Contemporary formal - BOLD VISIONS, GREAT DESIGNS - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Bold Visions, Great Designs

Contemporary formal


The alignment of geometric shapes fuses architectural elements with tightly trained plant forms to create a tranquil, but carefully controlled space. Use of high calibre materials underpins the style.


CRISP AND CLEAN, formal gardens’ distinctive style combines strict symmetry, geometric shapes and structural plant forms. Ideal for both urban and country settings, these designs are perfect for those who like a sense of order and are prepared to invest in good quality materials to create the look.

Geometric principles

Of all the various styles, the formal garden is the one most readily identified and perhaps the most imposing. The use of strong lines and geometry to create a hierarchy of interrelated and interlocking shapes exerts a powerful effect on the landscape, one brimming with confidence and self-assertion, and seemingly offering the opportunity for tight control and ascendancy over nature. Results are crisp and clean-cut, with blocks, rectangles and other geometric shapes realised in hard and soft landscaping materials, while the interplay of scale, proportion and perspective generates a wealth of drama and theatrical effects.

Formal designs can be employed with great success in almost any space, large or small. They can be used to recreate an ornate period piece or to produce something radical and contemporary, or austere and minimalist. If you have never designed before, the formal style is also one of the simplest to employ, as shapes are rigidly geometric and easily linked together to produce an aesthetically pleasing picture.

Symmetry is central to the design of a traditional formal garden, with features mirrored on either side of a central axis, often a path or lawn. Motifs, in terms of designed spaces or elements, such as patterns in paving or topiary spheres, are often repeated either side of the axis to provide visual harmony, or slightly askew to strike a note of discord. Designers of formal style also link the garden to the house or other buildings by aligning key elements, such as paths, terraces and lawns, with the windows, doors or gateways, thereby extending the architecture into the landscape. The ground plan of the garden may also closely reflect the floor spaces within the house. In traditional large formal gardens, this alignment becomes looser and more informal with distance from the building, before merging into the surrounding landscape, but because the space around most homes today is at a premium, this is not always possible or practicable.

Many gardens include formal elements, whether it is the geometric shape of borders, alignment of a straight pathway or arrangement of vistas, but these are often subsequently blurred by other features that are more casually positioned. It is only when geometrical elements and their mathematical arrangement predominate that the powerful effect of the truly formal garden is realised.

Roots in history

Formal design has its roots in the 17th century gardens of the great French and particularly the Italian palaces. Designers of today have been influenced by the famous terrace gardens cut into the mountainous northern Italian landscape, such as the Villa d’Este and the Boboli gardens, as well as the formal parterre gardens, including Versailles and Vaux le Vicomte in the Loire Valley in France.

Contemporary designs also make reference to design principles developed by ancient cultures, such as those of Greece, Persia and Rome, which featured cloistered or open courtyard gardens that offered shade, shelter and repose from the dry, sun-beaten climate. These oases included still water, fountains and trees to promote reflection and quiet contemplation, with flowers to stimulate the senses.

Modern developments

Contemporary designers of formal gardens often combine the classical principles seen in these historic gardens with a more minimalist approach, and may also include elements of Modernist style in their work.

Modernism in garden design takes its influence from a number of 20th century artistic and cultural movements, from Cubism and the Bauhaus school to the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, as well as influential architects, such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Luis Barragán. Like formal style, use of strong geometry underpins the approach, but designs tend to be asymmetrical, while the philosophy that ‘form follows function’ is often used to shape and characterise the space. Recent developments in technology also inform designs, with structures made from modern materials, including concrete, glass, plastic and metal. Planar surfaces of different textures are frequently aligned or intersected in stark, yet serene contrast, while architectural frameworks for buildings and walls are sometimes left exposed, demonstrating their functionality.

Designers select paving materials, such as polished or finely sawn stone, for their sublime surface properties, and they may also use expanses of fine gravel to lend subtle colour and texture. Closely mown turf, when included, provides a soothing foil for the hard landscape and planting.

Bright colour is employed sparingly and potently in these designs, perhaps in the furniture or on a wall, and the interplay of light and shade helps to generate atmosphere. The designer’s aim is to bring together all the elements in understated layers to build a framework, while abstract works of art or sculpture, together with water, often dramatically illuminated, provide powerful focal points.

Contemporary formal planting designs

Structural plant forms are used sparingly in both formal and Modernist-inspired gardens. Crisply clipped hedges of yew, box or deciduous hornbeam provide barriers, edges or blocks to reinforce the design. Pleached hornbeam or lime, with branches trained to create elevated screens of foliage atop bare trunks, are also used to provide privacy and control views through the space. Topiary is popular in contemporary formal designs, with pyramids, cubes, globes or cylinders carved from bay, box, holly, yew or Portuguese laurel. Spaces may also be punctuated with trees and large shrubs pruned to raise their canopies to expose decorative stems, or with cloud-pruned specimens planted at strategic points or in large, elegant containers. Cloud pruning, a style that originated in China and Japan, crafts multi-stemmed specimens of fine-leaved shrubs, such as Ilex crenata, into elevated globes of foliage to produce striking features. Flowering plants, if used, are confined to particular beds, which may be filled with colour-themed seasonal bedding, monochromatic flowers and foliage, or naturalistic-style plantings to counterpoint the formality.

