Mario Nievera

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When we asked landscape designer, Mario Nievera how he had come to his career, he sort of sighed and said, “I had to declare a major.” It was obviously one of those unwittingly lucky choices because he is now one of the most sought-after landscape architects in the country. He made his name designing gardens in Palm Beach where he still has an office but he, together with his husband Travis Howe own an apartment near Washington Square Park and a house in East Hampton where he has his own garden—apparently it’s not a place where he can kick back and relax: “I’m a disaster. I’m always screaming at the gardener.”

So neither Sian or I have that much house envy – this is our tenth year of doing this – but I was consumed with garden envy when I was looking at your website. What I’m curious about is once you’ve invested so much into a garden, is it easy to walk away and get on with the next project? You must want to return because obviously the gardens are changing over time.

You know, it’s hard because I don’t really get a chance to return but when I do it’s really refreshing and great. One thing is to see it being constructed but it’s a whole other thing when you actually see [clients] using it. Everything you predict works!

Did you grow up with a big garden?

Er … did I grow up with a garden? I wasn’t a gardener.

A photograph of Madonna with Martha Graham and Calvin Klein by Jonathan Becker welcomes visitors to Mario and his husband Travis Howe’s lower Fifth Avenue apartment. The table lamps are by Simon Pearce and the console is from Room & Board.
A view into the foyer from the living room.
On the far wall a photograph by Charles Ruger hangs above a mirrored console purchased at an antique store in Lake Worth, Florida. Mario arranged a group of santos from the Philippines near a Lucite table lamp from Flair.
A painting by David Hockney hangs above a round table by John Robsjohn-Gibbings. The painting on the table is by Keith LeBlanc. Mario and Travis are debating whether to recover the original leather upholstery of their French side chair.
The living room is a sophisticated mix of neutral fabrics and textures with pop of color from an abstract painting by John Howard hanging above the custom sofa from A. Rudin.
An étagère from Mitchell Gold is filled with art books, family photos, favorite objects and santos from the Philippines.

So what’s the essential difference between a landscaper and a gardener?

I was much more in love with architecture. I was interested in the street and the approach to the house … and how the house was set on the site but I wasn’t interested in the garden as such.

So what is happening now with regard to gardening and landscaping?

People have a huge awareness of the inside-outside connection … the awareness of landscape in North America has just blossomed.

What do you attribute that to?

Um … I’d say … um … the internet. [laughs]

More views of the living room seating area. Holtkoetter floor lamps flank the sofa and stand next to a pair of Asian stools from Mecox Gardens.

A Filipino painting hangs above a black lacquer Jansen-style desk from Jayson Home. The lamp on the desk is from Lillian August and the stunning silver pitcher is by Georg Jensen. The chair is by Todd Hase.

Looking across the living room seating area towards the mirrored built-in bar.
Art books and other objects are carefully arranged atop a 1950s Dunbar coffee table/pouf from Evan Lobel.

For me, I’m British, and I’m amazed at some of these American gardens, the instaneity of them. They can bring in these massive old trees … I had never even known that was possible. What’s your position on instant trees?

Well, that’s usually for people who can afford them.

Do you bring in these mammoth trees?

Yeah, sure, I do.

Can you tell us how you do it?

In Florida you’re limited to the size of tree you can bring down the road—the highway department won’t allow it—it has to be less than 20 feet wide, which is still pretty wide. Florida plants move very easily because they root out. But say with a beech tree, they take out a root ball that’s about a quarter of the size of the actual tree … it’s huge and it’s wrapped up beautifully in rope. There’s big machinery that scoops it up, picks it up in the air and then another machine wraps it all up in burlap.

A Sony flat screen TV hangs above the wood-burning fireplace mantel.
A corner of the living room was turned into a cozy eating area. Jean de Merry’s “Lumiere” chandelier hangs over a glass and steel table by Warren Platner.
The custom banquette is covered in fabric from Mulberry.
Brightly colored parrot tulips give a pop of color to the Warren Platner table. The candlesticks are from Item in Provincetown, MA.
A plaster “Head of a Man” found on eBay stands atop acrylic stacking tables by Plexi-Craft.

A machine does it?

Yes, it’s all machines. It used to be by hand. Those nursery guys, they take a lot of responsibility. They have to have all the machinery on hand and they have to take care of the tree before they sell it.

So are there like tree scouts out there?

Yes, exactly. For instance I’ve got this guy in Florida … [lowers his voice] big man … big man … you wouldn’t want to …well, he’ll go to some street way out in the sticks and find beautiful trees and say I’ll give you $200 or whatever that tree, or a $1000 because he can sell it for ten times that.

