The Hudson Box

It helps me to define something, should I be able to give it a name. I could write a book about places, landscapes and their names.  Detroit Garden Works-I named the shop by making a list of all those words that I thought best described what I had in mind.  My city, my love of what goes on locally, the garden-of course, and works-as in works of art, in the works, working garden, work it out-you get the idea.  My garden-Rob named it Corgi Run.  It is a perfectly apt description of a landscape designed to accomodate two boisterous dogs of very short stature without looking like a dog run with decoration.  The flowers are up high-as in roses, or containers, and the boxwood has corgi doors carved in their favorite entrance and exit spots.  I have grass-and only the most rugged groundcover on the ground plane. My beloved beech ferns are on an intermediate level; the hellebores are outside the fence. Corgi Run-the name says it all. I wanted to design a handsome box with rugged good looks that would be equally at home in a contemporary landscape as a more traditional one. Subtle, stately, engaging.  Naming it after Rock Hudson seemed just right.  The Hudson River landscape paintings-handsome, and distinctly American paintings.  OK, so I have an active imagination.  Hudson-what does that word suggest to you? Try naming the place before you design and plant it-who knows where that might take you.   

The Hudson box has but a few details-a generously large molding at the top ordinarily used in the construction of iron handrails, and two smaller and simpler moldings, my obscure nod to a classic Italian terra cotta double rolled rim pot. The simplicity of the design lends itself to the construction of lots of different shapes.  This particular rectangle fits the spot in a satisfying way.  Spots that need square containers, or rectangular containers seem to need just the right size-not just any size.  For years I had two round matching Italian terra cotta pots in this spot.  The round worked fine,I like the fitted Hudson box better in this space.

These squares were made to fit a specific space on a flight of cypress stairs.  The boxes are in lieu of a handrail-a simple be careful on the stairs.  The box in the background is home to an espaliered apple tree.  We lined the box with styrofoam insulating sheeting; the tree has lived over the winter in the box for three seasons now.  In this case, a very large box, capable of holding a considerable soil mass, seemed like a good idea for the health of the tree. The cypress deck is large and sparingly furnished-a big box works just fine here.

I rarely buy window boxes for the shop-what size would I pick?  No two windows are the same.  I like window boxes that go wide of the windows, so it looks like the window has something substantial to sit on.  This variation on the Hudson box with associated brackets were made for this specific window-and they look like it.  There are actually three separate boxes.  Part of this has to do with not placing too much stress on the wall when we hang them, but part has to do with the galvanzing process.  A zinc bath of some 800 degrees can warp steel that is not adequately captured by a frame.  Long boxes are particularly subject to damage.  Now we build long or large boxes from a thicker steel. 

This Hudson box was outfitted with plumbing, and makes a fine fountain. The box has legs, so the boxwood skirt does not obscure too much of the detail of the bottom of the box.  This year the boxwood covers the legs altogether.  Hudson boxes make beautiful fountain cisterns.   

Not every design looks so great in a very large size; this box is still graceful when it is large.  It anchors this side door entrance garden with ease.  My client plants for all four seasons; there is always something interesting going on. Driving up, she has a seasonal garden going on-dead ahead. The driveway garden-I have written before about the importance of the landscape that marks your arrival home.  I may not get to every garden every day-but I do indeed drive up every day. I want to like what I see, when I come home.        

The largest of my Hudson boxes to date-a cistern 4′ by 8′.  It was designed to be placed in an overscaled drivecourt.  Without going into any detail, my client shares a driveway with two other homes; a big drivecourt was needed to handle family and friends. The size of this cistern breaks up a giant paved space, with a garden object of interest.  

This big red SUV has nothing on this Hudson box cistern -does it? Exactly my intention.  Stately, handsome, graceful, bigger than life-this is how I remember Rock Hudson.  Buck’s construction is true, square, level. This cistern, though the planting is yet to come, shows no signs of him wrestling this 1800 pound object as he welded it. It is a garden ornament of grace and dignity-I cannot wait to see the three fountain jets, representing.      

This Hudson box is set in concert with a long and low window.  It features an ever so slight bow front.  Pictures of the summer planting to come.  The Hudson box-I am pleased with it.  Every one of these Hudson boxes were fabricated by Buck.  A Buck week-he deserves it.

Buck Week

I was remiss in one very important regard concerning the development of the Jackie boxes a few days ago.  They would not have been possible without Buck.  A Saarinen scholar in architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 70’s, a licensed contractor, and an architect and Director of technical design with Rossetti Architects for years-he agreed to come on at Branch.  He makes it possible for me to make the idea of beautiful objects for gardens a reality.  Though he has lived in Michigan for over 30 years, he is Texas to the bone.  He still has the accent; his southern style language can be better than colorful.  He loves anything that goes fast or makes lots of noise; this makes him a Harley guy.  Outside of this,  he is a very talented CAD designer, and an exactingly precise and formidably talented fabricator. He informs all of my design with a construction process that is solid, durable, true and square. And he is famous with me for having infinite patience,  as I struggle trying to put a good design together. I thought I should take some time to talk about some of the things he has made, and how he makes them. 

The Jackie box is by no means the only box we manufacture.  This lattice box with a diamond medallion and button is a complex box to make, though the general construction is very much the same as the Jackie box. He contructs the size of the lattice based on the overall size of the box.  The idea is to represent as many complete diamonds as possible, with no awkward shapes on the frame edges.  You can see in this three quarter view that all the partial diamonds match all the way around. The liner in this case is extira board varnished with marine varnish.  I like the contrast between the solid steel diamond, and the open latticework diamonds.  It is a detailed yet elegant box. Best of all, it is so perfectly contructed no one would notice the construction.  Buck has no interest in a slip that shows. 

