Photographs courtesy of Robin Kramer Garden Designs
Opportunity knocked And Robin Kramer opened the door onto a garden path
“A really good garden tempts you outdoors,” says Greenwich landscape architect Robin Kramer, whose work is marked by its bold and confident strokes.
Traditional plantings are juxtaposed with modern statements, resulting in a look that is fresh and uniquely her own. But it’s the geometry of her garden designs that give them their structure and proportion, an influence she picked up from her days living in London where she visited myriad gardens.
“In Europe, the gardens are a lot about the structure,” she says. “They start with really good bones.”
That structure is what provides the calm that allows Robin to hit those high notes with her show-stopping moments.
The Rhode Island School of Design graduate’s career began as a children’s book illustrator. But when she and her husband moved to London, she decided to give that up to start a family. Unbeknownst to the new mom, her time living in Europe would be spent cultivating her second career.
It was there in London that Robin became enthralled with gardening. She visited public and private gardens in England and throughout the rest of Europe. Those memories, along with studying the way Italians terraced the land, are all experiences she would later draw on as inspirations for her designs.
When the expatriate moved back to Greenwich and built a new home, she naturally hired an Englishman – garden designer and friend Simon Johnson, who shared her aesthetic sensibility – to build her dream garden.
The Greenwich Garden Education Center included the house on its garden tour, where it gained a lot of attention. So much so that the next day Robin got a call from a woman asking her to design her garden. When she told the caller it was her designer, Johnson, whom she should hire, the women responded with, “No, I want you to do it.”
“The fascinating part in life is you never know where things are leading and if you’re open, certain times you have these moments where there’s a convergence of opportunities,” says Robin, describing her first client.
Meeting Johnson changed her life. So when the opportunity came and that door opened, she walked through it.
“For me, it’s not landscaping. It’s really about creating spaces that are outdoors, but are really driven by the emotion of connecting to the people you live with, to the people you want to have over and to your physical surroundings,” she says.
The garden is a narrative that requires a lot of structure for the plot to unfold, Robin says. She doesn’t want to show you the whole thing at once. She wants to romance you, entice you with the unexpected.
Completely ignoring what is the front yard and what is the backyard, her designs move you around the property, inviting you to experience opportunities.
“If the best sunlight is on your way to the front door,” she explains, “then I’m going to make a place where you sit in your front yard, which is sometimes difficult for Americans to understand, because they want the big lawn and the plants at the bottom of the house. They want that whole foundation planting thing. They’re apprehensive about creating spaces like that at the front of the house.”
Building a garden, in Robin’s view, is like building the interior of a home. You wouldn’t want to live in an open box, so you create spaces where you greet people when they arrive, a place where you eat and a place where you sit, with hallways that lead to other spaces. The same idea holds true for her gardens.
“Robin saw the hidden potential in our backyard and has given us a space that we never dreamed of,” says client Eileen Deschapelles, a Riverside resident. “Her incredible vision took the project to a whole new level.”
Creating fresh ideas using old materials is the designer’s signature.
“Boxwoods have been around forever,” Robin says. “I tend to use them in big masses. If it’s just a single row, I’ll stack them up to create bigger geometric forms. I use them a lot on terraces. Instead of a boiling hot, big bluestone terrace in the summer, I use big masses of boxwoods to create a sense of intimacy, enveloping you when you’re outdoors without being closed in.”
Robin’s gardens are not English gardens, though they do borrow many English elements. They tend to use a lot of very American plants such as hydrangeas, peonies and irises as well as vincas as ground cover.
“I do a lot of simple plant schemes, but in masses,” she explains. “So I’m not going to do three of these and two of those and four of them. I’m going to use 80 of these and 150 of those, because I really want those moments when something does flower…to be a big moment.”
Admittedly obsessed with the details, Robin remains focused on her individual clients just as she did with her very first client and prides herself on her personal attention to each job. One of the things that makes Robin’s work unique is that she manages every aspect of the job from conceptualizing the design to the installation. She credits her one-of-a-kind gardens to her ability to work closely with the best landscape contractors, masons, carpenters and irrigation and lighting specialists. Most other big firms cannot offer that personal attention.
“How do you delegate your aesthetic, your reaction to a site? You don’t,” she says, “without watering down what it is you do.”
For more information about Robin, visit her at robinkramergardendesign.com.