Designer Profile: Xanthe White
“As garden designers it’s not our job to impose ourselves upon a space but instead to draw the people that will occupy it into a love affair with the space that will outlive them,” says Auckland based landscape designer, Xanthe White. Her incredible design projects explore the relationship between people, culture and the wild and evocative New Zealand landscape.
Please tell us a yourself, and your life with plants. My life with plants is submissive. I think of them as my friends. Sometimes I need space, occasionally relationships move on, but mostly I just like them to be around me. I like to wonder at their amazingness and how they change in the different moods of weather and season. I’m not what you would call a disciplined gardener.
Could you also please tell us about your landscape design firm, Xanthe White Design. We have eight designers in our studio and it’s a bit of a family affair – with children and life being as welcome amidst it all as aspirational projects. We all have our quirks and brilliant moments and I’m normally in the middle of it somewhere trying to keep up with how amazing they all are and trying to put each person into the right projects to ensure everyone keeps growing and challenging themselves and me. We all have our own clients or collaborations but when a deadline is looming we all pull together with watercolours and sketches, ensuring everyone’s ideas have the studio magic which only comes from being more than yourself.
What does a typical day in the life of Xanthe White look like? My day is a day of changing masks, from motherhood to collaborating in our studio, to friendship and being a wife, daughter and part of a family. All of these things are equally important to my day. I’m always a mess, often in a frock and muddy shoes with hair going in the wrong direction and lipstick slipping away. From trying to understand a client, to making sure the designers in the studio are all challenging their thinking and pushing ideas forwards, to picking the kids up from school and making art and mess together, sorting out fights and circling the piles of debris that swirl around parenthood.
I end up in all sorts of places all over the country, working on everything from high end projects to those with an ecological or community focus. Whatever or wherever it may be, my work is always about relationships and understanding.”
What initially drew you to landscape design? My parents were travellers and trekkers so my childhood was spent in the mountains and forest, walking everywhere. We were raised to love nature in both its most minute and magnificent forms. When I was at university half wandering through the first year of an arts degree I applied for a job sweeping driveways through our student job search program. To my surprise, this actually turned out to be a gardening job – it wasn’t a very beautiful garden, stiff and over manicured – but my critical mind was drawn to fixing it. That week I decided I was going to leave university and enroll in a landscape design course.
Do you have a design philosophy? A garden requires action and to act in a garden you need to have a relationship with it.
As designers it’s not our job to impose ourselves upon a space but instead to draw the people that will occupy it into a love affair with the space that will out live them.”
Garden designers are like match makers. You can’t force a relationship with nature upon someone. Everyone has their limits. Some people need their gardens tamed and set back, while others are quite comfortable with a plant reaching across the path and brushing an ankle. Some are seduced by colour or the pleasure of food while others want something unruly and wild. We like to play to each individual’s boundaries to create gardens that are as constricted or flamboyant as the people they are designed to engage.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to somebody who dreams of beginning a career in landscape design? Start working, start gardening and making little changes to existing gardens. It is just as hard, if not harder, to imprint yourself on the land, to edit and restore an existing garden space. Always take risks and try plants that might not work but might be incredible if you do. Understand what seduces but don’t be afraid to displease. New ideas make people more uncomfortable than familiar ones. Avoid good taste and fashion. Embrace the old, forgotten and eclectic. And always remember as soon as you start to know something it’s time for it to be unpacked so you can know more.
Can you please tell us about one project you really enjoyed? Truthfully the project I’m always enjoying most is the one I’m currently submerged in. I struggle to look back, but when I do I am surprised by how gorgeous something I did ten years ago was or has become. For me, the most pleasure is always in the challenge of the moment. Recently I’ve been working on some large spaces that will be open to the community and involve building collaborative processes with teams of people outside of as well as within our studio which is challenging and really enriching. Its also the opportunity to work without fences and to have the freedom to invite everyone to occupy a common space.
New Zealand has such an evocative landscape, home to untamed mountain wilderness, lush green pastures and a dark and moody colour palette. How does this inspire your design process? The New Zealand landscape has set my levels of aspiration so immensely high – if we could only package those moments in a natural landscape where you look upon it’s vastness and beauty and your heart lifts. That level of consciousness of just how incredible this planet is something I’m constantly chasing.
Creating gardens that affect us in that intimate way is something that takes a lifetime to master and then it’s just there for a moment in time, a season, or that point where the light hits a particular angle through the leaves of a tree that a camera will never capture. That’s what I aspire to.”
Aspiring to nature is probably foolish but irresistible. Nature helps by doing most of the work once you’ve set things in place.
Is there a New Zealand garden identity? New Zealand is bicultural then multicultural. In the last few centuries of our bicultural history a European approach to landscape has dominated and transformed the natural landscape at a phenomenal rate. This is still really strongly evident but in the other half our Maori identity, the concept of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of the whenua (land) is growing stronger and is a shared value many of us hold. The traditional knowledge of the whenua is carried by Tangata whenua. Maori is itself a taonga (treasure) which enriches our relationship with land in a way that is absolutely unique to our place. For all the other cultures and influences we are offered by the world and our history, this sits beneath all of our work and defines us, as does the nature of our land, an island sitting alone on the edge of a fault line, isolated for so long. To not understand this, to not know our Maori culture and the plants and ways of living with the whenua is to deny place and culture and deny an aspect of our own identity.
Traditionally, the land cannot be owned. We are just guardians who have a direct responsibility to leave the land and water well and prosperous for future generations.”
As a landscape designer who is also a mum, how important is practicality in garden design? As a mum who has survived and embraced young children and built a collaborative design simultaneously, practicality relates more to us as grownups trying to keep it together. The children find pleasure in everything. They’ll pick the flowers off every plant in the garden, build, create and make in the wilderness, spending hours with a worm or building a fort. Grown ups though, we are the ones trying to tame the wildness, to pull them out of an uncertain path into order and reason. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been at that. Hopefully not too successful.
What are three things all gardens should have? A gardener, a secret and a seat.
What is your favourite season? The cusps.
I like the moments when one season surrenders to the next. Announcing itself with or without invitation.”
What is a tip you could give to someone living in an apartment to introduce greenery into the space? Adopt plants you really love. Ignore other people’s advice and choose a plant because you like it. Get to know it, find out what it likes and then when that plant is all settled in, keep going as far as you can. Some people are happy with a one on one sort of affair, while others need to build shelves for our friends.
When you’re looking for inspiration for a new project, where do you go? I just listen and ask, then we see.
What is your dream project?
Public spaces, collaboration, something that restores land that’s been broken or whose harmony has been forgotten, a space with a little bit of magic that’s irresistible.
If you were a plant, what would you be? Maybe a puriri (Vitex lucens). A puriri is a native tree that hosts a rich ecology, birds and insects and epiphytes. It’s not just a tree, it’s everything that lives around it too. It often looks a bit messy because of this but it’s never alone.
Header image by Carme Aguayo. All images supplied by Xanthe White Design.