Patine Ancienne

Rural France is home to many artists who make garden pots.  Each one has their own style and finishes, most of which are based on designs and shapes dating back to the 18th century.  Detroit Garden Works will have a substantial and wide ranging collection of French terra cotta come spring.  This has everything to do with Rob’s willingness to travel.  It is not possible to shop these pots from a catalogue, a website, or over the phone.  You have to go.  To see them in person.  Anything you see in the shop Rob has seen in person. 

This modest showroom gives an overview of this artist’s point of view.  Much of what Rob bought here has to be custom made.  This style, in this finish, or this color.  That style in this size.  How he shops is much more rigorous than what this picture would suggest.  When a 40 foot container of terra cotta from France arrives, it will be an edited collection, with a point of view.  There will be multiples, with careful consideration to size.  There will be a small representation from certain potteries whose output is limited.   

This particular pottery features very unusual finishes on their terra cotta.  Rob hears that no outsiders are ever permitted in the studio.  This particular poterie is represented by a broker Rob met in Paris a few years ago.  She arranged for a visit and consulted with him on his order.  She will be supervising the manufacture, will inspect all of the pots prior to shipment, and will arrange for pots to be readied shipment.  Multiple orders will need to be consolidated, and packed into a container dropped at the poterie with the most substantial order.  The most important issue-the finishes.  She will look every pot over.   

Many of the poteries have an interpretive finish they call a patine ancienne.  There are many very old French terra cotta pots still in use; the climate is mild, and pots can be left outdoors all winter.  Old glazed French pots are characterized by how much of the glaze has been shed from exposure to weather.  The old pots are priced at a premium.  I have but a few truly antique French terra cotta pots.  Interpretive finishes-some are great, some are overwrought. 

Rob tells me that he has an interest in the patine ancienne.  Patina refers to a surface condition which has acquired a certain look or color or texture from age.  Antique stone urns from England may have large colonies of lichens and mosses that verify their age.  Though he has an interest in aged surfaces, he prefers some contemporary interpretations over others.     

This particular poterie features finishes that he likes.  They have a feeling of age which is subtle.  Not too hard hitting.  When I first saw these pots in his pictures, I was sure I was looking at vintage pots.   

We have bought many containers of pots from the Poterie Madeleine over the years; we have sold all but a very few.  Their high gloss glazes in jaune, (yellow), vert (green), flamme (green and brown flames), and blu lavande (this is a hard color to describe-it is blue and lavender mixed) were beautiful. They were the classic vase Anduze I always associate with French terra cotta. The ownership of the poterie has changed since we first shopped there; the pots are different-the business is different.  Madame Pellier is no longer there.  I have many good memories of dealing with her over an order.  The new pots-they are too hurriedly made, says Rob.  He tells me we need to move on-so be it. The classic vase Anduze pot pictured above-the surface is beautifully different than anything we have ever had before.  

This poterie has captured his interest.  The colors and finishes defy description.  They are not overwrought.  There is ample evidence of the human hand.  These trays-he laid them on the floor to study them.  The poterie that makes them have studied equally.   

If you are a gardener, you have a relationship with clay pots.  The simplest machine made terra cotta pot is a friendly home to a plant.  That fired earth breathes. It promotes good root growth.  It soaks up water freely; that water can evaporate just as quickly.  This tray speaks much more eloquently to the clay earth from which it was made than a machine made pot.  The decoration is simple, and strong.  I am sure when the time comes that I can pick up this tray in my hands, it will have weight, and heft which is as much physical as it is visual.  The finish is subtle and moody.  I could live with this. I might not be able to live without it. 

This interpretation of patine anciennne is beautifully rendered.  I am sure the work of it is lengthy.  Rob purchased from the poterie’s available objects.  He placed a very large special order, which we do not expect to be completed until well into November.  Every piece will be well worth the wait.  Great garden pots-Rob has made a life’s work of this.  What he has brought my way-priceless.

6:56 AM

Rob’s plane headed for Paris took off from Detroit at 3:30 yesterday.  At 6:56 am our time, he was about to land in the south of France. This picture-via his iPhone. This view of the coastline-magnifique.  I am sure he has plans for the rest of the day that do not include sleep.  Shopping like this is not for the faint of heart.  His very first buying trip to France in 1993 he managed without a phone, or any help from a computer or a Garmin.  I think he was in France for 3 days before he found a phone he could use to call me.  The connection was so poor all I got from the conversation was that he was in France, and ok. 

