewn about. I may use a peeling wooden capital, rescued from a building scheduled to be demolished, and an overscale base for a hall table; or I might place a nearly threadbare chair in an entrance hall as a piece of sculpture. I do not often restore antiques -- the old finish with its fading patina is what I am after.

In the same way, if a design is so programmed that it borders on being I cannot resist denying that control by doing something that appears to be accidental or haphazard. For example, an overscale bedspread that drags on the floor will do a great deal to soften the lines of a too-glossy, cube-like room. Also, the simple act of leaning paintings or mirrors against a wall rather than hanging them, especially in a crisply contemporary house, psychologically dilutes the intimidating effect of perfection, and makes the interior feel unfinished, as if it was awaiting the hand of time.

My strongly held belief that the house should be a sanctuary is echoed by my conviction that the garden should be a version of Arcadia, a place cut off from the rest of the world where dreams can be pursed. Like a house, a garden can evoke intense, heightened feelings. Even a single bloom can offer a vision of paradise. Think of those aristocrats of flowers, the 'Casablanca' lilies; in addition to their unrivaled beauty, they release their glorious scent when the sun sets, so that even in the dark they have a presence. Have you ever walked by orange trees in bloom or a hedge of star jasmine? The sensuality is far more intoxicating than any bottled scent.

The Italians have a saying, "We have a life of action so that we may inherit a life of serenity." I believe most people come to gardening later in life, either for the purely prosaic reason that that is when they move to a house with a garden, or because after years of struggling to make the world the way they want it -- and realizing that it can never be -- they turn to the garden in solace and use their energies to make a world that is more manageable, and gather around them the plantings that support their inner vision.

In seeking to make my own vision of Arcadia in my gardens in Connecticut and California, I have found that I have been inspired by the idealized landscapes painted by Poussin and Claude Lorrain, as well as some of the world's most celebrated classic gardens. You, too, are bound to be influenced by what you have seen. Never think that the spellbinding beauty of the greatest gardens is out of reach. Just as the value of paintings is not judged by dimensions or medium, nor music by how many instruments are used, your own Elysium has nothing to do with the size or shape of your property. Rather than attempting simply to copy something, try to analyze what it is that most appeals to you and distill that into your own personal statement.

In my view, architecture, interior design, and gardening are all part of the same intellectual process and subject to the same laws and aesthetic analysis, and similar principles govern my approach to planning a garden as guide my work on interiors. Axial planning, considerations of scale, use of illusion, dramatic light, and subtle color all come into play, as do my penchants for simple shapes and uncluttered lines and my feeling for timelessness.

There is, of course, one essential difference between decorating and gardening: the latter is a partnership with nature. You cannot control every detail of the outside environment in the same way as you can the inside. Gardens constantly shift and change -- reminding us of the transitory nature of our own existence -- and you are always at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather. Vita Sackville-West, one of the legendary creators of the gardens at Sissinghurst, Kent, said that to be a good gardener you have to be tenacious. With that I concur, but would add that you have also to be patient. It may take eight years to establish a garden that looks as though it did not come out of the back of a station wagon after visiting a nursery. You can, however, imitate nature. Noticing how the wind scatters seeds and where birds drop them, I plant bulbs and flowers in clusters up against walls and rocks as though they had landed there by accident. And I plant mature bushes close to a terrace of a new house to give it the illusion that it has been there a long time.

I find that often people fail to bring to their garden the same seriousness that they bring to their houses: the sum that they are willing to spend on a single important carpet is sometimes the total budget for the entire garden, even though the garden is usually much bigger than the house. I always tell clients that in the making of a house or garden their is one thing you must do first: go out and buy the special work of art, or the spectacular mature tree, or the fifty rose bushes you have always craved. I agree with Frank Lloyd Wright's dictum: first buy the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves. At the end of the project, you will always find enough funds to buy the washer and the dryer but will forgo the antiques, the works of art, and the large shade tree. I believe that it is better to feed your soul from the beginning.

Another common failing is not to understand that the entire property is a garden. To clients who say, "We want to plant a garden in the yard," I explain that the yard is the garden! The notion that garden and yard are separate derives from the Victorian practice of making flower beds like carpets in which all the plants were subservient to a rigid geometry. Even the smallest lot is canvas on which to create a picture and, like all good artists, gardeners must consider the whole as well as the particulars.

Looking at the particulars may require being strict with yourself, limiting your planting to what you can appropriately accommodate in the space. This is the equivalent to editing in the house. If you have always loved the practical side of gardens, such as fruit-bearing trees, but your property is tiny, you should choose two miniature apple trees in pots, or just one other fruit-bearing tree that will double as a shade tree. The same discipline is needed when ordering flowers from a catalogue. (I also find it wise to write down next to my choices the other flowers that I plan to plant beside them.)

In planning a garden I try to make sure that the part that is closest to the house is the most articulated and artificial. This is where I make the most use of manmade features and clipped and trained plants. In fact my two favorite garden activities are pruning and shaping. It is through these that the beauty of abstract form takes most obvious hold in the garden. But this is not to say that I want a garden full of parterres and mazes -- when a garden becomes too artificial it is only about control. Don't forget that nature provides its own form of abstraction in the variety of shapes made by trees or shrubs. For planting further away from the house, choose a range of spreading, weeping, columnar, pyramidal, or fastigiate trees and shrubs, and plant them in groups to make the best contrasts.

Abstraction in the garden is not the prerogative of any one time of year. I find my garden at Robin Hill exquisite when blanketed by snow, when the shapes of the clipped shrubs and the wrapped objects become Christo sculptures and it becomes truly a walk-in still life.

Artifact and fragments used outdoors bring mystery to the garden and, if they are old, a mingling of the past with the present. "Ruins" in the form of fallen columns or vine-covered follies are romantic ways to suggest that the garden has existed over time. A door in the middle of an old stucco wall that opens into a wild area suggests that earlier buildings had previously existed. Trees that were felled by storms and have regenerated are living fragments, trophies from the past that also lend mystery and maturity to the planning around them. In my garden in Connecticut I have a long narrow, very worn, veined-marble Roman sink resting on Baroque stone supports, and a second-century marble sarcophagus, both of which are seasonally planted. I have also re-created my own Roman "Appian Way" -- 200 feet of new "ancient street." It is my interpretation of an eighteenth-century folly and lends a mysterious image of power and decay, suggestive of some vanished civilization, to the surroundings.