Me and my constant gardener
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest House & Home news every morning.
Sartorially, Ulla Johnson and Miranda Brooks are chalk and cheese. While fashion designer Johnson is best known for her romantically ruffled floral dresses, landscape architect Brooks is more slacks and shirts. “My life tends to be boots and mud,” concedes Hertfordshire-raised Brooks, who worked under Italian-born British horticulturist Arabella Lennox-Boyd while studying and now splits her time between Brooklyn and Gloucestershire – homes she shares with her husband, the architect Bastien Halard (nephew of renowned photographer François Halard). To date, her romantic and naturalistic style of gardening has been called upon by a roster of high-profile clients, from Ronald Perelman and Anna Wintour to Johnson. “It’s always such a treat to have a meeting with Ulla,” adds Brooks, “because she’s always amazingly dressed, like an exotic flower.”
Personal style aside, Johnson and Brooks share much common ground and are currently working on their fourth garden project together. “I love that there’s a formal rigour to Miranda’s aesthetic but that it’s also quite undone, with a more wild and free way of planting,” says Johnson of their shared design ethos. Her eponymous fashion label, launched in 1998, is similarly defined by structured silhouettes, softened by a bohemian sensibility. “I also strive to create that tension in everything I do: it’s very thoroughly thought through but it also has a sense of ease, something wild within it.”
Johnson is the daughter of two archaeologists, and her love of gardening stretches back to her childhood. “My mother had an incredibly green thumb. I grew up in a small apartment on the Upper East Side but our fire escape was like a jungle,” she recalls. “I’ve always had a desire to grow things. I remember being nine months pregnant and planting bulbs in the little tree pit in the street outside our home. And I love arranging flowers, playing with colour palettes, finding unexpected juxtapositions in nature. The colour and shape of flowers inform both the silhouettes and the palettes and prints for every season that we put together.” For spring/summer 2022 (a collection first shown at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden), a print of trailing dahlias, daffodils and water lilies appears in several colourways across tiered skirts and dresses (including the one Johnson is pictured wearing here).
The two creatives met in 2018. “I cold-called Miranda,” Johnson says. “My husband Zach and I had just acquired a brownstone in Brooklyn and I knew immediately I wanted to work with her on the garden. I just felt like Miranda would really understand my point of view. She was also based in Brooklyn so she understood the space, and she has a family,” says Johnson, who has three children (Soren, 16, Asher, 12, and Agnes, nine), while Brooks has two daughters (Poppy, 15, and Violette Grey, 13). “I didn’t know if she’d go for it. She does a lot of grand-scale projects and it wasn’t like we had incredible rolling fields to work with – it’s essentially a very humble plot in the middle of a Brooklyn block.”
But both the space and Johnson charmed Brooks. “It’s always really exciting to work with a designer – someone who thinks in similar ways. For our first meeting, I’d created a few different designs,” she says. “Ulla had originally said that it must have grass for the children, but then she asked, ‘What would you do?’ And I remember just taking all the models apart and saying, ‘Actually, I’d have no grass. I’d just have a path. And all plants.’ And we made a plan by playing with the model.”
The result is two lush swaths of planting – a pleasing tangle of bushy, variegated perennials such as Eupatorium fortunei “Pink Elegance” and Sanguisorba menziesii “Dali Marble”, with blousy “Old Blush” roses and towering, feathery fronds of bronze fennel. “Ulla’s a plant lover,” says Brooks. “She’s really into the forms and shapes and the colour and character of plants.” This comes through in her fashion collections as prints of azaleas or poppies. Back at her home, the flower beds are interwoven with blooms of Japanese anemones and Shirley poppies. Clematis and wisteria climb awall on one side of the space and along woven hazelwood panels on the other, while two existing hornbeam trees add to the secret-garden feel, and froths of pretty and fragrant Calamintha “White Cloud” spill onto the path that connects two patio areas front and back.
“For the paving, we looked at stitches and how pieces of fabric are brought together,” says Brooks of the textured patchwork of Connecticut fieldstone slabs and Danish handmade brick. “But more than Ulla’s actual dresses, I was inspired by her hands. She’s got such beautiful hands, and is always wearing an incredible assortment of rings – a combination of treasures that I had in mind a lot.”
For both women, the design process is always hands‑on. “The movement in design is pushing towards everything being modelled in 3D,” says Johnson, whose collections all begin as pencil sketches before being draped and fitted by hand. “Miranda works in a similar way,” notes Johnson. “She still paints the garden first, then she made this very charming model with fluff and wire.” Brooks also remains actively involved with the planting and says a highlight of the Brooklyn project was the day she spent sowing seeds with Johnson’s daughter.
Having established a visual language, the two women have worked on two more projects on Long Island: a planting scheme to front Johnson’s store in leafy Amagansett, with its picturesque white clapboard façade, and the garden of her home in Montauk. “The garden is structured around the house, then dissolves into meadow and Montauk native shrubs,” says Brooks. It’s a series of “little worlds”, including a “small still-life of a garden planted in a sandy hollow in front of the house”, which features a Yoshino cherry tree, German irises and Rosa rugosa.
“We’ve been working on the garden in Montauk for three years – it’s a work in progress,” says Johnson. “I’ve learnt that it takes time for gardens to come into their own. It’s been an amazing learning curve. I didn’t even know that plants move around underground until they find the place that suits them. Something very emotional, very romantic happens as the garden finds itself.”
Next, Johnson and Brooks will bring their shared sensibility to Los Angeles, where Johnson plans to open her third US store in West Hollywood this summer. “I want it to be very transportive,” says Johnson. “LA has the most incredible light, yet there’s so little plant life in the retail landscape there – people only ever talk about parking!” Thus, what was “just a series of walls” will become a courtyard garden, and there will be planting at the front of the store too. “It feels like it will become a real meeting spot,” says Brooks.
“At this point, working with Ulla feels so fluid,” she continues. “I feel like I totally understand her world. I’ve seen a lot of her shows. And, obviously, I get to wear some beautiful clothes.” Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not the dresses that get the most wear but something more practical. “I have the most unbelievable jean jumpsuit. It’s probably my all-time favourite outfit.”