Four memberful design insights, from my conversations with Piet Oudolf.
The High Line in Manhattan, New York, Photo by Domenico Convertini
It was the middle of winter.
Light blue ice covered a brown field made up of slim skeletons, waving gently in the wind. The beauty of dying plants, often overlooked. Nothing to see here, gardeners of the past would say.
The man in front of me certainly is not one of them.
The most sought-after garden designer in the world, Piet Oudolf (77), is deeply passionate about perennials, plants that live longer than one season, and how these plants relate to their surroundings and to each other.
What can we learn from him to apply in our own projects, when we build brands, design platforms, and grow our communities? I was fortunate enough to discover firsthand what it takes to let a healthy cycle of growth and decay, creation and care, last season after season.
From the slow movement of autumn, the mysterious stillness of winter, the pristine promise of spring, to the shimmer of summer; and back again, to the golden tones that compliment fall.
Within these landscapes, new landscapes can be created. Parks and gardens, from a private rooftop terrace to miles of public green space near a museum. For a long time, all this was rather formal. Beds full of annual flowers, lasting just a few months, in line with their 19th-century design approach.
Oudolf proved through planting and planning that the opposite was possible — and by keeping his lessons in mind, we can also grow communities around our organizations that stand the test of time.
If you want to cultivate a strong and growing community around your organization, you need to create an environment where the people you serve can flourish, support one another, and grow.
Oudolf selects grasses that are indigenous to the area, so they last longer. You might find these just at the side of the road; now they brighten up a new park. This approach creates the illusion of wilderness. A sensation that many love when confronted. Only, there’s nothing wild about it. It’s all carefully chosen, in consultation with his clients and the team members that care for it.
You may know his work on The High Line in New York City (pictured above), the Lurie Garden in Chicago, and his marvelous parks for the Biennale in Venice or the Serpentine Gallery in London.
When you look at Oudolf’s work and wander through one of his landscapes, he teaches us to think deeply about challenges that others take for granted. How to make a garden look beautiful in a bad light. Why plants are stunning, even when they have finished flowering.
Projects can benefit from this approach, as a guiding hand can softly steer interaction and discourse, allowing for inspiration and action. By immersing yourself into the existing culture of the community you are trying to serve, you can learn how to create the environment that they need to flourish. It’s hard work to let it look so spontaneous and effortless.
For any creative endeavor to be a success, it’s important to expect, and even welcome, the unexpected.
When I visited his home in Hummelo, The Netherlands, Oudolf invited me right away to take a stroll together through his own garden. Delighted, I felt as if I was walking through his sketchbook. A wonderful mix of textures and strokes. These few acres are where Oudolf’s steady journey to world fame began. He moved into an old farm in the 1980s with his family. Together with his wife Anja, he developed a gardening nursery, to test ideas and create wonderlands.
For decades, visitors came from as far away as Japan, New Zealand, and Chile to see his homegrown experiments. Oudolf tried pairing different perennial plants together, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. He constantly reminds himself that he can’t predict everything, and must let go of what doesn't succeed.
Just like gardens, projects are at their best when they include variation. People from different backgrounds hold new perspectives and worldviews. Expecting others to have a point of view helps in recruiting a diverse community.
And some plants, like some projects, take longer to grow into their fullest form — or may not even grow at all. By letting go of rigid expectations, you can end up with more interesting outcomes, and learn from the ones that don’t work out.
Building a literal or metaphorical walled garden limits the impact your endeavors can have on the world.
I asked Oudolf what projects bring him the most joy. Typical for a Dutch master, and reminiscent of Vermeer, it wasn’t work at a celebrity’s villa nor the open space behind a big castle: it was the projects that were intimate and serene — open to the public, where any one of us can cultivate calm.
To make these lands of wonder last, he combines his art of observation with a great knowledge of plants and a relentless hunger to both create as well as maintain, which is equally important for lasting success.
But Oudolf can’t maintain all of the gardens he’s designed on his own. That’s why he prefers to partner with local communities of participating citizens who can protect and grow the gardens over time.
In the design world, when we build experiences only for the few, with gatekeepers and controlled access, we similarly limit the effect we can have on the world. But we can also go beyond that — like Oudolf, we can work with communities to shape and care for our projects into the future.
As author Rutger Bregman states in his book Humankind, on the kindness of the vast majority of people: “Reorienting our thinking toward positive and high expectations of our fellow man, will reap lasting success.”
Keeping things open and accessible can allow for larger impacts. There’s beauty in watching others build on what you’ve designed together.
Collectively, a passionate group with a shared purpose can do more in letting a large garden flourish than anyone could ever do on their own.
To do the work, season after season, and share the lessons of what works and what doesn’t, that’s what makes a garden thrive. To contribute, to share knowledge, and to enjoy the fruits of our labor together, that’s a big part of being a member of a thriving community.
For Oudolf, a project can only become meaningful when head gardeners combine insight with caretaking. They are the knowledgeable leaders of expertise, helping the group as a whole to excel: to let projects last for decades, not mere months.
Each of us can serve as a leader in our own communities, encouraging growth, connection, experimentation, and progress. After all, a garden without the right community of care will proliferate or just fall dead. Like plants, we need each other to grow. Like a garden, each project needs its members to let the community become a lasting success.
The next time you're approaching a big project, try to think like a gardener. Consider how you can immerse yourself into the community you serve, give your projects room to grow, connect with and empower others, and serve as a leader yourself. Lasting, impactful initiatives all start from a single seed — and with care and consideration we can see them grow.
It’s clearer than ever that the actions of individuals, when united by a shared purpose, can translate into an outsized collective impact on the world around us. By partnering with mission-driven organizations around the world to grow and empower their member communities, we as a team seek to ensure that the impact is a positive one.
If you’re interested in exploring how Momkai as a strategic design agency can help you create a durable and passionate community supporting your organization’s work, then reach out to us today.