Beauty in the Bloom: An Interview with Design Tastemaker Carolyne Roehm
For a number of people in the world of gardening, fashion, and design, Carolyne Roehm is a venerable icon. As an alum of Oscar de la Renta and a fashion designer by her own name, Roehm has garnered well-earned praise for her ability to translate color and form into aesthetics that are impressive to modern and traditional gardeners alike. As a tastemaker known for her elegant style and keen eye for beauty, Roehm continues to delight us with everything from beautiful flower arrangements to expertly-paired decor. Her new book, At Home in the Garden, showcases Roehm’s latest work and her acute visual interpretations of gardening, outdoor design elements, and more.
Below, Garden Collage speaks with the designer about how fashion influences her gardening, the beautiful redesign of her Connecticut home, and the natural elements that continue to inspire her (literal) work in the field.
GC: What was your first introduction to gardening?
CR: My grandparents had a farm in Missouri and my grandmother was a gardener. She was a big influence, and I spent a lot of weekends on their farm, so that was really my first exposure to gardening. My grandmother had strawberry patches, she had a vegetable garden, she had a flower garden, and she grew flowers, so while it was not an elegant herbaceous border or anything, it nonetheless was what fueled my love of gardening.
GC: Flowers are a symbol of beauty and inspiration, so I’m curious: As you grew up and went into the fashion world with Oscar De La Renta, did gardening offer a source of inspiration?
CR: Oh yes, I always managed to have one little flower or two by my bedside because for me it represented my little connection with nature. In my 20’s, I started traveling to Europe both for work and for pleasure, and I started discovering some of the great gardens of the world.
“When I look at designing a garden, I do so as if I’m designing a collection of clothes: You build a story, you have a theme, and the rose garden is one theme, while the tulips and the daffodils are another.”
So, by the time I was 30, I said, “I’ve got to rent a little place in the country” because I missed the soil– living in New York City, you don’t get a lot of that. We ended up buying a house in Connecticut, and that was when my real gardening started. When we bought Weatherstone, I just started going from there. So there was that 10 year gap, with University and the time when I was really focusing on my career, but now that I finally had a plot of land to play with and to cultivate– with all the ups and downs that come with it– I just starting going from there, and I’ve been very much involved with gardening ever since.
GC: What initially attracted you to Weatherstone and where did you begin? It seems like a daunting prospect to start an ambitious garden from scratch.
CR: It was a daunting prospect. But because it was a beautiful October day and it was a real estate agents’ dream, I couldn’t have found a more scenic, beautiful day to find this beautiful, historic house. The people who had lived there had a little, kind of modern, garden– well, at the very least they had these big new hedges around a space and they had a little garden area. They had a very small vegetable garden, and one thing that I didn’t like about the house was the fact that you drove in and had to make a right straight up to this kind of courtyard in front of the house that was filled with gravel, with four columns defining that space. I thought “oh gosh, I have to get rid of that immediately!” because at the time I was coming from NYC and the last thing I want to do is look out of my new country house and look down at more concrete. I want to look at flowers! So the first thing I did, actually, was to rip out that area and make my first garden, which was a combination of little rose gardens and little brick paths.
“Is there a life without gardens? I don’t want to think about life without them!”
It was interesting, too, because all the things I had learned about gardening in Missouri were different in Connecticut. In Missouri I’m sure we had deer, but they weren’t coming and eating out of my yard as they were in Connecticut, so things kind of grew and evolved organically. Later, the man I married and I had the means to do something a bit grander and on a larger scale. Nothing was what it was when we got there. Now I’m at the stage in life where I want to keep cutting back, cutting back, cutting back, but sometimes that’s kind of hard to do because it’s just so much work. I’d love to make it simpler, and some day I may, but it’s almost as much work to take it away as it is to design it in the first place!
GC: One of the things that strikes the reader immediately when looking at your book is the beautiful photography.
CR: Thank you, I took most of it myself!
GC: How does your experience in the world of fashion influence the imagery that you take of your garden and the way you choose to style it for the shoot? Do you pull from your experience in the fashion world?
CR: Yes, I do– and I think it’s inevitable. When I start looking at an amazing petal of a beautiful perennial poppy in an amazing salmon color, I think of poppy, I think beautiful flower, I think taffeta. When I see a big bulb of coxcomb I immediately think velvet. It’s back and forth. I can hear myself saying “Oh my gosh, this taffeta is as beautiful as a petal on a flower”. So there’s always these references back and forth, and it’s always been that way for me.