This lattice box, custom made for a client, has a copper liner. The look is much more formal than the extira version, but much the same warm color.  Special request from clients, he handles them like the professional that he is. He personally sees to every detail.  Every box is tig welded-by Buck.  He shepards them through the hot dip galvanizing process.  He acid washes them himself.  Every box we make-made by hand.  

We did make the tall lattice box with the panel at the top; the intricate detail of the lattice welcomes and supports the plain rectangle at the top.  This rectangular shape does a great job of making a considerable statement at the front door. 

One season a client requested a cream yellow extira board panels.  I followed suit with a planting that celebrated that yellow.  In late fall, the extira boards got a coat of dark chocolate paint.  What made by hand gets you is the ability to update by hand.  This I like.

Our tall lattice boxes now sport extira panels in a dark blue grey.  This color so celebrates the color of the acid washed steel. A dark base color lends importance to the variation in the steel finish color.  Acid washing is more than unpredictable.  No matter how many tests we make, each run has its own character.  Should you like the variability of the color of lead, you will like this finish. 

My Jackie box-I hope it is as reserved and beautifully formal as Jackie K.  Buck saw to all of the details.  The lattice box makes much of every gardener’s love of lattice,  and then some.  Every single box we have at the shop comes from Buck’s hands.  This week-I plan to celebrate that.  Buck week.

The Jackie Box

Who knows why I have never posted about my subsidiary company, the Branch Studio, but I will now. Five years ago or better I created a division of Deborah Silver and Company devoted to the creation and manufacture of fine objects for gardens.  A thirteen thousand square foot building houses a wood shop, a kiln, sophisticated welding equipment and all that goes with. a fabrication  studio. It has long been been a dream of mine-to design and manufacture great objects for gardens in a variety of materials.  Designing beautiful and functional objects is not easy.  Each object has a beginning, CAD drawings, a series of prototypes, a tuneup, and a number of revisions; there is an entire evolutionary process that goes on longer than I thought.  And longer still. Most everything can be improved upon, can it not?       

Not surprisingly, the first item on my design agenda-a box.  I have a long standing love affair with the garden box.  Some call them orangery boxes; the first image that comes to my mind are the boxes at Versailles, used to house an enormous collection of citrus trees.  I doubt most people feel their glass of lemonade is a luxury; sophisticated growing and shipping make it possible to buy a lemon for not so much money every day of the year.  But there was a time in northern climates when having oranges available to eat meant growing orange trees and wintering them under glass.  Giant boxes housing citrus trees were a feature at Versailles.  The Versailles box still made by Les Jardins du Roi Soleil-they made my heart pound 20 years ago and still do.  Manufactured of hinged wood panels, and cast iron frames, a fruit tree destined for a winter in the orangery could easily be slid out and moved indoors, while the boxes stayed put outdoors.  I imported and sold plenty of them over the past 15 years.  All my gardening life I have wanted to make beautiful boxes.  For boxwood topiaries, for trees, for citrus, for flowers, for tomatoes.  A well donebox can provide an elegant and generously sized home for a garden.

My first box design-the Jackie box.  This classic box with an X detail celebrated by a button of note-inspired by Jackie Kennedy. Her fabulous Oleg Cassini suits featured big buttons I will never forget. I am not the only one who admired her great style. Her suit buttons are so much a part of my history, and so much a part of what I admire about design. These buttons were jewelry integral to the overall design of the suit.  Though I have not one bit of interest in clothes myself, I admired Mr. Cassini’s design work, and the iconic Jackie Kennedy.   My first Jackie boxes had extira board panels-a favorite of sign companies; these panels do not absorb water.  They could be left to weather, be varnished like the panels of a Brownie camera, or painted. 

Though weatherproof, each Jackie box has its own galvanized metal liner, and a removeable steel frame sitting on top that provides the illusion of thickness, and finishes the top edge with a wide band of steel.  Welded to the bottom, bun feet know in the metal industry as squashed ball feet. A citrus tree could be lifted out of the box in its galvanized liner, and wintered in a conservatory.

The first variation on the Jackie box-a tall box with a rectangluar panel at the bottom. We also made a series with the panel at the top-but I like this version best. The tall box has a much different feeling than the square. It is no surprise that geometry has visual cache, but shapes have an emotional component as well.  Some squares are pleasingly solid and formal-others can be stodgy-funny that.  Part of the design process was selecting sizes and proportions that are heartstopping, not sleepy.   

I grew up designing objects at the same pace that the Jackie boxes evolved. The brown extira board was certainly durable, but this brown is better on a UPS truck than a planter box.  These painted extira board panels were a reference to the shutter color on the house.  This was the decision of the client, and her interior designer Lucy Earl-it would not have been my call. But I was surprised how much I liked the end result-the colors of the flowers I have chosen have everything to do with the blue of this box; it was much too strong to ignore.  

I did however take a cue from those blue extira board panels.  We now paint our boxes for the shop with Porter exterior acrylic paint.  It is amazingly durable.  This color, a darker blue grey than the steel.  The painted extira panel has finally come into its own.    

This small Jackie box was made with steel in smaller widths, and a smaller buttom. Scaling a design up or down requires looking at the dimension and thickness of every component.  Lots of things seem obvious now that were not so obvious at the beginning.    

A beautiful box-I have been after that design a good many years.  We are now making the Jackie box with solid steel panels.  I think it is a good looking box.  Given the currently astronomical price of lead, I think this steel and its finish provides a viable and handsome alternative to that classic material.  Judging from the orders we have filled this season for Jackie boxes in a number of sizes and panel options, other people are starting to think so too.  I have a pair of Jackie boxes very close to finish-38″ by 38″ by 30″ tall made with 1/4 inch thick steel-to be planted with flowers.  I cannot wait.