FOR THE PAST 25 YEARS, he has created hundreds of acres of enchanting gardens for dozens of clients in 10 countries, but his public profile is next to zero: no Google trove of press mentions; no Wikipedia entry; no Twitter trail; no Facebook friends. On the Madison Cox Design Web site, you'll find a street address, an e-mail address and a single image of an understated formal garden. No bio, no client list, no florid prose.
This 54-year-old American garden designer is a legend in the making—often compared to the late, great British landscapist Russell Page—but you won't hear that from him. Unlike most high-end architects, decorators and garden designers, Cox would rather be shipwrecked than become a household name. He is known for creating rarely seen, never-photographed landscapes for some of the most publicity-averse clients in the world. (Convincing Cox to participate in this article took three years of persistent persuasion on the part of this magazine—and by me, a close friend for more than 30 years.)
Photos: The Green Party
What differentiates Cox within the highly competitive world of landscaping is his individual approach to individual sites. He does not apply a single theme or a homogeneous look to his various projects. From rigorously sculpted grounds to profusely flowering rustic settings, he bends his personal tastes to those of his clients. He might not choose flamboyant roses or cube-shaped metal pots for his own gardens, but if a client has a strong preference for such embellishments, he'll find a graceful way to make them work. "I'm in the service industry," he says. "People come to me for a whole slew of reasons— they all have a goal in mind; my goal is help them achieve it."
Cox is discreet and modest, and he's also extremely disciplined and nonconformist: He owns 5,000 books but no TV; orders the same Anderson & Sheppard jacket every year; prefers living in small houses and apartments; and he's never in the same city or countryside for more than five consecutive days. The man whom Marella Agnelli and Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis have chosen to design their outdoor spaces is a gifted maverick who spent his formative years engaged in unorthodox pursuits until he found his calling.
“Cox dislikes plantings that are too clever or too obvious—elements that call attention to a style rather than a place. He believes that gardens should look "inevitable."”
Cox grew up in San Francisco and Marin County, nurtured by what he calls a "bohemian patrician" family, surrounded by the redwood forest, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. His father was a sea captain, an imposing character who had, according to Cox, "an enormous influence on me. He is responsible for my travel-lust—for my desire to explore and discover the world." Various other culturally curious family members steered the young Cox toward literature and art. When he was 12, a godmother introduced him to some of the cultural wonders of Southern California, like the Getty Museum, the Huntington Library and the jewelry and set designer Tony Duquette.
In 1976, Cox's uncle, the late artist David Ireland, mentioned a job was available helping Christo install the 24-mile-long Running Fence across the hills of Sonoma and Marin Counties. Christo wrote Cox a letter of recommendation to the Parsons School of Design in New York, where he enrolled in 1977. A year later, he transferred to Parsons's Paris branch and met one of the most celebrated fashion designers of the time, Yves Saint Laurent, and his business partner, Pierre Bergé (who eventually became Cox's lover). The two introduced Cox to their circle of worldly, creative friends, including Loulou and Maxime de la Falaise, Gabrielle Van Zuylen, Paloma Picasso, Catherine Deneuve, the Lalannes and Andy Warhol. The charming, handsome design student from California made a sparkling first impression; his proclivities for art, classical music and French cuisine endeared him further to this multi-cultured jet set.
During the 12 years he lived in Paris, he accompanied the peripatetic YSL clan—and the likes of Betty and Francois Catroux, Jacques Grange, Robert Wilson and Mattia Bonetti—to the finest museums, auction houses, private islands, villas, gardens and costume balls, a lifestyle that helped shape Cox's burgeoning aesthetic. His was the ultimate postgraduate experience, with a startlingly diverse, privi- leged curriculum.
In 1984, armed with a BFA in environmental design and some hands-on experience assisting a French gardener, Cox was asked to create a spring garden for the Franco-American Museum at the 17th-century Château de Blérancourt. (The institution celebrates and promotes Franco-American arts collaborations.) During his Paris years, he also designed sets and costumes for a production of Rigoletto in Spoleto, in Italy, and was the first American to design a garden for the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in London.
