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Berkshire Garden Style: Funktional Design and the houses of Hinsdale

October 2022 • a Viridissima blog

The welcoming gardens at LifeWorks Studio in Great Barrington,

designed and maintained by Viridissima Horticulture and Design

October 2022 • a Viridissima blog

Funktional Design and the Houses of Hinsdale

What is a garden for?

In the past two blog posts, I talked a lot about one property that has had a very rich, very public history. Public gardens are sites for community. They are neighborhood beautification. And for Naumkeag or Berkshire Botanical Gardens, their missions are to retain historic fidelity, to inform the public, and to enrich. But what about the private garden?

As a gardener, I deal mostly with people's homes. Despite being out of doors, the gardens I tend to are rather private places. I get to see all these sweet little homes tucked away with their treasures.

Looking through The Viridissima Meadow at the new pergola, which provides shade for the Nursery

Home, nestled in The Viridissima Meadow, with Nursery and greenhouse to the left

Recently, I was at the home of a childhood friend who asked me to do a little work to create an entrance garden. I love this house so much. It’s funky and personal. As I like to say, it’s funktional. It’s an old house that has retained some of its quirks, such as low ceilings, uneven floors, wavy glass windows. It retains a hint of its original style, but has been adapted over the years to suit the needs of its various inhabitants: an updated outdoor deck that puts you closer to the towering treetops, a new doorknob so they don’t keep getting locked out by the quirky old fixture, for example. In front of their house, they have this spectacular sugar maple right in the middle of what we are calling their “greeting garden.” I commented on how incredible the tree was, and my friend looked at it and said, “It’s our guardian tree.” It looms over their house, almost protecting it. In exchange, they have also been guardians to the tree: respecting its place at their entry way even as it grows out of bounds, escaping its originally envisioned limits. If we were to adhere strictly to aesthetics, the tree would not have a place. But the people have allowed it to grow, to be what it is. It’s more than just aesthetics, the tree has a function: to stand sentinel at the home of the people it shares its existence with.

Find the small face at the base of this magnificent American Beech for a glimpse of

the sheer size of this guardian of the forest

This gigantic Ash, guardian of this secret garden, has been lovingly preserved

The Potting Shed, despite its rich history, is a private garden. Nancy and Lincoln have had some big parties there, but it’s mostly just for them and their grandkids. Roshni, who lives on the property and who helps in the garden, gets to wake up in the morning and look out her window at it. On some summer evenings, she and a friend will sit under the bench beneath the maple looking out over the garden and enjoy a drink and a talk. “It’s so wonderful to see how the light plays out over the leaves and flowers,” she said about the evening sun.

The light play on the Potting Shed gardens

Recently, when chatting about next year’s plans for the garden with Nancy she said that “the charm” of this particular garden “is its state of disrepair. Every good garden has its ruin.” How true, I thought. She was looking at the offset stones of the old foundation wall, and seeking out the rogue Queen Anne’s lace that sometimes pops up between the stepping stones. The “ruin” of this particular garden is a testament to its former lives and purposes, and the way it has evolved and morphed to become quintessentially Nancy’s garden. And so, maybe a private garden not only connects us to the land, but connects us to the past inhabitants, the generations of people who’ve gained sustenance or beauty or pleasure from this plot.

The Potting Shed gardens, themselves a ruin of past times

As it turns out, I am designing another entrance garden at a home in Becket. This house is an Arts and Crafts style house, or what is also referred to as Craftsman style — a kind of architecture noted for its use of shingles and steep eaves. In order to better understand the style of this home, I did a little reading and learned about the fascinating history of the Arts and Crafts movement, which propelled this style of architecture starting in the late 1800s, first in England and then in the United States. Arts and Crafts style was born out of pushback against industrialization. “Anxieties about industrial life fueled a positive revaluation of handcraftsmanship and precapitalist forms of culture and society,” writes Monica Obniski in her historical essay about the era on the Met Museum website. Arts and Crafts wasn’t necessarily about a particular style (though there were recurring elements that helped make an Arts and Crafts house or piece of furniture built easily recognizable), but about the belief that mechanization was destroying design and workmanship. Proponents of the movement “called for an end to the division of labor,” Obniski writes, such as existed more and more in assembly-line style factories. Designers should be craftsmen and vice-versa.

There was an undercurrent of socialism in the movement (though stronger in Europe than it was in the United States). Utopian colonies committed to the crafts cropped up in the U.S., and their ideals are somewhat similar to Shaker communities, where secondary to a belief in Christ’s second coming was a commitment to simple, beautiful, handmade buildings and furniture. Arts and Crafts’ urban centers promoted the education of women. In Boston, Obniski writes, a reading group for immigrant girls morphed into a pottery guild, where the girls could make decent wages crafting and selling ceramics. It pushed against rote, mechanized labor and held value in the hand-made, in the craftsperson, not just the crafted object.

Architechtural details illustrating characteristics of the Arts and Crafts home

The core tenets of Arts and Crafts align so much with Berkshire Garden Style. I have an inherent respect for what is hand-made, for something wrought with care and thought. I respect the person attached to those hands. I valued these things long before I’d ever even heard of Arts and Crafts, and perhaps knew it somewhat intuitively when I approved the design for my first Viridissima business cards created by my graphic designer (who also happens to be my mother!). I remember showing one to an English friend of mine who was an upholstress and who had learned as an apprentice at an old-school upholstery school that valued craft. She looked at my card and said, “Oh, Arts and Crafts,” in reference to the design I’d used. I heard “arts and crafts,” lower case, and it felt like an insult, like my stylistic choices were merely child’s play. But then she gave me a brief tutorial, and now, knowing more, I realize that I was drawn to the style for a reason. My friend seemed to recognize my vibe before I was completely aware of it myself, and now I can say I deeply identify with it.

Of course, these days the slow, hand-made lifestyle has infiltrated the mainstream. We have our hand-hewn charcuterie boards offering sustainable meats and cheeses. We have homebrewed beer and natural wines and wax-sealed bottles. Blundstones and wool caps – once practical gear for outside work – are now trendy for anybody. The whole hipster thing is kind of a joke, but at the same time it’s big for a reason. Etsy shops and DIY everything…. While I do resist things that are popular merely because they’re popular, I also identify with this human-hand-generated stuff. Things that are made by hand remind us of the workers behind them. And workers are the ones who hold up society.

The O'Brien Family home - the Hinsdale houses are evocative of homes of this era

A lot of this thinking came to me while I was riding in the car with my husband Russell up in Hinsdale recently. We traveled up out of the southern Berkshire communities that have become so gentrified and into these towns that are full of humans who are content living away from certain conveniences, box stores and boulangeries alike. Hinsdale is a blue collar town. I think of towns like Hinsdale, and others, such as Pownal, Vermont and Stephentown, New York, maybe, as on the outskirts of the cool towns, so to speak. But I think the people on the rim of the coolness are stronger. We might see them as peripheral, the people living there not as educated or civilized. But then, we see these farms that have been hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Russell and I drove by old barns and weathered farmhouses that by some miracle – or maybe just by the handiness of the people who took care of them – were still standing.

Many a happy hour was spent on the back porch and in the back gardens of The O'Brien Family home

We have many beautiful old Berkshire homes where we live. And thank god people, many who come from out of town, have resources to restore them. But what about people who’ve been in those houses for generations and have been able to maintain them – not restore them to their original grandeur, but simply keep them together? Houses that still have asbestos siding, that are completely modest and that have been upgraded along the way to function: to keep weather and precipitation out. We might see some 80-year-old guy hobbling around, fixing things. You can tell the land has been lived on and trod upon and cared for. But gently. The home and land aren’t possessions or fashion statements; they’re more than that. The garden isn’t “I got inspired by the latest trend,” it’s “Those are my winter vegetables.”

The O'Brien Family vegetable garden, made by the hands of my Great-Grandparents

When I look at the historic photos of Wheatleigh and see the workers in the cornfield with the big house looming in the background, I think, that could be my great grandfather! Quite literally. When I look at the houses of Hinsdale, I think of my great grandparents’ house and that generation of people who bought the pickles so they could have the jar, how their houses hold stashes of jars of yore. They may have milked their own cows or made their own sausage or built their own chicken coop. But these people were craftspeople because that was life. Their houses and properties were – are – funktional out of necessity. The aesthetics emerge from that. Form follows function. Or maybe I should say funk follows function.

Ernest Worthy O'Brien, Prized Rose Bush, 1971

Ernest Worthy O'Brien, my Great-Grandfather - farmer, gardener, craftsman -

out of necessity but also for pleasure

All of this comes back to what BGS is about. To honor the landscape is to honor the people who have been here for a very long time. Maybe we’re not the original inhabitants, but the people of this place should be identified. It’s from our survival and adaptation that this DIY aesthetic originates, this way of being on the land that is now coveted and celebrated by people who’ve come from elsewhere, who also want to dig in, who want to use their hands to make something lasting. And maybe, in doing so, they will create something beautiful, too.


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