“This,” said architectural designer, Brian Sawyer, indicating the rooms of his Greenwich Village apartment, “obviously, is full of stuff.” But “stuff” seems like an unworthy word for all his beautiful possessions: Chinese scholar’s rocks, glass cases filled with creatures furred and feathered, Thracian jars from Bulgaria, ammonites and amulets, ostrich feather dusters and yet more treasures tucked in away in drawers and boxes. “I just can’t deny myself a beautiful thing.”
He has amassed collections since his childhood, growing so many plants that eventually his father built him a greenhouse. That particular passion led to studying landscape design at the University of Virginia and a first job working for the Central Park Conservancy—“The best first job anyone could ever have.” In 1999 he founded, together with John Berson, Sawyer Benson, an interdisciplinary firm that practices architecture, landscape architecture and interior design and although things are busy, he is also designing a new home for himself in Bellport, where at last, he hopes to recreate a garden he once made as a young boy.
So you were telling us that you’ve been really busy—what’s making you so busy?
There’s just a lot of activity, a lot of new projects—and quite a few projects in the Hamptons, more and more site visits.
Some of the people we’ve been interviewing have been saying that there’s been an uptick in business since you-know-who has been president. Some of them have been a bit uneasy about saying it …
I’m not ashamed. I’m delighted! There’s an uptick in activity but not necessarily in commitment. People take months to decide what to do and who to hire—probably two to three times as long than before.
Why are they taking their time like this?
People are very measured. As much as they want to spend and do things, I think everybody approaches things with a good bit of caution. People are as rich as they’ve ever been [while] also remembering what it’s like to be smacked down in a financial crisis.
What proportion of your work is landscape design and what proportion architecture and interiors?
Our primary business in architecture—that’s where it starts. It’s either building a new apartment or building a new house. Landscaping is only about twenty percent of our work. We seldom do gardens on their own.
Oh—I thought that was your first love.
Oh, absolutely. I’m a landscape architect.
So when you study landscape architecture, I always think it must be a happy thing to study. Am I being too romantic about that?
[laughs]Um … it’s not quite that. At the University of Virginia, it was steeped in urban design and the history of cities and buildings and gardens and landscapes.
Oh … it sounds so academic. I thought you spent time tramping around outside in your rain boots.
That’s only a tiny part of landscape architecture. To be doing special gardens of just pretty things is a very rarified niche. I’m more interested in urban planning.
Well I didn’t mean just gardens—I meant parks or open city spaces but even so, why is it called “landscape design” if it is really urban planning?
Because you’re designing the spaces between the buildings and not the buildings—it’s hard to describe the point of departure but what it means is that you’re exposed to the urban planners, the architects and the other landscape architects and you’re all looking at different pieces of this puzzle. You need to understand the entire context of the city before taking on the boulevard or the park. But I grew up making gardens.
So tell us a bit about that. How old were you when you started collecting all your rocks and your plants?
Ever since I can remember. We had a big peony garden in our first house. It had been there probably for fifty years before my parents got it and a hedge of lilacs that I’ll never forget. I can remember all the trees and shrubs on that property: laburnums and a fantastic catalpa tree and a beautiful magnolia solangiana—I remember them very specifically because I was fiddling around in the garden. I was gardening with mother who was badgered by my grandfather, who was Dutch, into doing it. He was the one from whom I really learned.
So do you have Dutch family still?
Most of the relatives, what’s left of them are in Iowa, where they all moved in the 1870s to farm. It was almost a little bit … exposing, for me, because I was so interested in all that, exposing in a sense that it was very shocking to finally see what the greater part of my family had been doing for the last hundred years or so.
How old were you when you went to Iowa to visit them?
I was an adult—maybe thirty-five or something. I went to the final family reunion. There are not many of them left. I met my great-aunt and my great-uncle who were a hundred years old, but still working. And the one who is the taxidermist was ninety-eight.
And he was the one who left his collection to you, right?
He left a lot of it—most of which burned in my parents’ house.
Your parents’ house burned down?
It burned down and most everything burned down—in 1992 or was it ’94?
And how do you feel about that now and how did you feel at the time?
I remember getting the phone call—it’s a death. They were okay but their favorite dog died. They’ve rebuilt the house in kind. Oddly enough there was a cache of photographs that survived. It was just the weirdest thing.
Does the loss of all those possessions play into the fact that you’re such a collector?
I have a photographic memory for things—not for music or writing—I can’t recall a page out of a book. So to the extent that I can remember almost everything I had as a child, what it looked like and where it was, it’s there, in my mind somewhere, whereas … this [indicating the apartment] obviously, is full of stuff …
Do you keep accumulating?
I do. There are boxes and boxes and drawers … this is only about half of it.
So it doesn’t bother you, the accumulation of things that you don’t display?
No, it’s very reassuring. It’s like eating … like you can’t eat enough; you’re always hungry. I just can’t deny myself a beautiful thing.
Well we shouldn’t be asking to examine it as though it was something to be ashamed of!
[laughs] Almost like a mental condition … bordering on hoarding …border on hoarder …
But of course you’re called upon to create modern, clean spaces in your designs.
Most of our work is very modern. This other new house for me [in Bellport] is from 1920 and it will have very, very few things in it. And some of our clients’ houses are extremely severe and clean—in a large part influenced by the Belgian thing, although that has now vanished if you look at the magazines—it’s all about color and layering. But the clients are still in the other mode.
So you must be looking forward to that trend, velvets and color and so on.
Oh, I’m all for it but either [trend] can easily be de-railed.
We know you like to travel—I read something about you once climbing a volcano somewhere. What was that like?
Where did you read that?! That was years ago! Yeah, my friend Stephen and I hiked into a volcano. My socks were so hot that they melted into the bottom of my boots. I began to think, this probably isn’t good … then the guy who had taken us up abandoned us. You’re not supposed to be near a crater smelling the fumes. [He goes off to rummage in a drawer and comes back with a Swedish tea caddy, within which is a bag of volcanic dust] I had a bigger bag of it but it was thrown out by my housekeeper. I made her feel guilty by telling her it was my grandfather.
That was mean! Are you an adventurous traveler?
I wish I was more adventurous.
Give us your image, your dream, of the garden for your new house in Bellport.
Oh my gosh … right now the dream is a lawn full of clover and violets surrounded by a bed of nicotiana, the white flowering tobacco—they’re star-shaped and they open mostly at night. Under a full moon the garden looks like it has millions of white butterflies in it. I tried it once as a kid, so I want to have that garden again.