Inside the Gardens of Luciano Giubbilei


Photo Credit: Allan Pollok Morris

There aren’t a lot of gardeners who are modern day Capability Browns—who can take some fox hedging and turn it into something else entirely. One of the masters at work today is Sienese gardener Luciano Giubbilei, who make these architectural, rarefied, and conceptual spaces that defy all preconceived ideas about what a garden can actually be. In a nutshell, they’re more like living pieces of art.

His story is fascinating, and not just because he’s won countless awards—including Best in Show 2014 at the Chelsea Flower Show in London—but because he’s the first to admit he’s still learning. In fact, a few years ago, at the recommendation of Paul Smith, he asked to start a kind of apprenticeship at the Great Dixter, since he felt like he could pick up some new tricks at this mecca for emerging gardeners. We asked him a few questions about his work below.

A Q&A with Luciano Giubbilei


How would you describe your approach?


I’m interested in the arrangement of space, the notion of repetition, spacing, and rhythm. But most of all, I’m interested in the experience of the garden from the viewer’s perspective. How can you create a strong emotional connection from looking at a space and its composition? It correlates more to art and taking people’s breath away. It’s about figuring out how to make a composition that can make that happen. And that has to do with repeating an element so strongly, that it becomes something on its own that has a certain impact.

I’m very interested in repetition. I’m very interested in using very few plants, very few flowers. At least for now, I don’t want to overfill my designs to the point that they become weak. I want to create something that still has strength, that still holds itself, that still has a strong impact.


Has your time over the last few years at Great Dixter changed that approach?


Although my border has a vast number of plants, I wouldn’t necessarily do that for my clients. It’s my own personal space, environment.


Is your border a sort of meditation space? Can you describe your experience there?


Giubbilei’s border at Great Dixter in the Spring.  Photo: Andrew Montgomery

It’s everything. There is the physical side, the cerebral thinking, the sense of being with people that are really connected to plants. These are people there who study plants, work in a garden, read about gardens. All they know is gardens, it’s their life and I find it incredibly inspiring to be in their company. They have an acute sense of focus that’s very unique: They look at plants, at leaves, at single varieties one at a time. I’m very interested in that. And then there’s Fergus Gerret [the esteemed head gardener at Great Dixter] who is an incredible gardener.

Because being a designer is one of these occupations where you can find yourself spending a lot of time in the studio and then traveling to several project sites, I’m not in the same place often. I’m not in a working garden—a place where people work there all the time and have a routine. So it’s a different pace than my own, and this has been informative in my own business and in how I do things in my studio.

It is a [Edwin] Lutyens-designed house and garden and it has all these old wooden textures, a certain quality of light, and a very accidental style of planting. They encourage self-seeding and plants sort of pop up all over the place and in the garden paths, and this in turn creates new combinations and textures, which lead to new ideas and inspiration.

So it has to do with flowers, light, textures, colors. You immerse yourself within an environment, absorbing it and trying to bring that into your work. It’s basically what any creative person would do, in terms of absorbing something to move your work forward.


Who are some of your greatest influences?


I have always loved architecture and interior design. When I started out in the 90’s, John Pawson had just come out with his minimalist design for his home. I loved the architecture, the light, and the purity. I wanted to understand how he’d managed to create something so pure. You look at his drawings and they are made up of just a few lines. I wanted to use that simplicity in my gardens.

A Christian Liagre interior.

I was also very much influenced by Christian Liagre in Paris, and his way of arranging furniture. There was a movement, a dynamic in the way he arranged a room, with one piece that would break the symmetry and the stiffness within his compositions. There was nobody doing that in the mid 90’s with that level of elegance and sophistication.

I moved to London at a time when designers like David Collins and Michael Reeves were really making a mark, and I was incredibly inspired by them as well. My very first space was a roof terrace in Chelsea and the idea was to almost build a living room, much like an interior. It was very successful immediately. Journalists loved it and all the people invited to this house—I got a lot of clients from there.


Is there is a particular trend or style of contemporary gardening that you can identify with?


I don’t think there is such thing as a contemporary garden. Gardening is about composition/light/texture. Creating gardens is a personal expression, it’s inside of all of us. We can all come up with an idea for a garden, and what you see in the garden is that person, his sculpture, his passion, his personality. The feel of the garden is given by the composition and the seduction is performed by the light. Composition and seduction work in parallel.


Other than Dixter, what are a few public places you find inspiring for your work?


Rothko Chapel & Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I’ll tell you what I feel was extremely beautiful. The Rothko Chapel in Houston. It’s a place I always go back to, when I’m there. It’s a place that I feel unbelievable energy and extreme calm.

I love the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is devoted to art. They put together the most extraordinary art exhibitions. I love to go there because you find yourself surrounded by beautiful works: Seeing an Antony Gormley on top of a tree, or being in a James Turrell lightscape and looking at the sky. I find much more inspiration looking at one of these than at looking at a long planted border.

It’s difficult to find a public garden that has that magic. It’s great to walk in historic gardens, but sometimes I don’t find any elements of surprise. They’re all the same. I was talking to Piet and Anja Oudolf about this and what gardens they go to.  As it turns out they don’t visit many gardens either. Instead, when I visited them, they took me to an old German steel factory. Some of the landscape there was spontaneous—there were plants that grew from a cracks in a wall, and others that had self-seeded within certain parts and there was that element of surprise and magic.


When you first begin a garden commission, where do you start?


When a client shows you a space, you have to listen. They may love a particular view, or like to sit in a particular place. In my practice, we look for these “points of energy” that they gravitate toward and into why these places are significant to them, and why they want to tell you. It’s important to listen for these moments.

Maybe in my early days, I was quicker to remove things without considering what impact they had in the space, but I think we consider the original fixtures, trees much more now—even if they’re not original, but they still have an element of time within the space. The point is working with these elements and figuring out how to make the space beautiful.

You’re known for collaborating with many artists including Stephen Cox, Nigel Hall, and more recently, Brooklyn-based Ursula von Rydingsvard at this year’s Biennale—where does your affinity for these collaborations come from?

Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrew Montgomery

Collaboration is how you always improve your work. I’ve always loved working with artists because they have a narrative around the way they work and the way they live. Sometimes as designers we make everything so complicated and think everything has to be perfect. In an artist’s world, things are a little messier, a little bit more real. And I think that brings a lot of insight to one’s own work.

It’s also an interesting engagement because you need to go deeper into yourself to understand them and their aesthetic. It’s an exchange.


You work all over the world in a variety of climates. How do you ensure you’re creating sustainable gardens in all of these different parts of the world?


In any place we work, it’s about working with horticultural experts: People who know about the area and the local plants. For me, it’s an absolute must to work with them. Not only can I be educated about what works locally, but I can also ensure that the plants are more sustainable in that environment. It comes down to observing what grows locally with these people, going for hikes, etc.

It’s also about educating the client. They might want something very specific, but you can’t fight with nature. We live in a society where we think we can do anything, and immediately. With nature, you have to wait sometimes 2, sometimes 5 years and that’s quick in garden terms. It just takes the time that it takes and that’s why gardening is so beautiful and unlike any other discipline.


What’s your advice for someone who is just starting a garden and is on a tight budget?


We always start with trees. If you haven’t got a big budget, just invest in buying a good tree. It’s like a sculpture—there is the movement of light, the color, and the structure of the leaves. (I particularly like trees with a clear trunk and a clear canopy on top.)

Sometimes people want to do everything—the trees, the lighting, the garden furniture, the water feature—and that can be expensive if you expect a high standard. But if you start with a tree, you can add more with time, rather than compromising on the quality of all the other elements.