Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Sweden is not the first place a garden designer would turn to for inspiration. Can there really be a rich gardening tradition in such a rugged, forested country that shares its northern latitudes with Iceland? Even in the south, summer temperatures rarely rise above the 70s. But the answer is yes, of course—Sweden’s international reputation for creative design extends to contemporary gardenmaking, and Ulf Nordfjell is one of Sweden’s foremost garden designers. Nordfjell moved from the study of ecology and biology to a stint as a ceramic artist and then to landscape architecture. He found his niche as a designer of modern outdoor spaces that are profoundly influenced by a feeling for nature.

Southern Sweden, fertile and gently undulating, has an aristocratic tradition of country manor houses, with French/Italian-influenced formal gardens of clipped hedges and flowerbeds near the house and estates modeled on the English landscape park on the outer perimeters.The farming community, marked by the intense struggle with an extreme climate, has no use for luxurious formal gardens—but there is a strong cottage tradition of growing vegetables and flowers.The farther north you travel in Sweden, the more the concept of gardening dissipates into nature “managed” as a transition between the house and its surrounding countryside. Ecological sensitivity to the nuances of rock, moss, water and trees is characteristic of such cold-climate “gardens”—and all of these streams meet in the work of Ulf Nordfjell.

The Gustavian style, still popular today, is also a favorite of Nordfjell’s—and another example of the way Swedish designers through the ages have taken international high design and fused it with folk traditions in a way that dignifies both.This 18th-century aesthetic was named for King Gustav III (1771-1792) who brought the style ofVersailles to Sweden.The ornate French originals—architecture, furniture and interiors—evolved by a process of severe simplification into a style of rural buildings painted rust red, white-painted wooden furniture and airy interiors characterized by graceful symmetry. As a garden designer, Nordfjell is influenced by his Swedish aesthetic heritage, but his first love andinspiration is the natural landscape. Rather than try simply to reproduce it in his work, he aims to extract its elements: “I try to distill a feeling for the landscape into the structure of the garden and do it in a naturalistic way,” he says. He uses Swedish materials, which speak the international language of granite, steel and timber, but the characteristically “Swedish” aspect to his approach is that he emphasizes functionality, natural beauty and simplification rather than high contrast (such as vivid colors or extreme forms).

As for any garden designer, every project sets up a demanding interplay between planting design and structure—and Nordfjell handles both very well. Contrast his summer cottage in northern Sweden, firmly in the rural tradition of cottage gardening.The heavily planted slopes down to the rushing Ore River need intensive upkeep, but the effect is naturalistic, with long views across the forested valley and beyond incorporated into a rich horticultural tapestry.The style is right for the site and the owner.

The setting for the Farstorp estate in southern Sweden is just as spectacular—but the design approach here is more pared-down and structured. Again, long views are incorporated into the garden—Nordfjell opened up the dark forest to soften the line between the garden and the wild and bring the natural landscape closer to the house. The new water garden and its pebble beach have helped make the garden feel more personal by bringing the scales of domestic and wild into balance.

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