The trip was loosely planned around what I read in books, and what I could glean from French design magazines.  There was so little information readily available pertaining to European sources of ornament for the garden, that these early trips were as much about exploration as they were about buying.  He had dinner with what he could find at a gas station, and hoped to find lodging when it got dark.  In his 3 weeks overseas, I may have talked to him two or three times.  I knew next to nothing about what he bought, until the container was delivered, and opened.  That first collection-stunning.

There would be pictures, once he got home, and his 35mm film could be developed.  Many of them related to his experience and exploration of the French landscape.  He travelled extensively, absorbing as much as he could of what he saw.  Garden ornament represents the culture, environment and landscape from which it comes.   

There are other stories from those early trips.  It was a month later that he told me he was lost in the Swiss Alps in the middle of the night, trying to drive from Italy to France.  There were almost no road signs, and the major road had a large tunnel that was permanently closed;  it had collapsed.  This he did not discover until he was 100 feet from the tunnel entrance.  He saw no one else travelling that night; somehow he managed to get to France. Like I said, he is an explorer of a very special sort.

As poor as our clues were, Rob took the situation in hand once he was there.  There were poteries producing garden pots the likes of which I had never seen, save in Cote Sud, the French magazine.  Once there were names and places put to the few pictures we had seen, he was ready to shop.  That he spoke not one word of French, he did fine.  Rob has a way of making friends first, and doing business later. 

Though the landscape and culture of France is very different than ours, the history of their gardens is very much part of the language of ours. Gardeners value that history.  A garden table of age and presence such as this one can organize an entire garden. If you are an afficianado of classical landscape, a table such as this would enchant your eye.   

There are many poteries in the south of France, each producing its pots with native clay, and distinctively regional designs.  Many of the poteries have been producing pots for hundreds of years.  Ancient gardens were very much about utility.  Olive trees and citrus were grown in pots, not to mention  herbs.  Olive jars were just that; containers for olive oil.  But the French have a way of endowing the every day business of living with great beauty and style.   

At this end of this first trip to France, Rob did manage to reach me by phone.  He was interested in a sculpture which had been exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1883.  The cast iron sculpture came with a stone pedestal that had been hand carved especially for the sculpture.  It was breathtaking in more than one way.  The purchase of this sculpture would take more than half of our entire budget.  When he told me that, I hung up on him.  Three days later he called back, did I wish to speak to the dealer about the provenance of the piece?  Needless to say, he persuaded me to buy the sculpture.  It took 3 years to find a buyer, but the three years it sat just inside the front door of the shop said everything about our point of view about the landscape.  It was a defining purchase in a lot of ways.  

Not everything he bought would be that costly, but shopping overseas, and shipping from Europe is complicated and expensive.  These French pots are handmade, not made by machine.  They had to be crated prior to shipping.  That became part of the price.  Lots of things enable Rob to shop more efficiently now.  Making beautiful things available to keen gardeners is a passion of Rob’s; visiting the shop makes that clear.  

I have no idea what Rob will speak for; this is what he does, and he does a beautiful job it. I have nothing to add to this, except my interest and support. I do not experience the shop how my clients do; I come here every day, and have done so for 15 years. I have worked with him for almost 20 years now.  But when he leaves on a European shopping trip, I look at what is already here with fresh appreciation, and great anticipation for what he will bring to the shop next.

Bon Voyage, Monsieur Rob

Rob flies to Paris today on the first leg of a three week shopping trip for Detroit Garden Works.  Having not shopped in France for a few years, he is very keen to make the trip; he has been planning it for weeks.  Once he made a list of the places he wished to visit,  Julie and Jenny pitched in, mapping and documenting his route in minute detail.  Incredibly minute detail, that is.  As detailed as his itinerary has been documented on paper, it will be but a broad guideline.  He will make his own way.  

Travelling overseas is enough to tax the patience of the most patient of people.  The mechanics of shopping overseas has become exasperatingly complicated.  Rob lets none of this get in his way.  He has a great passion for beautiful ornament for the garden-no matter the period or style.  He may be rooted in the American midwest, but he has an unerring gift and instinct for beauty wherever he may find it.  Whatever it takes to get his gift to our doorstep-we will oblige.  The shop is what it is, in large part due to Rob.

