Constant Gardener

Landscape | Mar 2016 | BY Lily Kwong

Luciano Giubbilei has been busy. The Italian-born, London-based designer has spent most of the past two decades creating several gardens each year across a handful of continents. Recently, Giubbilei won both a gold medal and “Best in Show” for his sublimely elegant Laurent-Perrier garden at the 2014 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. In between working at his studio in London, developing plans for a new project in Formentera, Spain, and jetting to New York for a walk-through of a Long Island estate, he managed to find time to sit down with Cultured. The central theme: it’s time to slow down.

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Giubbelei’s design for the garden at The Boltons. Photo by Steven Wooster

“Finding time” is a relatively new part of his process. Early in his career, Giubbilei described his design approach as “spatial art.” He has collaborated closely with prominent designers, architects and artists, like Nathalie de Leval, Kengo Kuma and Ursula von Rydingsvard. He was profoundly interested in trees, which he still describes as the “soul” of a garden. His career was built primarily on green gardens, which used the architecture of planting to layer hedges of different species. Modest, modern and exquisitely detailed, the spaces relied on their beautiful proportions to create rhythm and repetition.

But in 2009, Giubbilei was persuaded to participate in the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for the first time despite the fact he rarely worked with flowers. He discovered they added a new dimension to his craft. “The show made me interested in the grammar of flowers and the gardeners who sleep and work with them every day.”

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Giubbilei’s award-winning garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2014. Photo by Carl Bengtsson

Giubbilei set out to learn how flowers really grow, their spatial and complementary relationships and “how you bring flowers to a point of perfection.” In the search for answers, he eventually ended up at England’s Great Dixter, where he fell in love with the historic garden’s slower pace. “I saw things being done properly. Slowly. I wanted to reconnect with the earth because when you’re moving so fast you can forget that you are working with plants. I became more interested in collaborating with great gardeners than great artists.” Seven years later, he still calls Great Dixter head gardener and CEO Fergus Garrett an influential mentor and collaborator.

Giubbilei is thoroughly Italian. When he talks, the cadence of his voice rises and falls, each word striking a unique emotional chord. He speaks of gardens like a great novel: There is a beginning (lust, a new project), middle (tension or the design process) and end (bestowing the garden back unto its owner). And, in any great work of literature, rich characters play a central role. “I’m always designing with somebody in mind.” Often it is his soulful grandmother who taught him how to care for vegetables in his sun-drenched hometown of Siena. For other projects, the lives of his clients are woven into the fabric of his design. Sometimes, Giubbilei is searching for a deeper understanding of himself.

In May, his energetic, curious voice will be shared with a wider audience in his newest book released by Merrell, “Luciano Giubbilei: The Art of Making Gardens.” Unlike his previous publications, the book explores process rather than just showcasing a final product. The impact of his residency at Great Dixter is strongly felt, and Giubbilei shares how his time there influenced his aesthetic and focused his attention on the ethics of making gardens. Giubbilei speaks from a deeply personal place. He shares how light folding into leaves can spark ideas, the emotional charge of smells, how to locate the heart of a tree. The takeaway: Slow down and feel something.

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In 2014, Giubbilei and sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard collaborated on the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Photo by Andrew Montgomery

The book’s thoughtful photographs—by the likes of Andrew Montgomery, Carl Bengtsson, Allan Pollok-Morris and Steven Wooster—complement Giubbilei’s text as he takes us through the process of turning inspiration into plans and, ultimately, into a garden. He grounds a more sensory and philosophical conversation in his most recent gardens: London’s Rosewood hotel and the Venice Biennale, among others. His designs are slow-cooked in local flavor. We learn that unlike many designers, he doesn’t sequester himself in his London-based studio to develop a concept.

“I visit the site and see a different world, a different lifestyle. I feel the atmosphere, the ocean, I observe how the sunlight falls on the grasses. And then I take all the photos and information and fly back to London to draw? From my perspective that’s impossible.”

Giubbilei insists one becomes a totally different person from Sagaponack to London to Tuscany, both mentally and physically. He approaches his gardens like a sculptor and is present for much of the process, often spending up to three weeks on location, which includes drawing and researching plants. In an age that rarely allows for such a deep meditation, Giubbilei’s gardens have a different resonance.

As our interview winds down, Giubbilei poses a final question with a haunting sincerity: “If a creation doesn’t have ethics, hasn’t got meaning or doesn’t touch your sensitivities, what is the point?” His question is a valid one, and we should take our time to answer it.

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