Interview: Hugh Main

Hugh Main is one of the quiet achievers of the Sydney landscape design scene. He’s co-founder and director of design and construction company Spirit Level and is a passionate and highly talented garden craftsman. Hugh’s skill is in designing landscapes that are both extremely sculptural and refined, as well as entirely grounded and natural.

Please tell us about Spirit Level?
Spirit Level was founded by myself and Adam Jones in 2000. I had a couple of different landscaping businesses prior to that, and Adam had been working for Porters Paints. We set up a little shop in Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, which turned into a gallery and we ran the landscape design and construction business from upstairs. Adam would curate the exhibitions, and do amazing installations in the front window that were amazing, but never for sale. My favourite was a gnome Adam had made from plasticine that had been run over by an antique tennis court roller set between different lengths of artificial turf. Adam has left Spirit Level to work on his own wallpaper and fabric design and printing company called Quercus and Co.

Key people at Spirit Level are Richard Elkan and Eamon Coleman. Both Richard and Eamon have been with Spirit Level for around ten years.  Richard is a landscape architect who steers our design office.  Eamon manages the construction side of the business.

What does a typical day at Spirit Level involve for you?

Some days I actually get to sit down, but those days are rare. I spend a lot of time meeting clients, trying to understand what they have in their heads. I ask lots of questions, propose lots of ideas, and try to find that moment when both you and your client get a bit excited. If you get a full on head rush, you know you are on the right track.

I then go back to the office and try to relay that moment to Richard and Rosemary in the design office. We then have to relay that moment to the construction teams and the maintenance team. Eventually, we get to see if that moment stands up to expectation about 5 years after than original conversation when the garden is actually built, and the plants are starting to mature. A really good garden can take a while to come to fruition…

How would you describe your work/what’s your design philosophy?
I find it really hard to describe our work…  Hopefully each garden is a bit unique and tailored for the site, to suit the architecture, and to suit the client. I try to work out what marries the garden with the place. It is very important to me that my gardens feel a natural fit for the site. As we work with a variety of architectural styles, in vastly different climates, the actual materials and vegetation varies. The aim for me is to create a harmony between the built form, the vegetation and the space in between. This is always easier to achieve if you use local materials and plants. I enjoy using these more than imported and exotic species, but I’m not dogmatic about this.

I don’t aspire to copy nature, because I realise I will always fail. When looking at a garden by Spirit Level, hopefully people observe the garden, not the hand of a designer.

Can you give us some insight into your creative process?
I try to find out what my clients love. Once love is present, everything flows and the design can be really exciting.

My favourite clients are those that have a particular fetish. It is then my job to interpret and display that fetish in the garden. That is the dream client.

Harder are the clients who want what is expected in their neighbourhood. These projects I find less inspiring. I am after a piece of information that will excite me and my team to try and create a garden that evokes an emotional response when one enters it.

Tell us about one project you really enjoyed?
One of my favourite projects was working with Adam to create a Ganesh made from paper daisies, made to float on a pond at Government House for the Festival of Flowers. It was an installation piece. Driving through Surry Hills with different parts of a bright yellow elephant on the back of the ute was fantastic! Wiring it together and watching it come alive was incredible. I worked with Adam and a couple of very loyal friends stitching flowers onto a frame made from chicken wire for days. This was another one of Adam’s random moments of genius.

What is one lesson you have learnt since starting Spirit Level?
Listen to your gut…and trust it.  You will always regret not listening to an instinct.

What are you passionate about?

What other designers/architects/creative people/firms are you inspired by at the moment?
Fiona Brockhoff, Sue Barnsley and Jane Irwin are the locals whose work I find amazing.  Andrea Cochran, Nicole de Vesian, Fernando Caruncho and the international designers I always look to for exciting ideas.

What inspires you?
I am always looking for inspiration. If you keep your eyes open you’ll get inspired everywhere…. when travelling, when walking around the block, observing art and design in all forms and when walking through a forest.

Once design is in your blood, you never switch it off.

What media resources do you look to for inspiration?
I love buying books…Florelegium is amazing. Published Art is still pretty special. Book shops in foreign cities get me a bit hyped up. Carrying books around for the rest of my holiday is no bother at all.

I love magazines…. I devour them all.  A good issue of Habitus is my favourite at the moment.  No garden section yet….but lots of houses that include gardens and materials you can use when building a garden, and I enjoy understanding different architects treatment of the interaction between architecture and the landscape

I’m still working out how to explore the internet without getting completely lost and overwhelmed.  There is so much amazing stuff I get a bit dazed and confused. This is something I have to master in order to keep up with my clients, who often now direct me to their very own Pinterest page.

What is your dream project?
A dream project is when you are asked to design a garden for a house that you would want to live in, with a view that you love, and for clients that you share enough in common to make conversation about design effortless, but enough differences to be a bit intrigued…

What are you looking forward to?
I always look forward to the day when plants go in the ground….but then I get excited about how they are going to look in 5 years – with a garden you’re always looking to the future.

If you had to make a garden with three plants, what would they be?
I love Banksia integrifolia….because they are so sculptural
I love Poa ‘Suggan Buggan’…grey grass…so sexy
I love Senecio mandraliscae…Birthday Candles…great plant

If you were a plant, what would you be?
Banksia integrifolia again! I just love that plant…