A strong entrepreneurial streak, a flair for marketing and a swag of high-profile awards and installations is helping Richmond-based landscape designer Phillip Withers expand his horizons beyond city limits.
Growing up in Mooroolbark in the foothills of Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges, Phillip Withers became hooked early on to nature’s seasonal sideshow. “We backed onto bushland … and growing up I’d be forever wandering out into nature,” Withers recalls. “I was always seeking it, for sure.” His grandma, a keen gardener, lived with the family and introduced Withers to her favourite species and the benefits of companion planting.
“She knew every single rose under the sun, and she had a good affiliation with herbs and … an inclination towards how they mix and work together. Thyme and rosemary under the roses and stuff like that. I learnt a bit from that, and I always had my hands dirty.”
By the end of high school Withers’ broad interest in design and passion for pattern and repetition led him into screen printing at RMIT, from which he emerged with an enterprising and speculative itch to scratch. He created a range of clothes and screen printed T-shirts and soon established an enthusiastic – though not particularly lucrative – market in and around Melbourne. “The entrepreneurial side of me really wanted to have a good go,” he says. “I don’t think we were making all that much money but gee I was having a good time.”
Travel was the next itch to be indulged. It took him around Europe and across Australia and led to a string of “odds and sods jobs to get us travelling again”; these included garden maintenance with an artist friend in his old stomping ground of the Dandenongs. “We’d look after all these different properties and had to learn from the owner of the business, who obviously knew a fair bit about these wonderful gardens,” Withers recalls. “I got a definite fascination for nature at that point in time and thought, ‘that’s it, I’ve got to get into this’, and started studying … landscape design and sustainability.”
For the next few years Withers studied, learned on the job from landscapers and arborists, and travelled to South America, finding inspiration in eclectic, productive gardens from the cities of Mexico to the mountains of Peru. “You could follow plants around the world and you wouldn’t have a bad time,” he says with a wry grin.
By 2012, he decided to bite the bullet and launch his own design consultancy. “I always go in head-first,” Withers concedes. Within a year he’d started a steady stream of awards at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show and Australian Garden Show in Sydney. These fast-tracked media attention and client commissions for boldly colourful, urban designs for small spaces, drew on repeat patterns (in plants and architectural elements) inspired by his days in fashion and screen printing. “I think they’re getting more and more subtle and it’s more about the plants,” Withers says of recent work.
Withers’ own garden – a lush, vertical mash-up of tumbling, tangling rainforest plants edged by eclectic edibles picked constantly for cooking – won him more accolades, and transformed the narrow balcony of his Richmond apartment into a floating oasis of calm.
Most recently it’s an ambitious, mountain-themed installation for The Design Files’ Open House 2017 that has media calling and collaborative briefs rolling in. Transforming a stark inner-city forecourt into a welcoming garden with the reflective qualities of mountain environments involved hard graft and more than a little expense. Ever-strategic though, Withers jumped at the exposure to the cream of Australia’s design community. He spent each day on-site chatting with as many visitors as possible. “It was great to get asked,” he says. “You never know who you’re going to have a conversation with.”
Withers’ six-person team of designers and horticulturalists is currently expanding the scale and scope of its projects. Already they’ve landed design jobs at large properties in Portsea, Geelong and Wangaratta, and with a change of focus planned for this year’s garden shows, Withers hopes more will follow. He’s careful to exhibit precisely the kind of work he wants to attract more of – through events as well as social media. And he has plenty more surprises up his sleeve for the year ahead, not least of which is an intriguing, multi-faceted collaboration with his partner Molly. ‘Nuff said for now.
“I probably was never going to be settled on just being a oneman band,” Withers explains. “I’ve always talked to people about business, always think about how it works and how things tick along.” Bringing design concepts to life by sourcing and placing a compatible, activated mix of eclectic plants from all over the world has become central to the service. “It takes a long time to get right,” Withers emphasises. “You can put it on a plan but you also need to put it out on site and make sure.”