THE RICH BROTHERS - LANDSCAPE DESIGNERS AND ADVENTURERS
In 2015, Harry and David Rich became the youngest ever winners of a prestigious gold medal for their Cloudy Bay garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. The award catapulted the brothers into the upper echelons of the landscape design world. Not long after their Chelsea success, the Welsh duo boarded a train in Abergavenny bound for London to oversee the installation of the garden they designed for the Chanel Mademoiselle Privé exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. Born and raised in rural Wales, the brothers were inspired to become landscape designers from their childhood adventures in the Brecon Beacons. I meet Harry and David on a crisp winters day in their new studio to talk to them about growing up in the Brecon Beacons, how they find inspiration from nature, their interest in the slow living movement, and their passion for adventure.
Their studio is situated on a street in Shoreditch famous for its street art so on my way to the interview I cycle past a huddle of photographers examining the extravagant graffiti that adorns the walls opposite the brothers’ building. The studio is a cosy space on the third floor of a converted warehouse. For the past two years the brothers have been working off the kitchen table of their family home in rural Wales so are full of excitement about having their own office. Their workspace is spacious and airy with natural light pouring through large industrial windows. It has a minimalist aesthetic and is dominated by an OSB chipboard bookshelf, a simple rectangular desk, and two sofas. The brothers built the bookshelf and desk themselves; they always prefer to make things rather than buying them off the web. As for the sofas, they found one of them on the street while the other, a classic turquoise suede wooden framed sofa, they found on gumtree. An array of paintings and design drawings cover one of the walls and various potted plants and trees are scattered around the room. Harry’s beautiful Labrador Darcy is nestled in the corner of the turquoise sofa and lies obediently as we settle down to start the interview.
From a young age the brothers had a strong connection with nature and the seasons. Growing up in their parents’ house in the middle of the Welsh countryside, they were always encouraged to be outside but the onus was ultimately on them to make their own fun. They used to amuse themselves by going on long walks in the Brecon Beacons, swimming in the local river or travelling to the coast for a weekend of surfing in Rhossili Bay. They would also help their resourceful parents with chores around the house; Harry recalls a birthday spent building a new driveway while David has fond memories of helping his father knock down a stonewall.
The Brecon Beacons hold a special place in the brothers’ hearts. I can hear the excitement in their voices as they recall their childhood jaunts through the woodlands and open grasslands. Every walk was a new adventure because they would always detour off the main path to see the “incredible” reflections of the “beautiful” waterfalls and lakes or play in the dense woodland. The rugged, natural landscape of their childhood home comes across strongly in the brothers’ work. They are passionate about connecting people with nature so, with every garden, aim to give clients their own patch of nature set within a sympathetic and structured design.
The brothers have also found design inspiration from their adventures through more exotic landscapes. When they visited Peru, Harry and David stayed in an open sided lodge in the Amazon and were fascinated by the unique wildlife and lush vegetation of the rainforest. However, their abiding memory of the trip, is the “amazing” stonewalls of the ancient Incan city Macchu Picchu. They marveled at the huge size of the stones used to build the dry stonewalls and were amazed at the level of craftsmanship. “They are all hand cut and you cannot even put a knife between the joints,” David explains. The brothers pay special attention to “materials” whenever they visit a new place because it helps them get “a feel for it”. For instance the Headington stone of Oxford is very different to the limestone found in Bath. Harry and David dream of one day visiting Marrakesh, where the beauty of the city is completely “down to its materials.”
Adventure means different things to different people. For The Rich Brothers, adventure means they are in the middle of nowhere, in beautiful surroundings, with the bare necessities. Their surf trip to France last summer encapsulated all of these things. They drove to Les Dunes in their beloved Land Rover Defender with surfboards and tents strapped to the roof rack and set up camp in a secluded pine forest with two friends. They lived frugally, starting each day with a simple bowl of porridge before surfing all day, only stopping briefly for a ham and cheese baguette. In the evening, they would cook supper and drink whisky together around a campfire. It was the simplicity and solitude of the trip that made it so special.
I can relate to the brothers’ love of the simple life. Part of the reason I enjoyed the Marathon des Sables and the Everest Trail Race so much was because I was living a simple existence. I would wake up at the crack of dawn, have a bowl of oats for breakfast, run from A to B through stunning scenery, cook a simple dinner with my tent mates, and go to bed under the stars. There is something very special about that.
The brothers love the ocean and are already planning their next surf trip to France, a place they find particularly inspiring with its “romantic cobbled streets” and “naturalistic feel”. They are also planning surf adventures to Morocco, Portugal and Spain. Other adventures on The Rich Brothers bucket list include a canoe trip down the Yukon River in Canada and a weekend with their girlfriends in a small cabin in the Scandinavian wilderness. However, top of the list, is a motorbike trip through India. They dream of cruising through the foothills of the Himalayas on a classic motorbike. Their inspiration for the trip is The Motorcycle Diaries, an amazing film that recounts Che Guevara and Alberto Granado’s epic tour of South America on a spluttering Norton 500 motorbike in 1953. They have also found inspiration from The Long Way Round, a film documenting the 19,000 mile journey of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman from London to New York City on motorcycles in 2004 and Into the Wild, a film which tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a university graduate who rejected his privileged upbringing and set out on an adventure through the Alaskan wilderness. All three films share a common theme; the protagonists are carefree adventurers, travelling light through stunning landscapes.