When I think about designing a garden, I look at it as if I’m designing a collection of clothes: You build a story, you have a theme, and the rose garden is one theme, and the bulbs of tulips and the daffodils are another theme. My strong suit is color and flowers, and that’s my big love, so when I look at things I look at them like I look at the same elements you look at in clothing and textiles. Texture, weight– is it something transparent or is it something dense and opaque? The line of the plant or the shape of the flower– is it a beautiful flowing stem that could be the gesture of a model? There are so many clear references between fashion and gardening that I couldn’t separate them.
GC: Oh, yes of course. There’s an aesthetic and emotional integrity to both of them. What else inspires your garden designs?
CR: I like having beautiful books and traveling to be really inspired by the great gardens of the world. Whether it’s a Japanese moss garden, a great English herbaceous border, or a beautiful Italian garden with an extraordinary sculpture… I’ve learned so much from the world’s major gardens.
“I would say there are no bad flowers– only people who do them badly.”
But for me… I’m such a flower person, I start ordering tulips and I just can’t stop because I’m so mesmerized by them. Or peonies and roses…I mean, there isn’t a flower that I don’t love, quite frankly. I would say there are no bad flowers– only people who do them badly, or who do bad things to them, like spraying them baby blue or infusing them with dye or something.
Most inspiration is pretty direct in my case. In this book, for the first time, I said: “Where’s my garden life going to go?” I’ve planted them, I’ve designed them, I order a lot of seeds and a lot of bulbs in my life. Now, I photograph them– in my last two books I was the primary photographer– so where does it go now? So I thought, “I want to paint them”. You know how once you start photographing it sharpens your eye? Well, painting takes it even further. Your attention to the detail of things becomes that more microscopic. The people who did all those amazing botanicals early in the 16th century– the people who went out and explored horticulture because they simply wanted to document these plants that didn’t exist in their part of the world… to me, that’s fascinating.
GC: That’s so interesting. Do you have a favorite garden out of all the European greats?
CR: Oh, that’s like what’s your favorite flower and what’s your favorite color? Those are tough ones for me… I think one of the gardens in which I remember having the most wonderful sensation in– this feeling of knowing it was some place very, very special– was at Prieuré d’Orsan.
Two wonderful architects (Sonia Lesot and Patrice Taravella) restored a priory and made it into a hotel based on a medieval garden. They have two little rooms, and it was so beautiful there and the restoration was so magical that when I spent the night there I remember thinking, “oh, this is what it must be like in paradise.”
GC: Wow, I love that. You know a garden is beautiful when you have that out-of-body experience with it.
GC: What outdoor elements do you gravitate towards when you’re designing a garden? We love giving our readers an inside look at what real gardener designers are interested in.
CR: Because I love furniture as a subject of study, and because I love interiors, what’s so fascinating to me is the variety of garden furniture. When I think about looking for things in the early 80’s, I mean you really had to search to find a specific bench. You had to be getting the materials out of England– now even Crate and Barrel and all these box stores have a huge variety of outdoor furniture; it’s much more readily-available than it used to be.
“When I see a beautiful perennial poppy in an amazing salmon color, I think taffeta. When I see a big bulb of coxcomb I immediately think velvet. There are so many clear references between fashion and gardening that I couldn’t separate them.”
I think finding really interesting pieces of furniture to create the room and to create the sitting spaces or the entertaining spaces is most exciting… that’s why I titled my book “Living in the Garden”, because you actually are living in it, you’re not just passing through it. You sit down in the garden to spend time looking at it, to dine, to have a picnic…
Beautiful pieces of outdoor furniture call to us as human beings. They say, “sit down, take a moment, let’s have a party outside…” So I love furniture, but I also incorporate statues and beautiful stone urns and vases and decorative elements to perennials, and I love them– nothing is more extraordinary to me than going to an Italian garden and seeing all those amazing sculptures. Most of us can not afford that though, so it’s fortunate that now there are people now who are working with other materials.
“Beautiful pieces of outdoor furniture call to us as human beings. They say, ‘sit down, take a moment, let’s have a party outside‘…”
They’re not chiseling statuary out of stone or marble as they did in Italy, but we can get shapes and things beyond a pot. If I could afford all antique pieces that would be lovely, but there’s so much opportunity to work with stone because the color of the material is just a relief from all the debris and can serve as a beautiful counterpoint. Taking the opportunity to bring these kind of enhances is all about drawing your eye either to a view or to highlight something nearby from the plant world– to “wake up the eye” with different design elements.
GC: What do you hope that people will get out of your book?
CR: I will be very, very pleased if they just take a moment to sit down and look at something pretty. Just a quiet moment in the day…If they find it hard to do a garden or a terrace or window boxes of their own, then that would be lovely. I encourage people to do things like that. At minimum I just want someone to sit down and say, “wow, that’s pretty. I just like looking at it.”