Detroit Garden Works has always had a strong representation in antique, vintage, and contemporary objects for gardens from a number of countries; this is by choice.  8 years ago he spent an entire trip shopping in Belgium, on the strength of his idea that their landscape and climate was very similar to ours.  He spent an equal amount of time talking to clients about that point of view.  He spent even more time educating me.  Years later,  no one needs educating.  Belgian design is influential in this country, and popularly respected in a number of ways.  He is a buyer with an eye that is consistently ahead of his time.  We will see what this trip to France brings. 

Western European gardens were incredibly influential in the design of American gardens.  He has an interest in representing that history.  He also has an interest in distinctly American gardens-those landscaped places that draw and build on that history, and go on to represent an entirely unique and singular point of view.  He may pass by untold numbers of objects before he commits.  The containers that will come from France later this year as a result of this trip will speak to his greatly edited committment. 

I have no worries whatsoever about him travelling overseas for weeks.  He has made many friends abroad, in the past fifteen years.  His friendships in Europe have endured, and helped him make other friends.  This pottery will custom make pots for him.  That broker will engineer a container from several places.  A old European dealer will send him to something somewhere off the map.  He will make new friends, find new places.  His hotel in Montmartre in Paris-an arrangement spanning fifteen years. He is in good hands, notwithstanding his own good hands.

The spring of 2012 at Detroit Garden Works will have a French flavor.  That buying trip to France will be integrated into all the other voices we hear.  My most favorite moment of the Detroit Garden Works year-breaking open the locks on our containers.  Who knows what will be.  That unknown collection yet to come from Rob-I am quite certain it will challenge and enchant me. 

Bon Voyage, Monsieur Rob.

The Garden Cruise

I will admit to being a little tired today-the garden tour is an all day affair.  It happened to be conducted in 93 degree heat-but I am happy to say we had a great turnout.  The gardens to the last looked fresh and well tended.  The annual plants are thriving on our heat.  I did go through 3 cases of water at my garden-most people come to my place in the afternoon.  But I had a little treat waiting for the hot and the tired who came after 2.

 My fountain is my most favorite feature in my landscape.  It is a pleasure to watch, and to hear.  But it turned out to be quite the cooler for my overheated guests.  I invited everyone to take off their shoes, and get in.  Almost everyone took me up on the invitation.   

Six of the seven gardens on tour featured water in some form or another.  A pair of beautiful swimming pools-one from the late 1920’s, and one from the 1970’s-each made a strong visual statement.   I myself would not want one.I have a scaled down, hybrid version of a swimming pool.  My fountain is filtered and cleaned with same equipment that cleans a pool or spa.  This means my fountain does double duty-when I have a need, I get in it, and cool off.  This fountain could be home to a hot gardener, but yesterday it was home to a school of goldfish and some water cabbage.    

Not everyone has space for a vegetable garden that consumes acreage.  This small garden has a trio of tomatoes, underplanted with various herbs.  What is better in late summer than homegrown tomatoes?  This very small garden made a big nod to the idea of good food from the garden.

This very contemporary home I landscapes probably 16 years ago.  The columnar beech are maintained at a level beyond my wildest dreams.  It is an intellectually ad toughly minimal landscape.  I was happy to hear the level of discussion that I did.

When someone calls me to design a Japanese garden for them, I direct them elsewhere.  I am a westerner by heritage, culture and experience.  Under no circumstances could I design a Japanese garden-I am woefully inadequate.  In this case, I did reluctantly design and plant a contemplative garden in that Eastern style.  There was much talk on the tour about this small space-unexpected, it was.  No kidding-it is the only landscape space I have ever done like this.

One of the Dearborn landscapes is freshly done-it has been in ground but 11 months.  The son of one of my oldest and most treasured clients got the bug for gardening from his Mom.  Many thanks, CB.  This house new to he and his family has been completely renovated.  A pergola with a solid roof is slated to go over his western facing rear terrace any day now.  This formal landscape with a decidedly modern twist-fresh and striking.

Perennial gardens,planted largely with white, purple and lavender hardy plants, got some help this first season from some verbena bonariensis. 

A Normandy style tudor on acres of land belongs to oted interior designer Linda Powers.  I had nothing to do with this old and established landscape.  I came late to the landcape conversation; I consult with her about her container plantings, and plant them.  Her garden was the subject of much conversation.  Her old Stewartia in full bloom-on every Iphone in the group.


It was a very hot day, yes.  But all manner of keen gardeners came out, and toured.  The reception afterwards-I had such a good time. At 5pm, Buck promised he would water the pots, so I could go that afterglow party.    I live a charmed life.