Even style gurus worship their own idols. Consider, for instance, Rose Tarlow, the AD100 Hall of Fame interior designer known as the decorator’s decorator, an exacting, finely tuned aesthetic adviser to highfliers such as movie magnate David Geffen and museum grandees Edythe and Eli Broad. For herself, when the subject turned to one of her own domestic landscapes about a decade ago, it was Belgian superstar Jacques Wirtz or nobody.
“Those hedges,” the Los Angeles–based Tarlow enthuses with a sigh during an interview at her leafy retreat near the Provençal city of Avignon, referring to Wirtz International’s insinuating way with boxwood. The Antwerp-area firm’s hypnotic, suggestively surrealistic landscapes are largely flower-free demesnes that are studded with trees manicured into cloudy shapes and Buxus sempervirens coaxed into evergreen sculptures that have been clipped into high soft walls, grand coils, and pillowy mounds that cast dramatic shadows as the sun makes its way across the sky. Imagine the mathematical perfection of André Le Nôtre’s gardens for Château de Versailles made sensual, even when blanketed with snow.
“Very peaceful, very green, and very beautiful,” Tarlow continues, summing up Wirtz International’s oeuvre. After taking several years, largely long-distance, to design and build a deceptively old-looking stone residence and guesthouse on her hilly property in Provence, she handed over the seven and a half acres to Jacques. He developed the overall scheme, and his son and business partner Peter took over when the former, who died in 2018 at 93, became too infirm to continue. (Another son, Martin, is also part of Wirtz International’s leadership.) Then Tarlow, who is renowned for her uncommon pursuit of perfection—she once removed a new Connecticut house’s multitude of stone arches and groin vaults, over its architect’s protests and eventual admiration—surprised everyone, though not herself, by simply walking away. “They knew more about landscaping than I do,” she says of Wirtz père et fils, sagely observing, “I’m not going to take the brush out of the artist’s hand.”
Tarlow’s Provençal landscape, like her acclaimed interiors, is where layering intersects with surprises, like her Los Angeles living room (AD, June 1991), where earthy furniture is joined by vines that she’s encouraged to creep through windows and over the rough plaster walls. “My father always liked crooked spaces, full of accidents, and this place feels very medieval,” Peter explains of Tarlow’s land, challenged by multiple levels but blessed with numerous mature trees. “He integrated the weaknesses and played up the strengths.”
The street side of the property features an immense double hedge, with Italian cypresses along the road and bay trees on the inside, the latter clipped at intervals into buttresses, Peter explains, that avoid “the monotony of a straight line and create a rhythm.” As for the drystone walls that Tarlow either installed or had laboriously reconstructed (“It cost me 10 times more than I paid for the property”) and which Jacques pronounced of little interest, they are now enveloped by boxwood tiers and zigzags, the open spaces foaming with fountain grass, which, Peter says, obscures “the clumsiness and steepness.”
At the entrance, a gate opens to a car park of river pebbles and two winding thoroughfares. The path on the left leads past a bed of boxwood to the long, low, discreet main house, while the other, straight ahead, climbs a steep hillside to the guesthouse. (Visitors can also take an elevator.)
“You meander between groups of trees on serpentine paths, which confuse the mind into thinking that the space is much bigger than reality,” Peter says. Cultivated areas morph into wildernesses and back again, the transitions pinched or narrowed by trees and other artful deflections. “My father was very strong at sequencing spaces,” he adds. Says Tarlow, “I don’t like undulating paths all over, but they were right.” Ditto Peter’s advice to plant 15 more linden trees, her favorite, to make the three near the guesthouse look less lonely. “It didn’t feel complete,” she says, “and now it looks fabulous.”
Tarlow has also become accustomed to the fan-shaped parterre of overgrown roses, hemmed by manicured boxwood hedges, that offers a flamboyant pause on the otherwise tranquil guesthouse ascent. “Jacques wanted it to look like a deserted churchyard,” she recalls, “but I don’t think it does.” Despite being no fan of what Peter describes as “fuzziness” in architecture, decoration, or gardens, she now sees the point of the huge massed roses: Malvern Hills, Alden Biesen, Brigitte de Villefagne, Rosalita, Fortissima, and Plaisanterie. Some naturally sprawl, others clamber up wrought-iron supports, and all arch into yellow or pink waterfalls. “It’s like a piece of candy,” Peter observes amid the green-on-green setting.
Should a more conventional sweet be required, there’s always the village. “One day I was walking with my grandson to the boulangerie,” Tarlow says, “and he told me I kissed 14 people on the way. I think he really said 11, but I always exaggerate.” One woman’s country paradise, though, can be one decorator’s gilded cage, Tarlow cheerfully admits. “It’s a very sleepy place, but the antiques villages are only 15 minutes away. Otherwise, what would I do all day?”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest