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Interview with Robin Horton

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Robin Horton has an eye for cool. Her popular, award-winning blog and website, Urban Gardens features new, interesting and cutting edge garden design and has a wealth of ideas, images and amazing container gardens. Principal and Creative Director of Robin Horton Design, Robin travels the world and the web looking for fresh, eco-friendly ideas with an emphasis on clean lines and a modern aesthetic. In describing her website, Robin says, "I will explore and showcase what’s out there in the urban garden universe–from the amazing products of talented new designers, to community gardens experimenting with edible landscaping, sustainable urban agriculture and micro-farms, to guerrilla gardeners transforming derelict abandoned properties into lush, or at least, provocative garden spaces." I met Robin several years ago and we have become friends. She has amazing style, humor and wide-ranging knowledge and smarts. Her website is one of my favorites--always interesting and full of ideas and innovative products.

1. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I have been a creative director and designer for over 30 years, the past 22 as Principal of Robin Horton Design, an award-winning creative and strategic communications design consultancy. Before that I was a creative director/art director at a major NYC public relations agency. I have a BA in French from UC Berkeley; a BFA in Design from The Cooper Union; studied at the Sorbonne in Paris; studied writing for two summers at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Program and for several years at The New School in NYC.

2. When did you start Urban Gardens and what was the inspiration?

About 9 years ago, I took a week-long post-professional design workshop with renowned designer Milton Glaser at the School of Visual Arts in NY. On the last day, the assignment was to develop a concept for a print magazine including its name, design, all the content, even an advertising plan. Everyone of course thought it impossible to do such a thing in 24 hours. But Glaser had been assigning this for twenty years and each year everyone produced something.

My idea was Urban Gardens. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure why it came to me but I had an instinctive feeling that it was a good concept with commercial potential. I felt attuned to design and urban living, and thought that there was a large range of products having to do with exterior living and design that could attract advertisers. “Green” however was just a color back then, not as much a part of the collective awareness as it is today, though I included in my plan stories about kitchen gardening, recycling, and xeriscaping.

It was stressful but fun to produce and I felt very excited and confident presenting the idea. After the presentation, Glaser remarked, “who would want to read that, and who would advertise?” I had a good rebuttal, but not good enough to convince him.

The following week, the front page of the NYTimes Living Section (now the Style section) was all about urban gardens. I felt validated by this, yet was in no position to start a print magazine. I shelved the idea until 4 years ago when I decided to resurface it as a blog. I launched Urban Gardens in April 2009 and in the same year it was nominated in the Lifestyle category for a Webby, hailed by the NYTimes as “the Internet’s highest honor.” It then received both silver and gold Garden Writers Association awards, and a Creativity design award. In its three years, the readership has now grown to between 35-50K readers and 29K+ social media followers.

3. How would you describe your container design philosophy or style?

I don’t think I have one distinct style other than I appreciate well-designed things. Like all decisions, it depends what one hopes to accomplish in a particular space, what they want to grow in the containers and where they want to place them. Like furniture and accessories, I would always first consider the space as a whole and how it will be used, then look for containers that fulfill my objectives and criteria.

4. What are some of the coolest containers you've discovered?

Oh gosh, there are so many cool things out there! Have you seen Eternit’s “Relaxed Man”? He’s adorable—a witty version a man lying in the grass, except the grass is lying in the man. Some of my favorite containers are upcycled from other things. What about beer kegs split in half and made into planters, like those from Hopworks. Or colorful PVC pipes re-purposed into containers like this one from the Tubi Project? Clean, repainted, trash cans are planted from Covent Garden in London to Brooklyn.

5. Do you have design tips for people interested in creating modern containers?

Contemporary containers, if we must define it, tend to be sleek, with clean unfussy designs. There really are no rules, and I like to break them anyway. I like simple things—-love my tall grasses in containers. I don’t like to mix lots of different plants together, or combine plants with lots of color contrast. It’s all a matter of personal taste. If I lived in the right climate for it, I would have a perfect citrus tree in a container. I love my two Japanese Maples in containers on my patio—for their color and also because I have placed them so they define and separate a seating area from the rest of the patio.

6. Do you have any advice for people on choosing a container?

Look through your favorite blogs (!) and magazines, and visit your local garden centers and nurseries to see what’s out there. If you need to, create a “mood board” like interior designers do, so you can carry it with you shopping and in your outdoor space to visualize what containers would work well and how you might place them. Alternatively, hire a professional who can really help you through the process!

7. What do you think makes a container design work?

The right plants for the right container—not just with respect for growing conditions, but for design continuity and balance. I think of this like I would for all good design: consider the compositional design elements like shape, size, texture, color, value (lightness/darkness), etc. Again, apart from horticultural considerations, it’s all about what vision one has for the space and what kind of plants one likes.

8. Do you see any exciting trends in container gardening?

I’m seeing more and more lighted containers, which is cool as they multitask as both planters and outdoor lighting. Multi-functoning products are a great thing for small spaces, many of which happen to be urban.

Another trend is the soft planters, like Bacsac which I saw for the first time a few years ago at Maison et Objet in Paris. They are now available in the US. They are lightweight permeable containers that are easily transported and moved. They come in a variety of sizes made of the same material so they are modular—you can arrange and rearrange them as you like.

Vertical gardening of course has become extremely popular, and for good reason. For city dwellers without a lot of floor or ground area, it’s a great way to maximize space. Since I launched Urban Gardens, I have seen a number of commercially available vertical gardening systems come on the market. Many are already familiar with the pocket systems from Plants on Walls and Woolley Pockets -- modular felt pockets or panels made from recycled PET water bottles.

There are a number of other systems made from hard materials, some in metal or, like the Ballavaz or the ELT EasyGreen® Living Wall System, of panels of a high-density durable polyresin that can be recycled or reused over and over again.

Some, like the GroVert from Brightgreen, (below) can be delivered pre-planted. And since these systems generally include a drip line system, they are easy to maintain.

Most of these systems are modular, like one of my favorites, the Urbio, which enables assembly according to the needs of one’s particular space. For small spaces indoors or out, the MiniGarden is a nice compact piece that works well for apartment dwellers.

Mobile gardens on wheels, like the contemporary Garden365 from Eserro, are a trend I think we’ll see more of as an aging population will need products that are easy to move and these containers also allow small space gardeners to chase the sun.

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