Take root

As gardening becomes a national obsession to rival makeover- style DIY, retailers, museums and designers are all cultivating an interest in the ‘external room’, says Dominic Lutyens

Time was when gardens were perceived as outdoor spaces with little connection, design-wise, to the houses they adjoined. True, the artfully designed gardens of stately homes often had follies and pergolas that corresponded aesthetically to the architectural style of the pile in question, but they were the exception. Your average suburban garden consisted of little more than an arbitrary arrangement of paving, flowerbeds and forlorn garden furniture.

But that way of thinking is being rapidly turned inside out – literally. Interior design principles are being increasingly applied to garden design to create a plausible ‘external room’. And no more so than now: if the Chelsea Flower Show was once the main barometer of new garden trends, other annual events are also showcasing them now. One of them is Urban Gardens, now in its third year. The last was held earlier this month at Olympia, and traded heavily on the idea of gardens as external rooms. Schemes included a Sex in the City garden with a four-poster bed garlanded with climbing plants and an outdoor fireplace. Very recherché, but at least it made an effort to challenge staid garden design. Another – Night and Day – had a collapsible table that converted into a dance floor at dusk and was accessorised by the must-have garden accessory of the season, the Omlet Eglu, an ultra-hip hen house that resembles an i-Mac. (Shades of Big Brother, the reality TV show which, along with such programmes as Diarmuid Gavin’s Homefront in the Garden, has given the idea of a stylish outdoor space massive mainstream exposure.)

This year, the gardening vogue is extending its tendrils to everything, from highly considered garden design to funky accessories. Significantly, Marks & Spencer has just introduced a twice-yearly catalogue for home and garden accessories. Designed by Winkreative creative director Tyler Brul̩ and his team, it features colourful lighting, hammocks, garden tools and picnic-ware shot in a garden Рin sun-soaked Tenerife not rain-drizzled Middle England Рthat seamlessly blurs indoors with outdoors. Typical of its philosophy is a gazebo made of a virtually transparent latticework wooden frame, providing minimal shelter.

Liberty also has a new garden department, where you won’t find common-or-garden teak furniture but such avant-garde pieces as Michael Young’s Tolt range. Meanwhile, Harrods, which recently opened its new Garden Living department, is holding a promotion called Fantasy Gardens until 5 June. A whole raft of fashionistas, including Dior and Moschino, have created garden-inspired windows, as has Homefront’s Gavin. He describes his – a miniature version of his surreal Chelsea Flower Show scheme – thus: ‘Bubbles suspended from the ceiling, each giving a hint of a different garden style over a Teletubby-type grassed landscape’.

Meanwhile, a slew of designers – from Paul Smith to fashion’s new wunderkind Jonathan Saunders – have each created a deckchair.

Harrods’ promotion is pegged to the Royal Horticultural Society’s 200th anniversary, called Year of Gardening. So too is Tate Britain’s Art of the Garden exhibition (3 June to 30 August), which spotlights paintings of gardens by the likes of Stanley Spencer and Gertrude Jekyll.

There’s no doubt that the anniversary is hugely hyping the gardens trend. Even so, a love of all things horticultural is definitely in the air. Fashion and homeware designers are currently in a frenzy over florals – from Eley Kishimoto to Tord Boontje. The Design Museum is showing the Bouroullec Brothers’ new lightweight ceramic planters in its outside gallery, Tank (until 13 June), and will soon mount a show on florist Constance Spry (17 September to 28 November). From tomorrow, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s central garden – very much an external room and one that’s being redesigned by Kim Wilkie – will be filled with ten Finnforest garden sheds, each customised by an artist or designer, in an exhibition called The Other Flower Show (until 11 July).

Why the burgeoning mania for gardens as external rooms? ‘People see them as an additional space to spend their disposable income on and show off their taste – like Mr and Mrs Andrews in Thomas Gainsborough’s double portrait,’ posits artist Chris Taylor, who, with Craig Wood, has lined the walls of a shed at the V&A show with a floral wallpaper visitors are invited to draw on.

Artist Heather Barnett, who has covered the internal walls of another shed with germinating mustard and cress, believes, ‘Gardening was once perceived as a hobby for retired folk. Now younger designers, like those on TV gardening shows, are fuelling public interest in it.’

Sam Jacob, of architect Fat, who’s created a ‘leaky shed’ into which drips water in ‘a tribute to England’s rain-soaked summers’, says, ‘We’ve learnt a lot about other cultures’ use of outdoor space on our travels. Gardens are now seen as an extension of the house – the opposite of the British tradition of viewing house and garden as distinct entities.’

How realistic and practical is this desire to wed indoors to outdoors?

Very, says Sally Bendelow, head of design and product direction at Marks & Spencer. ‘People are realising gardens are truly multifunctional – good for eating, entertaining or working in. Also a lot of garden furniture now, like Philippe Starck’s moulded plastic sofa, is for indoor or outdoor use,’ she says.

This year’s Chelsea Flower Show (on until tomorrow) demonstrates a marked trend for gardens as external rooms. Do the designers believe garden and interior design share any common principles? ‘Materials such as wood, stone, glass, ceramics and canvas can be used indoors and out,’ says Phil Jaffa of Scape Design Associates, who is presenting a smaller version of his garden square that will soon be built in Knightsbridge. ‘We’ve used granite paving indoors and out. Inside it’s polished, but outside it’s been bush-hammered to provide grip, so it’s not slippery to walk on in the rain.’

‘The big difference with garden design is that it’s at the mercy of Mother Nature,’ says Nicola Lesbirel, who, with Terence Conran, has designed the Laurent Perrier/Harper’s & Queen garden (which makes abundant use of glass, steel and stone, and is inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s architecture that very much conjoins indoors and outdoors). Philip Nash, whose minimalist garden has a sweeping cast-glass walkway, agrees: ‘An external space is affected by the weather and plants are always evolving.’

The message is clear: landscape architects soon learn to go with the flow. Control freaks need not apply.

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