A lot of my inspiration for travelling and adventure has come from books. One of my favourite travel books is A Time of Gifts, a memoir of the first part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1933. The Rich Brothers also find inspiration from literature. Harry’s favourite is the cult American novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac because it is about being “foot loose, carrying very little and being in moments.” One of David’s favourites is A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, which is about a woman called Isabella Bird who, in 1854, at the age of twenty two, left England and began traveling as a cure for her ill health. The book contains the letters she wrote to her sister recounting her adventure through the Colorado Rockies in 1873.
Everywhere you look there are references to wilderness in popular culture. In the window of my local bookshop, Norwegian Wood, a book about the art of chopping, stacking and drying wood in the Scandinavian tradition, and Cabin Porn, a book full of photos of rural cabins, are displayed alongside best selling thrillers and food books. Lifestyle magazines such as Kinfolk and Another Escape that encourage people to simplify their lives, get outside, and spend more time with their family and friends continue to increase their readership every year. The Revenant, a film about a man’s battle for survival in the harsh American wilderness, has been nominated for a host of Oscars. Television audiences have been captivated by Levison Woods’s expedition through the Himalayas and Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild.
I am interested in the brothers’ take on why people are becoming more interested in escaping to the wilderness. They think people are getting tired of the “rat race” and are starting to realise that a well-rounded life does not necessarily have to involve dragging yourself to a mundane job you don’t enjoy. “People are craving escapism, to venture into the middle of nowhere and disconnect from their stressful everyday life”, Harry concludes. The brothers also think it is becoming more fashionable to be authentic and artisan, to make things and live sustainably. That is all encompassed in spending a weekend in a little cabin, cutting down a tree, building a log fire, cooking dinner over the stove and whittling a spoon. “It has that wholesome heartiness and it is achievable”, David says. The idea that you can be this more well rounded person, in touch with yourself, is what attracts them.
There are two items that the brothers take on every adventure without fail, a Stanley flask full of tea and a camera. They love capturing the moments that they see. “With good photography, you can capture what you are looking at, that feel and atmosphere”, Harry says. While they have always appreciated the beauty of their childhood home, for a long time, they did not think anyone else would be interested in photos of their walks through the Brecon Beacons because there is no “cool train track going over a canyon” like you might find in Vancouver. David started taking more photos after Harry bought him an analogue camera for his birthday and this is how he started to truly realise how amazing the scenery is, not just in the Brecon Beacons, but also throughout the UK. “The UK is gorgeous, there is such massive variety”, David says. When they are driving around the country in their Defender they feel like they are in their office. They find inspiration from small pieces of land from “anywhere”; it might be the forests shrouded in mist that they discovered on their recent trip to China but equally it could be the “wild” Scottish highlands or a small plot of land they see on a walk with Darcy.
I wonder whether the brothers struggle to find inspiration for their work in the bustling metropolis of London. After all, it is a far cry from the raw and wild landscape of the Brecon Beacons. While they do sometimes miss home, the brothers do not feel like they suffer from a lack of inspiration in London. In fact, on the contrary, they feel like they have exhausted their inspiration from Wales and it is the “natural time” for them to have moved to the big smoke. “There are so many different spaces, so many different materials, and architecture is revolutionary in London”, Harry says. He recalls an old building he likes that is next to a modern building made of completely different materials yet they seem “to fit so nicely together”. Ultimately the brothers love London because it is full of character, you can see one sight and then a second later see something completely different. It is also beneficial to be based in the capital for practical reasons; Wales is four hours away by train so traipsing back and forth would naturally take its toll.
The brothers like anything that is the antithesis of over indulgence so they enjoy a simple diet, which is mainly vegetarian. Harry tells me about a delicious aubergine lasagne he rustled up for dinner and says he is trying to “eat vegetables more and use them more.” They still enjoy a prize piece of meat like a good steak or some lamb, however view it as a treat and savour quality meat more than they used to. Harry thinks it is “too easy to buy things, everything is too accessible” and that is part of the reason so many children leave school overweight. On his cycle to work, Harry says he was shocked to see a young boy eating a subway for breakfast. It is “far too easy to pick up a pack of crisps, what happened to oats in the morning”, he exclaims.
Harry and David are incredibly close, they always say that if they were on their own and had not been born in rural Wales they probably would not be landscape designing. David would most likely be a conservationist as he has always been fascinated by wildlife while Harry would be a trumpet player in a similar mould to a young Chet Baker. He practices for a few hours every evening after work and is always listening to jazz. The Rich Brothers have taken risks on the road to the top. When they moved to London they had nowhere to live and were working out of cafes. Clearly the risk has paid off, they are now amongst the most sought after landscape designers in the UK. They draw on their adventures in the wilderness to give people their own little patch of nature. For now, they love living in London, however, while they don’t want to plan too much in detail, they know that one day they would like to buy a plot of land somewhere in the wilderness that has a bit of coast and a bit of surf. Wherever it is, I have no doubt their lives will be full of simple adventures with family and friends.
All photos credited to ww.richlandscapes.net