Garden Designers Roundtable: Roberto Burle Marx, My Design Idol

by Jenny Peterson on November 21, 2011

in Garden Design,The Garden Designers' Roundtable

In the summer of 2006, I took a trip to Washington DC and was roaming around all manner of museums, galleries and bookstores when I found this book:

This book beautifully covers the legacy of Brazilian artist/naturalist/landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994)–I won’t go over his life and achievements here, but he introduced modernist landscape design to Brazil, and countless designers have been influenced by his work. In a nutshell, he was committed to:

  • Nature based aesthetics
  • Never blending flower colors
  • Use of native plants
  • Use of large groups of the same specimen
  • landscapes/gardens that are inspired by art
Here’s an example:
You can easily see the modern art influence in this landscape design–the mix of hardscape materials create an undulating design throughout the landscape, and the use of plant varieties is minimal.
How about using grass in a checkerboard design, then introducing a pop of color (Iresine herbertii)? Genius.
Islands of monochromatic plantings with hardscaping swirling around them….love it.
He used this snaking pattern often–here, it’s at the Copacabana beach, but elsewhere he put the same pattern into a lawn with two different kinds of grasses. Spectacular.
A graceful sweep of daylilies through a lawn…
In my work as a designer, no one will likely mistake me for Burle Marx! Ha! That made me laugh just thinking about it. I’m not downplaying the abilities that I have, just underscoring the massive talent of this designer. What I’ve learned since becoming more familiar with his work is to use more masses of specimen plants, choose minimal colors and to be careful with hardscaping. In particular, when viewed from above, I love to design hardscaping with lines that flow through several different planes, like this:

Although I’ve used a number of plants with various colors, I designed three tiers (an upper curved steel planter and two lower retaining walls) that echo each other’s curves, and finished off with a river rock bed that spans three tiers without a break in the line.


Even with container designs, nature-inspired aesthetics can shine through. Here I designed two custom steel planters, added matching bamboo muhly grasses and finished this entryway setting off with a topdressing of golden gravel to pick up the stained concrete color, along with chunky gray Mexican moon pebbles clustered at the base that mirrors the color of the brick wall.

The designers that have inspired all of us have done their work well–they not only created spectacular landscapes of their own, but they have planted seeds of inspiration for generations to come. While many of my designs are decidedly not Marx-esque, I actively look for projects where I can create a more graphic, organic-based and artistic sensibility.

I invite you to read more about the other people who have inspired my Roundtable co-horts by clicking on the links below:

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Arlington, Virginia

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Desert Dweller / David C. November 22, 2011 at 7:30 am

Thanks for helping me re-learn why I liked Marx’ work in college. All you say! Though his work speaks of massive budgets, too, I think your steel planter or serpentine garden scenes do a similar thing, but for the rest of us. I like his ethic on native plants.

You might like Thomas Church and Luis Barragan, too…

Thomas Rainer November 22, 2011 at 8:35 am

Well done, Jenny! I agonized over whether to include Burle Marx in my list as well, so I’m glad to see that you’ve given him his due credit. It’s amazing to see how his work has inspired a whole generation of designers, from Ray Jungles, to W. Gary Smith, to Oehme, van Sweden.

I heard people who knew him talk about his extravagent parties as well. If I had a time machine, I think I’d have to drop by.

Jocelyn/the art garden November 22, 2011 at 11:55 am

Jenny, I think you’ve taken your inspiration and adapted it well to a much smaller scale – not always easy to do! Enjoyed this!

Robert Webber November 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Yes, yes, yes and u chose my favourite Marx design as you first pic. Love the daylilies too which I had not seen.
And your work! You make such a good point about seeing the relevance of these guys to your own work! You are a great example to us all.

Jenny Peterson November 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Thanks, friends! You know, when I first started to learn more about Marx’s work, I felt almost defeated–as in, I could never do anything remotely similar to that! Then I realized I didn’t have to. That’s what “inspiration” is all about to me–take an idea and put your own spin on it.

Linda Lehmusvirta November 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Lovely! And your designs are lovely too. Hmm, gives me some ideas!

Scott Hokunson November 22, 2011 at 3:47 pm

I had wondered if Burle Marx would be mentioned this month, I’m also glad you decided to cover his work. This is going to sound funny, but as I read the post and gazed at the photos, I did think of some your work you had posted on the blog before, and now definitely notice an influence. Kudos to you for interpreting into your wonderful projects!

Jenny Peterson November 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Thanks, Linda and Scott! OK, now I’m running over to the other blogs — I just now got home and have time to relax and read!

rebecca sweet November 22, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Wow, Jenny – LOVE your steel container planters! Absolutely beautiful and I can definitely see Burle’s influence in the examples you posted.

Jenny Peterson November 22, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Thanks, Rebecca! I have the most amazing steel welder–he’s an artist, really. Sometime I’ll post pics of how he makes these planters–they have false bottoms with small holes for excellent drainage, and they’re coated inside with a sealant that keeps the water from draining out in a rusty mess. Worth every penny!

Debbie/GardenOfPossibilities November 25, 2011 at 5:33 am

Jenny, It’s so nice to see the direct influence Burle Marx has had on your design work. I love the clean line and the minimal use of colors.

Andrew Keys November 25, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Love love love love… I’m really curious about South American designers, and I remembered seeing an photo I loved in Rick Darke’s Encyclopedia of Grasses of a waterfall designed by Marx with a very cool grass called Thysanolaena. Marx is mentioned in the caption, but it never occurred to me to look him up. Thanks for the nudge!

Garden Design London January 10, 2012 at 6:20 am

Absolutely Awesome blog on Garden Design I have to say and I found pretty Lucky Myself as i got the link to this blog from that i found during my search. I liked the Checkerboard style of grass and custom steel planters very much. Thanks a lot to share this great work.

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