Frances Palmer and I took our annual spring field trip last weekend. Last year, we toured Monticello; this time we visited Patterns, a striking Delaware home belonging to Elise and Pete du Pont. They are both lawyers; he is the former governor of Delaware. The house, designed by Chicago architect I.W. Colburn, was built in the sixties; it is an inspired blend of Mies, Palladio, and American mid-century modern. What's truly unusual, though, is that Patterns is the result of three equally strong, interwoven visions: that of architect, landscape designer, and client. (The view above is looking through to the entrance from the back; the client bought the pots from the redoubtable Penelope Hobhouse and planted them with bright red maples; spring bulbs burst forth underneath.)
This turned out to be the perfect time of the year to see both house and garden, as the bones of the structure were not fuzzed up by trees and plants. And inside, the light coming through overcast skies was silky. It was a treat to see a project I have wanted for years to visit, and the owners were generous with their hospitality. I was thrilled when Elise du Pont happily granted permission to post the photographs at Slow Love Life; I'm delighted to share the good fortune of my visit with my readers.
One of the first things that strikes the visitor on arriving at the house is, appropriately, the patterns of brick and stone work; the theme of circles and squares is carried inside as well.
Years after the house was built, Elise du Pont hired Dan Kiley for help with the daunting hillside landscape. He refused, at first, as he was retiring. But he was never one to resist a beautiful client; thus began their collaboration. Kiley is one of the great American garden designers of the twentieth century. Patterns has been published in plan, but it has never been documented and archived photographically, in several seasons. Naturally, I longed to give it the House and Garden treatment...I am having a moment. We'll see how this story works without paper and ink.
Patterns is about gardening--and homemaking--on a very large scale, of course. But it is always useful to learn from the masters of design. And I saw plenty of ideas that anyone could bring into the most modest of gardens or houses.
I remarked to Elise, as we set off on our tour, how impressive it was that Kiley was never intimidated by large expanses; he seemed to know how to leave a large imprint. She reminded me of how important all his corporate work was in training him to embrace the big picture. Large scale never daunted Kiley; in fact, it inspired his best work.
Kiley's gardens are always formal and geometric; he establishes clear axes, demarcating stages in the experience of the site. In this way he carried the radical and dramatic approach of Versailles' LeNotre into the American garden. At Patterns, the trick was to respond to the modernist lines of the house, and then spill off down the hill, through the woods, and towards the Brandywine river. He accomplished this by clearing out much of the underbrush of weedy growth and poison ivy to open up views to the river, and then carving a gently descending path through the view. The design around the house is quite tight and articulated in brick and grass; the axes had to fall "wherever you find them" along the contours of the land, as Elise remembered him saying.
Kiley ranked three kinds of boxwood, which will eventually billow in different sizes, to march down the upper hillside. Then the design relaxes lower into the woods. The temple at the edge of the pond was sited by one of Kiley's students, now of the firm Raycroft/ Meyer.
Bulbs are forced under glass cloches (bell jars) throughout the winter so that the blooms can be brought indoors while there is still snow on the ground.
The house was full of flowers; I love the glass milk bottles, stuffed with daffodils, in their wire carrying crate. This is a house where indoors and outdoors meld seamlessly. Outdoors, there are moments of decorating, and indoors there are moments of garden.
Kiley laid out a potager to the side of a double allee of trees planted along the drive at the entrance of the house. The hedge is trimmed high enough to keep out the deer. Vegetable gardens are not generally well-designed, but this one not only works hard, providing fresh produce for family and friends, but it is also beautiful to look at, even with very little coming up.
Before too long, these tuteurs will be covered with peas and beans.
She is old-fashioned enough to be a skilled needleworker, and her gleefully patterned designs are on pillows scattered throughout the library. But she also attended law school when she was in her forties, raising her children and being a politician's supportive wife; she gained a degree in three years from the University of Pennsylvania.
Elise is what makes Patterns a success. The eye of the client is the third, and crowning, element in designing any house and garden. If any design is to thrive, no matter how well-planned it is in the first place, it has to continue to grow and evolve. Things are always dying, or not turning out the way you would expect them to, or fading and falling apart, so they have to be replaced, altered or refined. And they have to be lived in.
We've also somehow gotten the idea that there is a "correct" way to decorate, and we herd ourselves into an eternal repetition of trends, or we box ourselves in with labels: we are modern, or classical, or country. One thing only. Sadly. Why live in a pigeonhole?
And why not play with the things you have collected over the years? It doesn't matter if they are costly or humble; they are your treasures. I often heard about clients photographing tabletops so that they could recreate the exact placements of books and objects. They were too afraid of putting things down wrong. But that's the fun of making a home. You can always change it.
Everything--whether a garden scene or a table setting and placement--bears the owner's distinctive stamp. And everything is done to the highest possible standards, even the way the table is set for our delicious welcome breakfast.
The entire house is built on a grid of square spaces, 20x20, so you get a pleasing, restful sense of repetition in the volumes. But the decor keeps the spaces from feeling boring or dull.
The living room is a sort of robin's egg blue. Elise has long been a collector of Frances Palmer's handmade work, particularly her creamware. Needless to say, Frances was thrilled to see her vases full of flowers on display all over the house.
I love the way the ornate shapes of the family antiques are set off by the clean, spare lines of a modern envelope. This kind of decorating isn't easy to pull off. Of course it helps to have the means to buy--or inherit--excellent antiques and beautiful decorative objects. But plenty of people have money--and no idea how to enjoy it or live with it. When I'm in a house like this, I feel inspired to be freer in expressing my own aesthetic sensibilities, to let myself simply enjoy the freewheeling process of creating living, lively spaces, whether indoors or out.
Patterns is a well-loved house and garden. What a pleasure.