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A Space for Summer Solace

Designer Robert Farrell’s escape is an alfresco room he built at the back of his shade garden in Brooklyn.

Photo: Robert Farrell
Photo: Robert Farrell

Robert Farrell grew up near Fort Tryon Park in the Inwood section of Manhattan, where he spent a great deal of time outdoors and frequently visited the nearby Cloisters. Later, when his family moved to the South Shore of Long Island, he “spent summers hanging out in the woods, biking on trails, getting into a bit of trouble, building forts, and taking endless barefoot walks through streams.” When he moved into his Carroll Gardens floor-through rental (in an 1800s brownstone) in 1995, he was eager to replicate that experience somehow. Fortunately, his apartment had a 55-by-22-foot backyard with a broken concrete terrace, which he decided to restore — and turn into, as he put it, “a kind of wild patch of forest to escape into.” He figured out fairly quickly that it would be more economical to commit to the plants that thrived on their own in the space (like the biennial foxgloves) instead of spending buckets of money every year replanting. A few years ago, Farrell began renovating the porch off his kitchen, seen above. It was originally made of wood, then replaced with concrete blocks by his landlord. Post-renovation, it is the perfect spot to enjoy coffee and take Zoom calls. “I painted the interior walls and ceiling black and installed the built-in bench with a fitted cushion. The red painted chair is from Ikea, the pillows and red hanging lantern are from Marika’s Antiques on Shelter Island, and the rush matting is from ABC Carpet & Home. The matchstick blinds are from Pearl River Mart. The checkerboard top table was “going out for trash at a fancy co-op building of a client of mine and I grabbed it.”

The garden. Photo: Robert Farrell

“My garden was inspired by the shade and dappled light that filters through the leaves when you’re walking through the woods,” Farrell says. Here, the view from his porch to the back garden room, where shade-loving plants, including low ferns and evergreen Liriope ground coverings, thrive. “My Stewartia trees are important because their multi-trunk bases make the ground beneath them loose and leafy,” Farrell says. A few years ago, he planted a maple tree to replace a crabapple tree that died but discovered that “maples are not a good fit for a narrow Brooklyn garden.” He has relied heavily over the years on the Gowanus Nursery for his planning materials. “Ken Druse’s book, The Natural Shade Garden, has been a great inspiration for this north-facing garden,” Farrell says.

Farrell installed a narrow, asymmetric bluestone walkway that allows him access to the center of the garden plot. Here, outside the garden room, he placed two butterfly chairs he found at the old 26th Street flea market. The fencing that surrounds the entire garden is six-foot stockade French. Photo: Robert Farrell
The garden room. Photo: Robert Farrell

“I wanted to create a brand-new enclosure,” Farrell says of this, his newly renovated 22-by-10-foot garden room. The white side and back panels are made of corrugated plastic (which is “very easy to install,” he says). The first time he designed the room, he used parachute fabric (he was inspired by his friend the designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz, who’d used it in one of his projects), but he found it didn’t weather particularly well. For this version, Farrell laid down a thick layer of pea gravel as a ground covering, which he says is “soft on your feet and lets water drain through.” The Moroccan embroidered spread and pillows came from a dealer on Lexington Avenue, and the side table and the etched aluminum Moroccan tray used as a coffee table are both from ABC Carpet & Home. The black-and-white zigzag pillows are from John Robshaw.

“Over the years, I’ve had many great summer parties and BBQs with friends in my garden. I love to cook, and outdoor grilling is the best,” Farrell says. While entertaining is currently on hold, his Smith & Hawken table is perfect for alfresco dining for one. The reproduction Bertoia chairs were “remaindered from an event space in Brooklyn I designed,” Farrell says Photo: Robert Farrell
All year long, rain or shine, Farrell relishes the peaceful refuge of his outdoor garden room, where, at the end of each day, he likes to light oil lamps he found in a local rummage shop. “It’s kind of magical,” he says. “Lately, I’ve noticed a pair of cardinals have moved in somewhere back here. They ‘marry’ for life, so when you see one, you know the other must be close by.” Photo: Robert Farrell

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