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This year, sponsors will spend roughly £7m on constructing the 16 large show gardens at Chelsea. The cost perhaps doubles when you take into account the marketing, staffing costs and entertainment during the five-day show. As for the gardens themselves, are they better or worse for all the money lavished on this pop-up show, constructed in 19 days and returned to turf in only five?
In the past, the Rock Bank ruled supreme. Exhibits were mostly self-funded displays of new exotics and hybrids in a garden setting, homage to the wonders of the plant world.
During the early 1990s the RHS encouraged these exhibitors to focus on garden design ideas rather than horticultural content exclusively. This was a revolution. I recall with admiration Julie Toll’s winning Seaside Garden in 1993 and Christopher Bradley-Hole’s Latin Garden of 1997.
These were serious design statements that challenged historicist garden design of the 1980s and 1990s.
We have seen the extraordinary gardens designed by Diarmuid Gavin, with innovative and clever elements that added humour and unpredictability to the mix. The extensive television coverage Chelsea has gained over the past two decades, now enjoying a worldwide audience of about 120m people, has afforded almost rock-star status to certain designers, so it is no surprise their gardens attract support from City firms, with headline sponsors such as M&G Investments and Merrill Lynch.
The large budgets allocated by sponsors have provided design opportunities. In recent years, these have translated into vivid demonstrations of power and wealth, mostly in the form of formal gardens.
Clipped hedges, pleached trees, straight lines and geometric layouts illustrate control over both nature and the environment, an echo of the French formal gardens of the 17th century. The implicit message is that the sponsor is rich, powerful and in control.
To my mind, gardens should engage us in what it is to be human, creating an emotive response to nature, rather than being materialistic expressions of status and power.
Perhaps this too goes some way to explaining why we see so few women designers represented on Main Avenue as these testosterone-fuelled displays of control and power reflect broadly male characteristics.
Sexism in the City is still a major issue and I believe we are seeing this perpetuated at Chelsea.
The recent recession, however, seems to have brought about a change in how we see such displays of wealth, altering our perception and definition of it.
In the course of my everyday work, I see a change in attitudes towards the expression of status, especially among the wealthy and powerful clients.
Gone is the corporate obsession with absolute control. Instead there is a focus on an earthier, family orientated way of life where relaxation and life balance is important — and relevant to an individual’s success.
I am frequently amazed by how my busy City clients are fully involved and immersed in the business of making their garden, from the function and aesthetic of the design to the selection of materials and plants.
Their gardens are a personal retreat, a place to share with family and friends, a refuge where the corporate world and materialistic ostentation give way to a more humanist style, a loose representation of both Greek and Latin interpretations — human benevolence without distinction, science above dogma and scholarship.
There is a move towards educated and intelligent design that challenges and stretches both the designer and the client.
Designs that respect the environment, use materials in a responsible manner, are innovative in approach and organic in style, responding to the more female attributes of nurture and emotive response will lead to the involvement of more female designers at Chelsea. Full marks this year go to headline sponsor M&G, which has commissioned Jo Thompson to design the company’s garden.
As a company that thrives on its traditional ethos, M&G has, throughout its support of Chelsea, made efforts to shake off the formal, power-evoking garden design but with mixed results: a chaotic mix of traditional and contemporary designs. However, at least it has challenged convention and encouraged change.
And change is afoot this year, with relatively few formal geometric layouts and a shift towards gardens that aim to engage, educate and surprise, or even shock and amuse, but engaging our minds as opposed to showing off about the status of the sponsor and designer.
Kamelia Bin Zaal’s garden at Chelsea this year illustrates the culture of Islam, the Sentebale charity’s garden educates us about vulnerable children in Lesotho, while The Hidden Beauty of Kranji brings to life the garden city of Singapore. I doubt these gardens will prove to be design icons and all have undeniably strong marketing objectives, but the best examples remain iconic and thought-provoking.
They signify a change in direction and represent a broad cultural perspective on our landscape, a starting point that encourages us to engage with our terrain in all of its diversity.
I have exhibited at Chelsea seven times and won Best in Show there in 2007 for my 600 Days Garden, which explored the idea of a terrestrial space garden on Mars. Scientifically led and with little consideration of earthly materialism, it both shocked and inspired in equal measure.
Design is all about adventure, investigating humanity, and evaluation and critique in seeking development and change — and my sponsor was willing to come with me on this journey.
Working at Chelsea is an opportunity to engage with the broader public, to highlight work that goes beyond the normal client brief, a world of artistic expression that elevates garden design to a symbiosis between art and science.
As designers, we should question our clients’ expected aesthetic, work closely with them, educate and guide them to create an exciting, intelligent, unexpected and thoughtful interpretation of their company ethos.
We cannot and should not ignore the aims of our sponsors, or necessarily reject their deep-pocketed offers, but we should also understand the difference between the marketing investment that Chelsea offers them and the opportunity that it affords designers to invest in ethical, thought-provoking design with the ability to influence and inspire a generation.
Sarah Eberle is a designer and has won eight gold medals and a Best in Show title at Chelsea
Photographs: Alex Lentati/Evening Standard/Rex; Marcus Harpur/GAP Photos; David Parker/Associated Newspapers