Piet Oudolf on the design and manufacture of Vitra HQ gardens

Enter one of Piet Oudolf’s gardens and you will be transported to a dreamlike meadow. His ability to create transporting private gardens extends to our bustling cities and his work can be appreciated in many urban public spaces. Appreciating the plant’s “architecture” as much as its colorful bloom, its intricate plantings are layered over a multitude of species – evoking a sense of spontaneity, though nothing is ever left to chance.

He designed gardens for the Serpentine Gallery in London and Noma in Copenhagen, filled Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset Garden with 57,000 plants, and created a private rooftop filled with perennials in Manhattan. Believing in plants for therapy, he recently completed Maggie’s Center at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton.

Speaking of his home – an old farmhouse on an acre of land outside the village of Hummelo in the eastern Netherlands where he has lived with his wife Anja since 1982 – Oudolf shares his thoughts on how to transform a miniature plot, a new job for the Vitra headquarters, and our future addiction to finding pleasure closer to home – and ultimately, in our gardens.

Piet Oudolf’s garden at his home in Hummelo, the Netherlands

Wallpaper *: How are you now at home in Hummelo?

Piet Oudolf: We are well. My life is already somewhat isolated from living on a farm. So it kind of feels natural, but I can’t travel to other countries due to the restrictions. It’s not so bad. We have three acres of garden here which is taken care of by someone. Because I have worked so hard in the gardens for so many years, it makes me feel good not to do the real work anymore! Our garden is so well established that it does not need more than two days of maintenance per week. Other than that, I work in the office surrounded by the garden.

W *: Is anticipation part of the fun of gardening? What are you looking forward to?

Purchase order : For me, it’s all about the moment, the now. If I go out into the garden, I’ll see something today that wasn’t in bloom yesterday. As a gardener, you have an expectation. When I plant a tree, I expect it to be next year and five years from now. Last week I planted a few small trees that I will probably never see mature. But you can see it in your imagination. Being engaged, involved and busy with plants is my life. I don’t think too much to be honest, I just do.

W *: Much of your work relates to planting in urban spaces, such as the High Line and Battery Park, both in New York City. Why do you think it is important to have planting areas in our cities?

Purchase order : In cities, so many people do not have access to nature. Either they don’t have the money to travel outside the city, or if they can afford it, they go on vacation to places where plants are not that important. Doing this in the city, and especially in the public space, allows people to “meet” things that they probably would not have encountered otherwise. By creating something like the High Line, it makes people think, “Okay, that also exists in the world. Because it sounds a bit wild, which it doesn’t, it makes them think and ask questions.

The High Line, New York

W *: Do you approach the design of public and private gardens differently?

Piet Oudolf: Private gardens are usually about a family or an owner who has their own ideas about the parts of my job that they love. Maybe they have grandchildren who want to play somewhere. It’s very personal. And can be complicated – as complicated as public parks are – but in a very different way. A public garden is for more than one family, more people. It has its own restrictions, such as security and what you can do in a city.

W *: You often work in large spaces, but how do you approach smaller spaces? What do you recommend for people who are starting a small garden at home?

Purchase order : I have done many, many small gardens – small public gardens or private gardens. Most people aren’t designers, what they see are plants they like. I say to budding gardeners, “Buy the plants you love, don’t try to be a designer. This is what people can take away from my work. If they see a combination they like in the gardens they visit, like a herb with a plant, that’s great. I said, “Don’t think bigger, because then you can do it yourself. ”

A private rooftop garden in Manhattan featuring Piet Oudolf’s signature plantation

W *: How far are you in the design of a new garden? How much planning time do you take?

Purchase order : That’s at least a year. My planting palette is different from other landscapers, so we have to make sure the plants are available during the growing season, or we have to let them grow. We use plants not only from the Netherlands but also from America. Some things like the High Line last for years and years. I started in 2004 and the opening was in 2009, so five years.

W *: Do you have any rules for color combinations, mixing textures, and using different heights and variations of species?

Purchase order : When I design, texture is in the foreground; color comes second. Texture is the architecture, or character, of a plant. When you meet a person and see their body language or expression, you know if they are someone you like or dislike. It’s the same with plants, and they don’t need to flower to show you their character. A flower is exciting of course, they are beautiful, put them in a vase on your desk. But for many plants, the flowers last only two or three weeks, or even less, and then they fade away. So, it’s good to have plants that have more than flowers.

Oudolf begins his designs with a small sketch, then moves on to a larger sketch which is usually at 1: 100 scale on tracing paper. Then he writes down plant names, assigns them a color, and then edits taking into account factors such as the flowering months of certain species.

W *: Your approach to garden design takes into account all the seasons. What is important in designing a garden that can provide joy all year round and in all weather, not just during flowering in spring and summer?

Purchase order : I think every season is important, and everything that happens during that season is important for how you feel in the garden. When I design a garden, everything is considered, including how it develops. In the spring, this time of year, you don’t need much [in your garden].

There is so much going on around you in the woods, in the fields, that is so fresh and energetic, that every little thing that happens captures your attention. The color of leaves in the woods that grow very white and green, or a small bulb or flower that appears in your garden. Everything is accelerating. This is how I think of making gardens, it is not just about the big picture but about the details.

A private garden by Piet Oudolf in West Cork, Ireland

W *: Can you tell me a bit about the current projects you are working on, including the garden you are creating for Vitra in Basel and the Detroit Oudolf Garden in Michigan?

Purchase order : Planting at Vitra headquarters takes place even if we cannot travel. We have good friends in France and Germany who have a network of people who really understand my planting plans and can make them happen. Also, the Vitra team is great, so we communicate by WhatsApp or Facetime to get the right technical details. Detroit is moving forward too. The design is complete and I have a good network of people in America so if I can’t come they can showcase the plants using my designs. There is a very good understanding there.

The Michigan Garden Club asked me if I was interested in doing a garden and that’s how it happened. Detroit was a city that always interested me and I had never been there, and it was just recovering from all the things of the past. It was the combination of exploring the city and creating a garden. The city is very interesting.

W *: You said, “Planting is good therapy for the times we live in. ” What do you mean ?

Purchase order : We are living in terrible times right now and many people are rethinking their lives. People might not be unemployed now, but you never know what happens after that. So many people were working in the city, and if you are a younger person, and you were always very stressed and working hard to get a good income, especially in very competitive companies, wouldn’t you think about what to do with your life? I’ve noticed that people in their careers can sometimes be very smart and have really good jobs and then turn to something different, and I think the times we live in now will make that happen more than never.

Drums in New York, by Piet Oudolf. Photograph by Allan Pollok Morris

W *: How do you think these times will change our relationship with our gardens in the future?

Purchase order : I think the circles will get smaller, from what will be produced and used. You can imagine that we will no longer want to import everything. As we rethink our lives, we will become more engaged with nature and what is happening in our worlds. It’s generalizing, because a lot of people don’t even think about it, but I think a lot of things like cities will kind of become self-sufficient.

You can imagine that many farmers producing for export will consider producing smaller quantities to sell locally rather than to other countries. I think we’re going to travel less for fun. We will try to find our satisfaction closer to home. And that’s why I think gardening will be more important for the future.

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