How does a promising Italian banking career come to an early end? It begins with a love of cooking learned from a beloved grandmother. Then a vegetable patch in a Tuscan garden. Next, the positioning of a table under a fig tree; carefully placed to make the most of the views. A lawn is laid. Flowers grow in pots. There are many words of appreciation from dinner guests. And, finally, the realisation that, although banking is an easy path, it isn’t the right one.
So began the journey of Luciano Giubbilei from his native Italy, via training in England, to becoming one of the world’s foremost garden designers. He was precocious, designing a large garden in The Boltons, Chelsea at the age of just 26. It was a masterpiece in its use of space, with expansive lawns, clipped hedges, an avenue of pleached hornbeam and interplay of light and shade. It remains one of the iconic gardens of the late ’90s, bringing the formality and poetry of Italian Renaissance gardens to a modern urban setting.
From this moment on, Giubbilei was in great demand, especially in London’s priciest suburbs. Increasingly Giubbilei worked with artists and craftspeople, both installing sculpture in his gardens and collaborating in the design of garden furniture. Giubbilei talks about the joy of striking up close friendships with collaborators and seeing the world differently because of them.
Compared to many of his contemporaries, he came late to the Chelsea Flower Show. He won a gold medal at his first two attempts, in 2009 and 2011. The latter included a collaboration with the famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to produce a floating bamboo pergola that echoes the shape of a flower head. There were sculptures by Peter Randall-Page, a rill reminiscent of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Indeed flowers, so typically absent from his garden projects, featured heavily.
But even as he was receiving his second gold medal, Giubbilei was beset by doubt. The 2011 garden was a showcase of collaboration and many influences. It offered many possible new artistic directions for Giubbilei. Perhaps too many. He questions his use of flowers, saying that they were there to prove a point and ‘not real’. ‘I was struggling to find meaning in what I was doing,’ he recalls.
In hindsight, this moment was the start of a new direction for Giubbilei. One that saw him become an apprentice gardener, a return to Chelsea to win best in show and onwards to a new phase in his career. Giubbilei has written about this journey in a new book The Art of Making Gardens.
We meet in his studio at the edge of Battersea Park. It’s a bright, lofty space where Giubbilei works with his small team and jazz plays quietly. Giubbilei is a youthful mid-forties, with a lilting Italian accent. Despite being on a two-day stopover in England before returning to overseas projects, he is happy to talk expansively about his life and work.
The book is introduced by the designer Paul Smith, who Giubbilei befriended in the summer of 2011. The Italian was still a little lost after Chelsea, questioning where to go next in his career. After a series of conversations, Smith suggested a path for him to take. It was time for Giiubbilei to truly learn about flowers.
By way of a mutual friend, this most celebrated of garden designers began an apprenticeship at Great Dixter in East Sussex. As with all of Giubbilei’s collaborations, he was in the best company. Great Dixter, under head gardener Fergus Garrett, is world famous for its planting. Garrett gave him a non-descript plot of earth, a young gardener to work with and told him to get cracking. ‘I thought he didn’t have time for me. I took it a bit personally,’ says Giubbilei, smiling.
For years, flowers had barely featured in Giubbilei’s designs. He says that his friend, the garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith, would tease him, asking him ‘what flower is this? And this?’. For a designer who has always strived for perfection, flowers represented a problem. They are fleeting, unreliable – an endlessly difficult language to learn. He often references a book of black and white photographs of the gardens of Villa Gamberaia, where he briefly worked before leaving for England. These images are of timeless clipped formality, cast in light and shade. For years they influenced Giubbilei’s work.
It was this haunting world that he began to step away from as he set himself to the task of gardening with flowers. ‘Nothing squares up,’ he writes in his book, ‘but there is a relationship with the earth.’This close schooling in nature had a great impact on Giubbilei. He talks about a newfound patience and an acceptance of change. The fortnightly car trip from London to East Sussex gave him a chance to think about work and life, he says. He would set out at dawn, watching fields change in the seasons, from flower to mist, to frost. The garden team at Great Dixter became close friends.
Giubbilei’s new understanding of flowers was revealed in his 2014 Chelsea Flower Show entry. It featured two large meadow-like beds, where the white and cream of lupins, foxgloves and verbascums sing above greens of euphorbia. Around these beds are classic Giubbilei elements: water, trees, shadow and sculpture. This garden, which won best in show, is on the front cover of his new book. It represents, Giubbilei says, the new way he thinks about making gardens.
Time is on his mind. He won’t return to Chelsea, he says. He talks of an ambition to make five more significant gardens in his life, and with up to three year’s work per garden, he will choose carefully. Nature pulls at him, just as it did when he was a trainee banker in Tuscany, but more profoundly now. He is working on country house projects and a major collaboration between art and landscape in northern England.
And though he doesn’t mention it, all profits from the new book will go to supporting trainee gardeners at Great Dixter. Perhaps helping other budding garden designers to follow their hearts just as he did, 25 years ago.
Luciano Giubbilei: The Art of Making Gardens, Merrell, £45, is out now.
Sign up to our Newsletter