Madison Cox is an American garden designer and has worked in the United States, Europe and North Africa. Responsible for the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, he is director of the Saint Laurent Museums in Paris and in Marrakech, and president of the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation (PBYSL) since the death of Pierre Bergé in September 2017. I caught up with Madison Cox in Marrakech.
OUR GOAL IS TO SPARK A PASSION
You are now the president of the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent (PBYSL) Foundation based in Paris, and the Jardin Majorelle Foundation in Marrakech. What an heritage!
That’s right. It is overwhelming and very exciting. It is not a surprise. I knew that it was going to happen at one point or another.
Pierre Bergé prepared you for this?
For the last 15 years I worked here at the Majorelle gardens as the director (gérant).
What is PBYSL all about?
Paris is the former ‘Maison de Couture’. From the very first days of the ‘Maison Saint Laurent’, Pierre and Yves started to save archives, drawings, sketches, fabrics and samples. From day one they started to create an archive, which was totally unusual in that industry. Picasso left for instance an incredible amount of work related to his life and the same happened to Warhol. Saint Laurent’s life is very well documented too. But at the beginning they had no idea of creating a museum.
“At the beginning they had no idea of creating a museum.”
Saint Laurent was from Algeria. Why a museum in Paris and another one in Marrakech?
Paris because he was French and Paris is where his fashion house was based. Marrakech because he wrote many times that in 1966 he discovered the power of color in Marrakech. Up until that point he only designed in black and white. During their first trip Pierre and Yves bought a small house in the Medina. Saint Laurent fell madly in love with the culture.
What about the Majorelle connection and this new YSL museum, inaugurated last year in October?
The French painter Jacques Majorelle opened the garden to the public in 1947. By 1980 Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé were living next door to the Jardin Majorelle and the widow who then owned the property died. They learnt that the property would immediately be sold to a group of Moroccan business people who planned to demolish the garden and make a hotel complex. Saint Laurent and Bergé bought the property to save it.
Did you change the garden?
When I arrived to do work here it was the late 1990s. I introduced a number of new plants and made some alterations. This garden today has become one of the most visited sites in Marrakech, with some 800,000 visitors a year. Now, with the opening of the museum, there will be many more.
Who conceived the museums?
Studio KO, which is Karl Fournier and Olivier Maty, architects based in Paris and Marrakech. There is a permanent exhibition hall, Yves Saint Laurent creations, a temporary exhibition space where we will be exhibiting contemporary artists as well as past, a bookshop and an auditorium. All this is open to the general public. Then we have a research library that is open by appointment, as well as a conservation room and storerooms where we store Yves Saint Laurent’s work, rare books and a large Berber collection, because there is also a Berber culture museum within the Majorelle garden.
Is your main job still to be a garden designer?
Yes. I have based my garden design office in New York and I have been fortunate to work in many parts of the world: Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, and now Asia.
Do you have very well-known and demanding clients?
Yes, very much so, and very private people I have to say. I also do commercial projects, hotel projects, notably with Ian Schrager who has hotels all over the world: the Delano in Miami, the Mondrian in Los Angeles, and the Gramercy Hotel in New York. In the past 15 years I have had this dual role, to be the director (gérant) of the Jardin Majorelle as well as doing gardens for private commissions.
Where do you live?
I don’t know. I am a legal resident of Tangier, Morocco, where I rarely am. I am constantly on the road.
“By definition a garden is always in a state of ‘flux’, always in movement and change.”
Do you have a signature design style?
What I try to do when creating any garden, big or small, is to create an atmosphere or an environment that in one way or another can relate to the client, to the place and to the architecture. I do not have a signature look like some garden designers who impose their vision, regardless of the client, the place or the architecture. I don’t want to impose a strong look.
Some garden designers give more importance to flowers, others to plants. What about you?
I think the most important thing is the context. For example, in the context of Marrakech, where flowering plants are difficult to grow because of the harsh climate, I try to create an atmosphere that will evoke a sense of retreat, of paradise or mystery.
Have you made many gardens in Morocco?
Yes, about twelve, and they are all different. In Marrakech, Casablanca, Tangier. Each project becomes a different story and there are two types of clients.
In what sense?
There is a client like Marella Agnelli who is passionate about it. She’s extremely knowledgeable, with very strong opinions, which creates its own challenges for me as a garden designer. Then there are clients who have no knowledge, no experience and that is another challenge, which is to educate. Because, in the end, it is their garden, not mine. My role is to extract from them what they want.
Do you have your ideal garden?
I think is an unobtainable idea because by definition a garden is always in a state of ‘flux’, always in movement and change. Nothing is ever the same.
Do you think that climate change has had an effect on gardens?
Yes, of course, but there are also seasonal changes. It is not like architecture, in the sense that it is not static. Of course the gardens in Versailles, the gardens of André Le Nôtre, are very architectural, but even they change.
What about climate change?
There is a dramatic change, even in Marrakech. Just for example, in Marrakech the number of rainy days has dramatically diminished, plus the use of water has dramatically increased because of the expanding population; and that has a strong effect on how I design gardens in Marrakech and on the selection of plants.
Have you had to make changes even in the Majorelle garden?
Absolutely. All the lawns were removed because of the massive amount of water required to keep them, and were replaced with beige gravel. The same happens in Europe and other places. In Los Angeles I am working on two large projects, and for both of them the municipal authorities now require water consumption studies before issuing permits.
“If we can spark a passion or a creative expression, that is our goal.”
What is your idea of a garden? Is it a luxury or a public space?
I think it is all of that. Of course it is a luxury, whatever size it is, because it requires time, and time is precious. Because of my experience here at Majorelle I also have learned the power a garden has in transmitting the importance of the natural world, because today more and more of us, anywhere in the world, from China to Texas to Germany, are becoming ‘urban inhabitants’, and hence we have become removed from the natural world.
When did that start?
That started at the beginning of the industrial revolution of the 19th century. In the late 19th Century parks were created and became vital: Central Park in New York, Regent’s Park in London, Buttes-Chaumont in Paris. In the 21st century, lately, we are also coming into a period where gardens are vital.
The Majorelle garden has 800,000 visitors a year because in Marrakech there are very few garden experiences available to tourists and Marrakech residents. Forty three percent of the visitors to Majorelle are Moroccan; it is also a place where Moroccans come to experience a place that they have no access to anywhere else. So it is a luxury and we have to defend it. It is of vital importance that the public has the opportunity to experience it, and it has become a pedagogical tool for the younger generation. Now we are starting educational programs with the public schools of Marrakech.
In this technological world, where we mainly talk about artificial intelligence or virtual reality, do you think that to become a gardener is still a good job?
I think it is, more than ever, because as the 21st Century advances it becomes more dangerous, chaotic, and more fragile. We have to transmit the importance of the natural world to future generations.
Is fashion still a point of reference or is your Saint Laurent Museum a mausoleum of the past?
No, the YSL Museum is absolutely not a mausoleum, but on the contrary a testimony to individual creativity; and it will inspire future creation, whether it be fashion, music, literature, or any of the arts. Pierre Bergé defended Saint Laurent’s creative genius and the important idea is to inspire future creativity. If we can spark a passion or a creative expression, that is our goal.
Does passion lead your life?
Yes, without passion for plants, literature or music it becomes a pretty basic and monotonous world.
Marrakech, December 31st 2017.
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You can watch a video of Madison Cox introducing The Gardener’s Garden: Jardin Majorelle here.