We often marvel at the beauty of natural settings such as parks and gardens. So why is it that we place more emphasis on the design of our home interiors than on our gardens? Founders and namesakes of Wilson McWilliam, Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam, have a tendency to look askance on the idea of gardens coming second to interiors. After all, you can’t deem a house beautiful when one aspect of it looks like an afterthought.
Specialising in bespoke landscapes and gardens, Wilson McWilliam is an award-winning design firm that has spent years perfecting the art of creating dream English gardens. Early this year, the company created the Cloudy Bay garden at the Chelsea Flower Show and also showcased a structural 9m garden at the Singapore Garden Festival that won a gold medal.
Here we speak with the design duo on the future of landscape and garden design.
Hilarion Lim: How do you get started on a project?
Andrew Wilson: We kind of throw concepts around and sometimes they get thrown out. Gavin will give me an idea and I will give him another, and we try to refine the concept and then start to draw. Sometimes, it will all spin together. Sometimes, it won’t
Gavin McWilliam: It’s a distillation process. We’ll sit there with sketchbooks and we’ll discuss the space. What do we like about it? What can we do here that we can’t in another area? Does this place offer us the opportunity to explore? What can we engage with here? Then we talk about concepts and develop them. That leads to a much more creative perspective.
What do you like about doing garden shows? Do you get more free rein?
Wilson: Not exactly. You still have to worry about pleasing the clients. I guess here [at the Singapore Garden Festival], it is slightly different — there isn’t that “you must do this”. You can be a little freer. But at the Chelsea Flower Show, for Cloudy Bay, they needed it to serve a purpose. It is different from doing private gardens. They are not spaces that people live in and they don’t have a long shelf life; but the plus point is you can explore different materials that you wouldn’t normally use.
McWilliam: We create things to share with people. And that’s the thing the show allows us to do. With our very high-end residential clients, only a handful of people see those gardens, which is fine. The show allows for maybe 150,000 people to see it and they get photographed and the garden lives on. You are sharing your art with a lot more people. Garden shows also allow us to showcase something different. For example, if we had a client and we tried to draw them a plan, it is unlikely they’ll buy it based on the description. But if you show them what has been done in a garden show, they’ll go: “Hmmm. I like it.” So by doing this, they can visualise it and go: “Okay, I like that or I am excited by this.” It’s a way of showing them what could be done.
Wilson: Garden shows are like fashion shows in a way.
does this translate into business? Do people look at your work here and hire
you based on that?
Wilson: It doesn’t happen immediately. In two or three years’ time, we’d get someone who’d come to us and say: “We saw you at Chelsea.” And from there we will get some work. It’s all still there in the background — the photographs of our gardens in the show help the gardens themselves live on.
are some of the challenges you face as designers?
McWilliam: People not engaging with the environment around them often ask us to do something that’s going to be impossible. They don’t see the problems of that space. Someone might have bought a house on a hill, then want it to be flat. Well, maybe don’t buy a house on a hill. Buy one on a flat piece of land — then we’ll give you what you want.
Have you ever turned away clients such as these?
McWilliam: We’ve come close, but we’re gently persuasive.
Wilson: We try to move things towards what we know will work. Sometimes the client wants things that just will not work or aren’t sustainable and so on.
McWilliam: On one particular project at Chelsea, the client said they didn’t like grass. Andrew agreed to it then later put a load of grass in. The client said a few days later that he was so glad we ignored his request, because it looked good.
Wilson: What often happens is that they will see, for example, grass used in another setting and it didn’t work there. So they have these preconceived notions of how it will or will not work.
McWilliam: There was another client that said she was okay with everything but she hated yellow. We decided to put yellow in the garden, but we explained why we used yellow there and how the yellow worked with the other colours to create a transition. And she really got it. The client absolutely loved it. If we had not taken her through the process, she would probably have taken those plants back out.
you have any pet peeves when it comes to design?
McWilliam: Mediocrity is one. Can’t stand that [laughs].
Wilson: I think it would be nice if people thought more about the spaces and quality of gardens.
McWilliam: It is dramatically disvalued — people are not putting enough value on landscaping. We live in this world, in an environment, and not just inside a building. And to not put a value on that, to spend all your money inside and not outside, it just doesn’t make sense to us.