Thoughts on Noel Kingsbury's contribution and a review of his latest book with Piet Oudolf
Noel Kingsbury is the great chronicler of contemporary planting design. Kingsbury has been involved in over twenty books spanning the last two decades, most of them focusing on the topic of design inspired by nature and ecology. Few garden writers are as prolific or as influential. Garden writers tend to be an anonymous sort. In an industry still dominated by the soft pornography of photographs, garden writing offers little more than annotating captions. But Kingsbury has transcended the role.
In terms of the contemporary planting avant-garde, Noel is this generation’s Gertrude Stein: the thought leader that holds together a generation of loosely-affiliated, but intellectually-kindred designers, plantsmen, and nurserymen—all working in within the “new style” of naturalistic plantings. Like Stein, entrée into the Kingsbury salon is a kind of validation in itself. To draw the attention of Kingsbury is to have your work remembered by (planting) art history. The Kingsbury “salon” includes international celebrities like Piet Oudolf and Dan Pearson. But it also includes little known thinkers of central Europe, thinkers such as German Professor Richard Hansenan; landscape architect Urs Walser; and Dr. Walter Korb of the Bavarian Institute. The former group gives the Kingsbury posse cachet and international celebrity; the latter gives it intellectual credibility and authenticity. Kingsbury’s blandly titled 2004 essay, “Contemporary Overview of Naturalistic Planting Design,” included in the book Dynamic Landscape, remains one of the finest summaries of the “new style” and its practitioners ever written. It proves that Kingsbury remains the central voice in an increasingly international movement.
Naturalistic planting design is still a relatively small world, but Kingsbury’s influence is hard to underestimate. In fact, practitioners of the “new style” can almost chart their intellectual standing by whether or not they are prominently featured in Kingsbury’s writings. That the work of Piet Oudolf gets much attention, while the work of the American landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden—whose body of work with herbaceous planting is as vast and, quite frankly, as photogenic as Oudolf’s—receives relatively little mention from Kingsbury is telling. Oudolf’s continual intellectual evolution interests Kingsbury, while Oehme, van Sweden’s more formal compositions do not. Prettiness is not enough; Kingsbury is after much bigger game.
So when an American editor told me that Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury were writing a new book together, I was immediately interested. Oudolf and Kingsbury have collaborated on two other books together. Both of them are among the most dog-eared, tattered books on my shelf. The first book, Designing with Plants, was essentially Noel writing about Oudolf’s work. That book was largely responsible for introducing Piet Oudolf to the world, raising his status from a European designer to an international icon. The first book was very plant-specific, but it was the second book, Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space, that the collaboration really flourished. Noel’s role transitioned from chronicler to thinker, and as a result, Oudolf’s work was given an intellectual depth and substance rooted in a larger, international movement of ecological design. Because of Kingsbury’s writing, Oudolf’s role moved from cutting-edge designer to ceremonial figure-head of an international movement. So what would a third Oudolf/Kingsbury collaboration offer? For me, the anticipation was not just to see Oudolf’s latest directions, but to understand how Kingsbury’s voice would emerge.