Among the many perks of my job is the opportunity to travel. In the last fortnight I have been to the USA, Germany and The Netherlands, during which time my feet have hardly touched the ground. Whilst I am travelling, I just ‘have’ to visit any garden-orientated shops that happen to be en route.
When I first heard that the team behind US brand Anthropologie had opened a garden centre, I knew I had to visit. I could blow my entire home furnishings budget in the London ‘Anthro’ stores, so the idea of seeing their quirky aesthetic translated into a garden setting had huge appeal. My only problem was that the new format, named ‘Terrain’, hadn’t made it to the UK. In fact, until recently the only Terrain locations have been in Westport, Connecticut, and Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, with two further shop-in-shops opening in Californian branches of Anthropologie a couple of months ago. Opportunity knocked on my visit to New York, just a stone’s throw from coastal Westport’s quaint stone churches and wood-framed houses.
Terrain as a concept has been around since 2008. It’s inspired by the idea of merging house and garden to create ‘an experience for all of the senses’. It caters to an affluent crowd of sophisticated grown-ups that like to express their individuality by collecting and giving lovely things. When you’ve had a gut full of Crate and Barrel, West Elm and Pottery Barn, Terrain comes as a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing common-or-garden about the plants and other garden ephemera they sell: whether it’s a scented candle in an antique-effect jar, a lushly planted terrarium, an aged-metal wreath, or a bar of deliciously scented soap, it’s chosen with a keen eye for detail. And as every buyer knows, retail is detail.
In keeping with Anthropologie, Terrain has a highly tuned visual merchandising aesthetic. This means that products always look enticing and abundant, occasionally magical. Excellent service is delivered by wholesome ‘ladies of a certain age’, or handsome hipsters in the case of the excellent restaurant. I enjoyed a home-made burger of relatively modest proportions, whilst a colleague of mine tucked into a ‘Monte Cristo’, a heart-attack-inducing sandwich compiled from French toast, cheese and belly pork, half drowned in maple syrup. It sounds revolting, but looked and tasted delicious.
There is nothing remotely mass-produced or formulaic about the way Terrain is laid out, just an overwhelming sense that whoever has put it all together knows exactly what they are doing and isn’t interested in pedalling the same stuff as everyone else. Even with the sterling to dollar exchange rate stacked heavily against me, I felt compelled to buy because I knew I would not find Terrain’s wares elsewhere. That, Dear Readers, is what’s called ‘having a compelling offer’, otherwise known as being competitive, and finding a niche.
Whilst Terrain is outstanding in the context of the USA (Jayson Home & Garden in Chicago is another favourite of mine) the model of high-end garden retailing in a beautiful environment is more commonplace in Europe. I have visited many European garden shops over the years and the best are very, very good. Oogenlust, situated in Eersel, a short distance from Eindhoven, is exceptional. Started in 1980 by Marcel and Monique van Dijk, Oogenlust (meaning ‘lust’ or ‘feast’ for the eyes) began as a small flower shop and has blossomed into one of The Netherlands’ leading event florists, providing jaw-dropping floral displays for society events and top hotels.
With over 30 years’ experience under their belts, Marcel and Monique moved their business to a 13.5 acre site in the countryside in 2013, offering visitors the opportunity to take part in floristry workshops, and to browse a beautifully curated selection of cut flowers, arrangements, art work and gifts. From the minute one arrives in the carpark, greeted by rousing classical music piped from a cedar-clad building on the other side of the lake, one is absorbed into a world of fabulous flowers and exotic interiors.
The ‘shop’ (for want of better words to describe it) carries an eclectic mix of statuary, garden ornament, statement plants, gifts and floral art in a league of its own. A Christmas wreath, for example, might be fashioned from jewelled brooches, living succulents, delicate seedheads and gilded foliage. These festive adornments don’t come cheap, but they are exquisite.
Even before I crossed the threshold, the sense of anticipation created by the music had set my heart racing, only for my eyes to then be greeted with a cavalcade of scented flowers and aromatic foliage. Christmas ornaments hung down from huge, naked branches and fresh-cut Christmas trees dangled from the ceilings. A cosy library, complete with roaring fire, was laid out with a sumptuous selection of coffee table books.
Every vista in the shop is considered with an artist’s eye, carefully framed, always with something to tempt you further in to Oogenlust’s floral fantasy. Amongst the planters and decorations were urns brimming with combinations of flora and fauna that appeared to have been plucked from an enchanted forest – jewelled branches, tiny fruits fashioned into ornaments, gnarled and twisted branches draped with pure white porcelain flowers, even airplants atop the heads of white swans. We talk about retail theatre in the UK. Oogenlust is retail opera.
I have long felt that the UK lacks anything approaching the quality of the garden retail one can find on the continent. Large garden centres, especially the chains, have lost much of their individuality, buying as they do in big groups to secure better deals. This might offer consumers competitive prices, but it does not offer much in the way of variety or inspiration. Ubiquity does not move the industry forward, and it is lazy retailing. We all have enough ‘stuff’, indeed most of us have too much of it: if you are going to tempt customers to acquire more it needs to be better, more special and more distinctive. When, one day, I retire from mainstream retail, I dream of founding a garden shop like Terrain or Oogenlust where I can combine commerciality with my wildest imagination. More individuals and entrepreneurs should be encouraged to do so: this nation of gardeners deserves places like Terrain and Oogenlust in which to spend its money.
Terrain, 561 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut, 06880, USA: website
Oogenlust, Hees 4, 5521 NV Eersel, The Netherlands: website