Are there trends in trees … fashionable trees?

Oh yeah! [In Florida] the “autograph tree” … you can write your name on its leaves and you can use them for place cards. They’re wonderful trees and they’re low water, they live long, they have beautiful, interesting gnarly trunks when they grow and they’re salt tolerant. Up here … what am I buying? Beech trees, hornbeams … Japanese maples.

Looking into the master bedroom from the main hallway. The walls are covered in a high-gloss paper by Philip Jefferies. The runner is by Madeline Weinrib.
In a corner of the master bedroom a Hermès throw is draped over the back of a side chair from Pier One Imports. Mario and Travis found the 1950s floor lamp on eBay.

A sculptural wall fixture by Serge Mouillé hangs above a bed from Restoration Hardware. The bed is outfitted in linens from Serena & Lily and a blanket from Home Nature.

Looking across the bed towards the sunny, quiet courtyard. The curtains are from Raoul Textiles.
Navy velvet pillows from Room & Board and another smaller pillow out of fabric by Meg Braff add a finishing touch to the master bedroom bed.

How much does all this tree-re-location cost?

Like … $200,000 …

For one tree? You must really want that tree! What if it doesn’t work?

Well, everyone wants it to work … In the Hamptons, one of the big nurseries is Marders and you can go into their nursery yard next to K-Mart and walk around and look at all the different trees sitting in the air. It’s crazy … it’s very American. Instant lawns … instant everything.

Does that get to you sometimes?

I have to admit it sometimes does. When I design a garden, I want it to look like it’s been there a long time. But I like the idea of preserving trees that another person may not want anymore. And it’s good for the economy … but I just wish there was a way for people to be more patient about it.

How patient are you?

As a person? [laughs] I’m pretty patient … although there are people who would disagree with that.

A white porcelain Foo dog lamp stands upon a chest of drawers, both from Todd Hase. The rug is by Fleetwood Fox.
Photos of Mario and Travis as well as a silver vessel purchased in San Miguel Allende are arranged on a bedside table from Lillian August.

A tray with bedtime reading and another photo of Mario and Travis are perched atop a pouf found on eBay.
Two photogravures by German photographer Karl Blossfeldt and drawings found in a Chinese flea market hang in a corner of the master bedroom. The designer of the apartment, Ann Glenn of IM Design, gave the walls more definition by adding box molding and faux shagreen wallpaper by Phillip Jeffries.
Clothes and shoes are neatly arranged in the walk-in closet.

We’re so fascinated by all this talk of trees but I do want to talk about your project in China [in Shanghai]. Is this one of these housing complexes around themes, like perfect replicas of British Georgian houses or Italian villas and so forth? Was this one of those?

Yes, exactly. It was called Rose Garden and [there were] about a hundred homes. In China they sell them fully-done, interiors … everything, fully stocked … dishes, everything.

Presumably that’s what they want?

The developer said this. He said, “These are newly-minted millionaires. They don’t know how to spend their money and we are telling them how to do it.”

So what do the houses look like in the end?

It was meant to look like any style … it was like you would find in any American suburb … I mean we’ve been doing it in the US for years. It’s the same idea. [The Chinese] always hire designers and architects from the US.

A photogravure of by German photographer Karl Blossfeldt hangs on a wall near the master bedroom door. The doors and hardware are original but were restored.
Peeking into the kitchen from the bedroom hallway.
Tall custom cabinets with Silestone countertops maximize the space in the “Manhattan-size” kitchen. The wallpaper is by Phillip Jeffries.

What did you think of it as an overall experience?

Um … it was really cool … but I’m glad it’s over.

People seem to prefer something on the more formal side and your gardens tend towards the more formal than the rambling, overgrown look. If you were left to your own devices, which would you choose?

Formal. They’re more manageable. But I’m not too formal because it can become lifeless.

So does a rambling garden make you want to run around and clip back all the vegetation? I think I’m talking about British gardens again.

No, I love that. I just think … you asked me if I was patient … that’s where my impatience level goes. I can’t look at something and say, “Well, it’ll come back next year” or “It looks better in April than it does in May.” Personally I don’t have enough time to sit there and wait for something to look good. You need to have a greater understanding about to compose a perennial garden … the timing and the rhythm of it … it’s so hard. I’ve tried it a couple of times and failed.

The round “penny” floor tiles from the kitchen flow into the adjacent guest bath. A handsome marble commode sink by Laura Kirar for Kallista is outfitted with custom embroidered guest towels.

What about your own garden [in the Hamptons] Can you let go?

No. I’m a disaster. I’m always screaming at the gardener.

So one last question … what is the difference between a plant and a weed?

Very little.

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