Decorative highlights

Even though the current trend is for quiet, contemplative spaces that utilise a restrained palette of colours, contemporary and formal gardens can be made vibrant through the use of paving, gravel and artifacts, or with splashes of brightly coloured foliage and flower. The trick is to weave together colourful elements so they do not overwhelm each other to maintain the elegant look. Designers often include sculptures or artworks to decorate formal designs, providing incidental interest or a dramatic focus for a vista, their impact intensified by the absence of floral distraction. Contemporary works of art with simple, clean lines in polished stone or metal, blend perfectly into a formal design, while elevated stone friezes make dramatic focal points where ground space is at a premium. Static or moving water can enliven a space, too, a single fountain, cascade or film conveying movement, reflection and sound.

As furniture is the main functional item in the garden and on permanent display, it should be chosen with care and embody or complement the nature of the design in some way, through shape, texture or colour. Painting mismatched structures, such as timber chairs and tables, in a single understated tone throughout will help provide visual cohesion, with restrained flourishes of gilt paint enhancing the theatricality of the design.


Intricate arrangements of low growing evergreen foliage plants, knot gardens are designed to give the impression of interlocking lengths of rope, giving rise to the name, and are especially effective when viewed from an elevated position, such as an upstairs window. They were introduced to Britain during the reign of Elizabeth I, and influenced by the garden designs of Italy. Most were highly symbolic, depicting messages of love, the family crest or elements found in the house; others were simply puzzles to be solved. Historically, cotton lavender (Santolina), thrift (Armeria maritima) and myrtle (Myrtus communis) were used to create the knots, with box (Buxus sempervirens) becoming popular later. In Tudor times the gaps between the structural plants were filled with crushed brick, sands, or even coal, but today designers have a wealth of colourful gravels and materials to choose from. Alternatively, you can fill the gaps with spring bulbs and summer bedding or colourful ground-cover plants to create seasonal interest.

Parterre gardens are similar to knots, but the structural plants are not designed to overlap like rope. Examples of traditional parterres can be seen in the formal Renaissance gardens of Europe, such as those at Villandry in France, where clipped box is laid out in intricate patterns. Today, designers often use simpler geometric shapes to produce similar effects.


A formal parterre garden design by Nigel Philips


An elevated geometrical canopy pierced by a cluster of copper rods creates a striking tableau. The contemporary style contrasts with the ancient technique used to build the rammed earth walling.



Symmetrical blocks of yew anchor quartets of golden Catalpa around a central rill, which commands the vista back to the house. The unfettered clarity of the central design maintains the sense of formality.



A selection of clipped and statuesque plant forms, including hornbeam hedges and upright and globular yew specimens, punctuate these interconnected spaces.



A paved courtyard populated by clipped box hedges, artfully used to outline the various beds, lends a sense of formality and helps to guide the eye through the open spaces.



Complementary dark-toned surfaces inset with repeated plant motifs are the ying and yang of this Modernist-inspired town garden, with planting neatly confined to the margins.




A contemporary formal garden

This tree-shrouded garden is located behind a Victorian house in central London, and the aim was to realise an outdoor space that complemented the proportions of the rooms within, with a stone-clad patio of identical tone to the flooring inside. Layered greenery and trees play a crucial role in creating the quiet, contemplative atmosphere of the 25m x 20m (82ft x 66ft) space. The focal point is a bronze sculpture, ‘Double Ellipse’ by Nigel Hall RA, elegantly showcased on smooth rendered walls, its shadows playing across the surface. A shallow water feature by Andrew Ewing reflects the sculpture during daylight, while illuminated jets sparkle at night. Tiered hedges in box (Buxus sempervirens), yew (Taxus baccata), and Portugese laurel, (Prunus lusitanica), counterpoint the installation, and a cloak of Virginia creeper [Parthenocissus] provides potent autumnal colour. The whole edifice is set around a verdant lawn framed by charcoal basalt paviors.


Italian-born Luciano studied at the Inchbald School of Design in London and set up his own practice in 1997. His philosophy embodies the arrangement of space and proportion of elements, including plants, materials and art, to create harmony, elegance and a sense of timelessness. He has won many awards, including gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, as well as ‘Best in Show’ in 2014. Based in London, he is currently working on landscape projects in the UK, Europe and the USA.



1 Formal hedging

Tiered hedging both reinforces the geometry of the space and leads the eye into the garden. The hedge surfaces also reflect light.

2 Dramatic sculpture

The serene setting framing this iconic sculpture make it a powerful focal point. Water and lighting below enliven the scene both day and night.

3 Restful lawn

By acting as a foil, the expanse of neatly manicured turf prepares the eye for the drama ahead. Black tile edging boldly frames the space, while also acting as a mowing strip.

4 Perfect patio

Crisp, cream-toned stone imparts a restful, high-calibre finish to the patio, and a visual link to the sculpture beyond.