Whether simple, exotic, wild or luxurious, gardens not only fit their owners’ lifestyle, they are also a reflection of their personality.
Garden design is an art in itself, and with so many days of sunshine, the French Riviera is definitely a great place to cultivate beautiful gardens, resplendent with all sorts of plants and flowers. We recently met with a young designer, Stefana Savin (pictured above), who, two years ago, launched her own company, Riviera Gardens, specialising in creating gardens throughout the Côte d’Azur.
Hello, Stefana, first of all, can you tell us a little about yourself, your background? How did you become professionally involved in garden design?
I grew up in the North-Eastern Romanian countryside where as children, my sister and I enjoyed collecting flowers a lot pressing them into books totally at random. Every time I came back home from a walk in nature my hands were filled with colourful bouquets. What a delicious surprise it was to find months, even years later sometimes, a forgotten pressed leaf or petal in a thick dictionary or an adventure novel. The smell of it still lingers, I can still remember the perfume.
My dream at that time was to become a painter, then a doctor, then a lawyer. But when it came to taking a decision at the age of 18, I chose Horticulture and Landscape Design. And, without any doubt, it was one of my best decisions ever.
After graduating from university, I had practical training in a Baroque garden near Dresden in Germany and then later, almost by accident, I started working in a landscape design office in Nice. It all happened so fast. My initial plan was to create a landscaping company in my hometown. I was only supposed to spend two months on the Riviera but guess what? I am still here today, almost five years later. That is the Côte d’Azur effect – there is an undeniable attraction.
Two years ago you created your own company, Riviera Gardens. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Founded in 2011, Riviera Gardens aims at recreating the aura of the mythical Côte d’Azur. All five senses are embraced and given a rhythm with style. Riviera Gardens has a touch of that fervour of the collectors who bring rare plants from far away places. The garden is seen as a temple; plants become sacred, almost human, one-step closer to eternity. It is the place that brings people together in the most enchanting way. Isn’t this what life is all about? Riviera Gardens tells a story about an era of abundance, voyages and discovery.
What kind of gardens do you work on – what do people ask you to do?
From sumptuous to low maintenance, there is diversity in the demand. In places like Cap Ferrat or Cap d’Antibes, we are expected to create that “wow” factor in the garden conceptual design. Exotic plant varieties, a splash of colours next to a lush greenery wall, all together projected on to the blue canvas of the Mediterranean. The countryside is more appropriate to Provençal retreats, where time stands still, light is filtered through the leaves of Millenarian olive trees, and you have the continuous cacophony of crickets all summer long. There are also the contemporary and minimalist roof terraces in Monaco or Cannes, where you get the perfect setting for an urban cocktail party. I love diversity and believe that every garden must be unique.
And so far, which projects rank among your favourites?
Oh, that is hard to answer. My team and I use the “passion ingredient” for all of the projects we are working on. Every project has its own particular story attached to it, since we spend hours and hours of our life on it. Personally, I have a particular interest in an on-going project in Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat. Part of a waterfront property is going to become a vertical garden with a breathtaking waterfall. Another favourite is a public square project in Cagnes-sur-Mer, the challenge being that it needs to give the feeling that the square existed for centuries.
From where do you get your inspiration?
From the beauty that surrounds me, the Côte d’Azur landscape with its dramatic volumes and colours. Simply looking into the heart of a flower can yield some fantastic ideas. I have a particular fondness for flowers, as they represent the ‘love’ period in the life of a plant. As Princess Grace of Monaco said in ‘My Book of Flowers‘, “…flowers have a language of their own that transcend international barriers. As with music, there is also timelessness about flowers and a sense of communication.” Travelling is definitely an endless source of inspiration. There is a scene that remains very clear in my mind ever since the journey – a rocky slope on the Greek Mediterranean coast covered with bay-laurel bushes, cypresses and towering twisting umbrella pines. This was one of those landscapes with such a harmony in scale and arrangement, which any designer tries to reach in their compositions. And, last, but by no means least, the precious people that surround me, friends and partners. They often teach me about generosity, dedication, courage, and wisdom.
Do you have favourite plants that you frequently work into your landscape designs? What are they and why are they a “must” in your designs?
In the rich world of plants having favourites sounds like discrimination. Nevertheless, cypresses and palm trees are often integrated into the conceptual design as they offer that vertical architectural feature that is reminiscent of columns in a temple. There are also the fragrant plants that should be in any garden: sweetly scented citrus blossoms, jasmines, heliotropes, roses, honeysuckle and mimosas.
What would you say are the most challenging aspects of your job?
Making people understand that a sustainable garden needs time to develop. Making them understand the real cost and value of a beautiful garden in terms of time spent planning, dedication maintaining it, working with the best materials and people.
And the most rewarding?
Contemplating my own creations. I keep walking in that new garden repeating to myself: it is so beautiful, so beautiful, then seeing the big smile on the owner’s faces.
What are some of your professional goals for the future?
To create gardens in different parts of the world that will form an exquisite collection of views, styles and ambiances. The kind of portfolio that will make you feel you are travelling simply by looking at it.
Finally, can you tell us in a few words what you like so much about Monaco and the French Riviera?
Here you get bits of everything: landscape, lifestyle, cultural events, all kinds of people, high mountains, azure skies and the sea. The generous sun is embracing the coast so many days a year that growing beautiful flowering plants require less effort than anywhere else. As the French writer Colette said, “Monaco is the country where the frontiers are only flowers”…
All photographs courtesy Stefana Savin and © Riviera Gardens