It was nineteen years ago tonight since Rob and I were hosting an opening party for Deborah Silver and Company’s new venture-Detroit Garden Works. My landscape design/build firm, Deborah Silver and Company, was founded in 1986- 10 years before this special moment. Though the vast majority of my landscape design works since 1986 revolved around the sculpture of the ground and the horticulture involved in designing landscapes and gardens, I felt like a certain element was missing. An interest in art and sculpture meant I had an interest in ornament in the garden. What do I mean by ornament for the garden? Any object which represents an important memory, a point of view about what is beautiful or emotionally important, which can imbue a landscape, or a portion a landscape with atmosphere. A landscape with atmosphere is all I would ever hope to create. Though I was keen to include this layer in my landscape design, precious little was available.
Rob joined the landscape company in 1992, after completing his degree in landscape architecture at Michigan State University. It became clear early on that his landscape design work was austere, low key, and unpretentious. Years later, he knows how to mix up and make believable a certain deliberately casual and subtle look better than anyone else I have ever known. He is a champion of a sparse look that always hovers just over and on the right side of weedy. That early mix of modernism and mess confounded me, and drove me crazy. No design project of his ever came to a definitive close. Clients wanting direction that had parameters in mind got his tinkering with no boundaries. How did we resolve those early years, co-designing ? He had a romance going on with the garden like no other person I had ever met. I reserved judgment. This is one of the better decisions I have ever made. I truly admired his point of view. That commitment took me a long way. The idea that we would open a shop devoted to fine quality ornament for the garden was an idea we shared.
In the fall of 1992, Rob had a winter trip planned to Czechoslovakia to ski. I financed a side trip, a very casual and weedy trip, to scout European ornament for the garden. I should say that I am an advocate of art in the garden, and I was trying to push that idea along. And that my definition of art in the garden is very broad. Skillfully placed garden ornament can imbue, even organize a landscape with meaning. An antique garden ornament saturates the immediate environment with a sense of another time and place – history. Vintage farm troughs recall that time when agriculture was so much a part of life. Vintage ornament of an agricultural history satisfies that longing for connection. Contemporary sculpture in the garden can evoke an appreciation of form, mass, and texture in a very direct and abstracted way. I wanted the perfect bench, the most striking container, and topiary forms that would work while they were being beautiful-for my landscapes. I knew that Rob would take this on. Now, Rob buys for Detroit Garden Works. He attends the flea markets, fairs and factories. He has relationships with garden antique dealers, both in the US and abroad. He makes it a point to meet the people who make things for gardens. He gives them the time and space to speak to their craft. What eventually makes its way to Detroit Garden Works in the spring of each year is a very carefully but subtly curated collection that is painted with a very broad and soft brush.
A few clients from the first supported my interest in beautiful ornament for the garden. One client bought a pair of hand made Italian terra cotta pots from Mital for his front porch. They came from Italy on a pallet, and got delivered to a commercial address down the road. Another bought a collection of hand made French glazed pots-on my say so. That faith was all about a serious and mutual romance for the landscape.
This past September, Rob made his 22nd trip to Europe on my watch- to shop for the Detroit Garden Works 2015 collection. In that smallest of European countries, England, he managed to put 4000 miles in just about 30 days on his rental car. He showed up for one antique show after another. He shopped antique dealers specializing in vintage and antique ornament for the garden. He visited small artisanal companies manufacturing this or that for the garden. He haunted flea markets. His 2015 collection for Detroit Garden Works is broad and deep. He can be moved-by the old, the vintage, and the new. He can also be moved on a lark -these ornaments come with humor and charm shot through them.
His shopping is always about the stories of the people. The antiques dealers with a long history of collecting. The people whose pottery who is still making pots going on two hundred years later. The artisan who is creating their own special brand of ornament. The dealer who has taken the time to make very fine quality reproductions of classic garden ornament. The armillary maker whose attention to the science, physics, and fabrication warrants a closer look. I greatly admire how he takes the buying to heart. His big heart has made Detroit Garden Works a destination for gardeners of every persuasion.
Detroit Garden Works is in the business of offering beautiful ornament for the garden. It could be antique. It could be vintage, and funky vintage. It could be of a French, English, or American persuasion. It could be of English origin, through and through. It could be new, with a particular point of view. It could be contemporary. It could be arts and crafts inspired, or mid century modern. It could be Belgian in origin-old, vintage, and new. It could be none of the above, just waiting for a particular gardening client to be interested in a particular piece.
Our opening party for Detroit Garden Works 19 years ago was largely attended by our landscape clients, and friends. Our 10,000 square foot building that night dwarfed what ornament we had available that first night. We had a big idea. And not so much in way of delivery. This was and is how it should be. It takes years to bring an idea to fruition. 19 years ago the two of us had an idea. The intervening 19 years have meant lots of changes. Today I am looking at this building and what it holds, and thinking a romance for the garden has taken us a very long way, in a lot of different directions.
Our two containers from England have been very slow to get on the rail from the port in Virginia to us. But I suspect by the time the spring really comes, we will be ready. If your relationship with your garden is a long standing romance, we welcome that. We would invite you to review our spring 2015 collection.
Any pot, urn, bench, trellis, or sculpture that you place in your garden has a narrative attached. Detroit Garden Works was predicated on this idea. This post is a weedy narrative about our history. Thank you to each and every one you who have shopped at Detroit Garden Works over the past 19 years. Many thanks. Deborah