Move over, Alice in Wonderland. If you thought the Mad Hatter was weird, wait until you step into the garden that Matt Larkin and Elaine (Lainie) Grant built.
A massive yew honed into an oversize rabbit stands guard at the gates. A mossy somebody-shrank-the-elephant is stationed in front of the barn, while the Queen of Hearts takes a peacock on a stroll through the field. Welcome to Larkin and Grant’s little suspension of reality nestled into the Berkshire Hills of Richmond, Massachusetts.
Their Black Barn Farm is home to every form of improbable creature, all sculpted from yew, boxwood, beech, and hornbeam. No standard-fare topiary peahens here, however. We’re talking rhinoceroses, stag trophies, butterflies, immense Darth Vaderesque skulls, and a dancing bear (holding a real bone). Yes, it’s otherworldly, but great design holds all the magic together. Black Barn Farm is formality with a wink.
In his heart, Matt Larkin is a Victorian, which clarifies why Larkin and Grant, his wife and business partner in their interior design firm Grant Larkin, also in Richmond, selected the property in the first place.
Twenty years ago, when they went looking for a home in the town where Larkin grew up, Grant favored Modernist design, so an 1830 Greek Revival house was not what they had in mind. But the house came with 3.7 perfectly square acres. To Larkin, that meant he could lay out the sort of landscape he understands and loves, one with axes and cross axes capped with focal points and ordered with allées and hedging. But while he likes his corners sharp and his grid straight, he also likes distractions.
Grant Larkin is famed for its deft interiors. The firm prides itself on chameleon flexibility. Need contemporary? Modern? Colonial? Traditional? Grant and Larkin are your team. But when it comes to landscape design, “We only do traditional,” says Larkin. Their version, however, enlists a whole lot of allegory. They do garden design that gets your gray matter moving.
Almost everything at Black Barn Farm is symbolic. It’s the thinking man’s garden, yet nothing should be taken too seriously. References to the end of life are peppered everywhere — from the animal skulls affixed ominously on poles and pickets at strategic points to the cement molds of poisonous mushrooms and upside-down dangling cherubs. On the terrace, the coffee table is made from the original cracked tombstone from the grave of Larkin’s father. (An unbroken replacement now resides in the cemetery.) Using it helps Larkin link to the dad he lost as a teenager. It feels, he says, as if the man joins them for their evening drink. “The Victorians were not afraid of death, or looking at it,” says Larkin.
If Black Barn Farm seems a bit like Lewis Carroll meets Edward Gorey, that is exactly the intention.
What they don’t do is Disney. The landscape never takes it too far (except maybe that gnome in the pool pavilion). Every element is rooted in sophisticated design. The ravencolored barn — a decrepit steal about to meet its doom in nearby Falls Village, Connecticut, when the couple found it — is, for example, the same vintage and has the same footprint as the house. Why matte black? The dark reference is obvious, but the color was ostensibly selected because it plays against the white house. And the barn’s red roof complements the green roof on the house. The ‘Donald Wyman’ crab apple allée running beside it is balanced by a nearby parterre, and so it went as the couple gained resources. It took years until the pool was installed, although the couple always knew precisely where it would be placed. It and various other highlights such as a gazebo, pergola, and beech hedge crisscross the square, reinforcing the axial symmetry that Grant and Larkin worship.
The topiary started early after the couple visited Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, a property owned by The Preservation Society of Newport County that boasts more than 80 pieces of topiary, including animals and birds, geometric shapes, and ornamental designs, sculpted from California privet, yew, and English box- wood. Larkin caught the bug. He ferreted out nearly every book ever written on topiary and took an adult education class in welding — a skill this latter-day Victorian craftsman enlists to make heavy-duty frames for the topiary after drawing out detailed templates of exactly what absurdity he is striving to create. “You see the concept clearly from the beginning,” he says.
The pool area is entered through vermilion Chippendale gates against vermilion and black furniture frames. Blushing foliage fills urns, planters, and even the crevices between steps leading down from the pool pavilion, which might move toward Modern with tropical plants spilling around, but the Corinthian columns draw it back to classicism. Walking that delicate line between Dorothy Draper and the devil is part of the Grant Larkin style.
Larkin insists that the garden is not high-maintenance. Granted, somebody is always chiseling away at an angle with shears in hand. “But,” he claims, “we spend more time edging and weeding.” As for making the topiary, that takes unqualified patience until, eventually, you have something memorable … with an attitude. And if it sends a few chills down your spine, all the better.