In 1989, Cox moved back to New York to work on his first major private commission in the U.S.: artist Jennifer Bartlett's three-level roof garden in Greenwich Village. Forty-two tons of soil were carried up three flights of stairs to create Bartlett's 2,500-square-foot "country in the city," planted with a lawn, an evergreen maze, a grape arbor, an apple orchard and a rose garden. The project seemed impossibly complicated on paper, but it evolved into a peaceful roof-scape that looked as though it had been there for decades. Like many of Cox's exteriors—even the newest ones—the space was laboriously planned but looked seasoned and natural.
“"Good gardens demand a lot of research and patience. Along the way there will be amendments, detours and, sometimes, reversals. There's no such thing as a beautiful 'instant' garden."”
Today, as he works across continents, with offices in New York and Morocco, his clients include arts patrons, industrialists and philanthropists, including Sting and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. More than half of Cox's clients are knowledgeable, confident gardeners themselves, who understand that high-end garden design entails a lifetime commitment. They don't want a landscape that looks anything like anyone else's. Cox maintains that each fine garden "involves a particular point of view. All good gardens demand a lot of research and patience. Along the way, there will be amendments, detours and, sometimes, reversals. There is no such thing as a beautiful 'instant' garden. The best ones come together when there is real communication between a designer and a client. It's about trust, and it builds over time. I've collaborated with many of my clients for more than 15 years: One can develop a wonderful complicity getting to know each other season after season after season."
Marella Agnelli, the widow of former Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, is one of the complicit. Some consider her Marrakech property, Ain Kassimou, the world's finest private garden of recent vintage. The nearly 30-acre property was formerly a horse farm and polo grounds belonging to the Hermès family. When Agnelli bought it in 2007, it was in shambles, an underwhelming expanse of parched grass and tattered palm and olive trees. Now, her poetic grounds are geometrically organized. The two devised a logical, fluid network of trellised paths, lawns, flower and vegetable beds, allées, pools, ponds and cutting gardens. There's not a false or out-of-place note in this symphony of climbing vines, gurgling rills, fragrant blossoms and swirling, chirping birds.
On a grander scale, Anne Bass's compound in Connecticut is an example of what Cox can do with a thousand-acre property. Bass is an accomplished gardener herself who can identify all 140 varieties in the rose garden Cox created for her by their Latin names, along with every other plant in her gardens. She had previously worked with two icons of the gardening world—Russell Page on her Texas property and the late modernist Dan Kiley on the initial layout of her Connecticut property—before turning to Cox. "Madison and I traveled together looking at gardens in Provence and Normandy," Bass says. "We were on the same page almost always. Madison is a plants- man as well as a designer—something rather rare. We spent hours going over plant catalogs."
The philanthropist Kravis has worked with Cox for more than 10 years on gardens in New York and Europe. "Madison has exquisite taste," she says. "But it's not just his sense of aesthetics that I appreciate. He knows about botany. He knows about the life of plants. He does research. He's practical and open to ideas. I have never once seen him flustered or panicked. Beyond this, he's a delightful person to be with. He has a good sense of humor."
“"I've learned many things from my friends and clients," says Cox. "But the most important is to slow down, watch and wait."”
Majestic gardens that embrace inventive simplicity are rare in America—the land of trophy lawns, gargantuan swimming pools and paths and beds crammed with easy-care shrubs and flowers. Because Cox favors techniques and plantings gleaned from many epochs, cultures and movements, he has a bigger, more flexible design vocabulary than garden designers known specifically for their modernist, French-formal or romantic English leanings—Cox likes it all. But he dislikes plans and plantings that, he says, "are too clever or too obvious"—elements that call attention to a style, rather than a place. Like Page, he believes a garden should look "inevitable."
Cox prefers generous stone platforms and terraces loaded with lushly planted, overscaled pots in traditional shapes and materials. He chooses plants and trees that are appropriate to their regions, but sites and groups them in surprising, abundant patterns. For a small project in New York's Hudson Valley, he camouflaged a house's exterior by installing a grove of 32 quaking aspen trees in a sort of random, scattered pattern—a few here, a few more there, five or six on either side of the structure. At his bungalow in Marrakech, Cox interspersed a thicket of spiky bamboo with a big curvy-leafed fig tree. He loves plain, natural elements, and he doesn't do the manicured-to-death look. He likes neat but not tortured clip jobs. He's fond of square pools and ponds and trellised walkways leading from one garden area to another. He goes for color, but not a riot of color all at once.
Even the green spaces he's designed for leading boutique hoteliers—Ian Schrager's Delano in Miami, Gramercy Park in New York, the Mondrian in Los Angeles and London's St. Martins Lane and the Sanderson; and André Balazs's Standard in Miami—emphasize rigorous, graceful scale, precise color schemes and edited plantings over flash-in-the-pan effects.
There's no truer evidence of talent and style than a designer's own residence. It's where designers get to experiment and do exactly as they please. Cox's Moroccan cliff-top house and garden, located in a quiet rural area of Tangier, is a surprising combination of modest and spectacular. The two-bedroom house is small, but the garden unfurls like an endless, meandering ribbon. A half-mile in length, it follows the rocky, deserted cliffs that descend dramatically to the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Like most of his commissioned landscapes, his own garden reveals itself in stages, and on many elevations. It's not a plant collector's paradise, but a place of simple lines and generous plantings. It's simultaneously disciplined and romantic.
Sited precariously on the edge of a 650-foot vertical drop, some of the property's retaining walls, which were installed when Cox bought the house nine years ago, are crumbling. He loses a big, old eucalyptus or pine tree every couple of years, and the library—which looks ancient but was built from scratch five years ago—has a long crack down the middle of the floor. Paradise has its price.
As you descend the stone paths and steps that lead down from a wide stone terrace, you discover hundreds of large, plain terra-cotta pots packed with acanthus, fuchsia and scented geraniums; a small lawn wreathed in agapanthus, Echium and wild delphinium; an allée of ancient cyprus, plateaus with fig and apricot trees, rose and hydrangea; several levels of vegetables; irrigation ponds; a tiny guest house; and, at the farthest end, a mini farm with chickens and turkeys. From every angle the Strait is in full view—nothing but turquoise and navy-blue water and raw cliffs. On a clear day, you can see the coast of Spain.
Cliff House has been Cox's primary residence and refuge for the last eight years—a quiet place to sleep, read, draw, listen to music and watch nature. Over the course of 20 years of biweekly trips to Morocco, he has embraced the country's natural beauty, turbulent history and rich, sensual culture. He first came to North Africa with Saint Laurent and Bergé in the 1979 and has worked for more than 15 years restoring and maintaining their public and private gardens.
Cox settled on Tangier as his home base because he loves the city's jagged coastline; the rolling hills that remind him of San Francisco; the medieval medina; and the mix of eccentric, international residents, including antiques expert Christopher Gibbs, artist Yto Barrada and Morocco's King Mohammed VI, who owns a huge spread across the street. However stunning and gracious the setting, Cliff House is more suited to long, intimate lunches than to dinners for a dozen guests. "I dislike outdoor lighting," Cox says, "and you can't have people outside stumbling around in the dark."
Three years ago, Cox became the vice president of the nonprofit Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, and its subsidiary, the Fondation Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech; it oversees the six-acre public and private Majorelle compound, where Bergé still resides. Cox directs 75 employees who work in the gardens, a café, a wonderfully stocked gift boutique, a bookshop and, as of last year, Morocco's first Berber Museum. Cox also serves on the board of the American School in Marrakech and started a program for the Aangan Trust in Mumbai, India, that teaches at-risk children how to garden. Because of his whiplash schedule, with regular meetings in Paris, Marrakech, New York and Mumbai, Tangier is, alas, the place he spends the least amount of time.
"I'm fine with that for now," he says. "Cliff House has grounded me; it's given me a spiritual base, even if I am only here for just a day or a weekend. I've learned many things from my friends and clients, but the most important is to slow down, watch and wait. This is the place for the rest of my life. It's my forever house that won't last forever."