Exclusive: Landscape Designer Raymond Jungles and Orchid Shows as Art

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For us, orchid shows typically fall in the same category as crocheted afghans, “#1 Grandma” mugs and cat-enthusiast paraphernalia. Not so with this year’s New York Botanical Garden show, Brazilian Modern. Drawing inspiration from his mentor, the Brazilian design icon Roberto Burle Marx, Raymond Jungles* has transformed the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory into a tropical rainforest, complete with cascading chandeliers of orchids, pools and fountains. Beyond the staggering array of species in the exhibit, Jungles also features Marx’s art including vibrant mosaics. Some of the more unusual orchids have made us rethink our association between the flower and our junior prom corsage. After visiting the show last Saturday, at a momentary loss for the proper description, we might even have called the orchid sexy.

In a recent interview with Flavorwire, Jungles recounted his mentor’s joie de vivre and his experience designing the show.

(from top to bottom, photos by: Ivo M. Vermuelen, Talisman Brolin, Talisman Brolin)

Flavorwire: We were reading in your bio that you grew up in Ohio. How did you decide to become a landscape designer who specializes in tropical gardens?

Raymond Jungles: Actually I was born in Nebraska. I just moved down to Florida when I was eighteen. I was a senior and I rode my motorcycle down. After I graduated, I didn’t have a whole lot going on so I just kind of stayed there. It was a great place for me because it’s a boomtown. Things were changing in the city — it was growing and becoming a much more international place.

FW: Tell us a bit about your relationship with Roberto Burle Marx.

RJ: When I was at the University of Florida, I found his book on the tropical gardens of Robert Burle Marx. I was taking a lot of architecture classes at the time and I had some professors there saying “You’re really good. Why don’t you change over to architecture?” I was in a quandary because I never thought of myself as an architect. In 1979, he lectured and I talked to him afterward about coming down to see his operation. After school, I saw an article about him turning 70 and was like “Wow, I need to get down there.” Then, a friend called me and told me he was in town and asked if I wanted to take him out to dinner. So, my ex-wife and I took him out and he told me he was going back to Brazil in July and asked if I wanted to come. He also told me he had some things he wanted me to help him bring into Brazil. He would always bring little gifts to his people whenever he traveled. So, basically I was a mule for Burle Marx. When we got to the duty-free, we bought the maximum about whiskey and champagne for all of his friends and family. But, when we got to customs with all this stuff, they just waved him on. He was such a superstar in Brazil that it didn’t matter. And that’s how it all started. After that, he left me alone and went to go visit friends. When he got back, I just followed him wherever he went, met his friends and it just became a ritual. After a little while he started to stay with us because he’d always come to Miami before he went anywhere else in the world. Whenever, he came I’d buy his work and when I sold something, I’d take the commission and use the commission to buy more of his work.

FW:In what ways did his work inspire this show? Are there any particular techniques you got from him?

RJ:Oh yeah. It’s all pretty much things I’ve seen him do. The orchid chandeliers, for example, were something. But, I didn’t go in and say that I was going to do those ten things. I went in and studied the space. It’s a very Victorian space, so it was interesting to incorporate the Brazilian Modern elements. Some things were done to expand and magnify the space — to create these visual points of interest because it’s a very linear space. I never saw him do anything on the magnitude, but we were reacting to the space. We were reacting to it in an unconventional way. Also, walls have always been important to me. Roberto would do walls with these panels of staghorn ferns. So, I decided I wanted to use them in the garden. We had a way to put them in the wall the Roberto would, but it looked like they were coming out both sides. But, little things like that — using water to reflect, something like that. And, of course, the mural — the scale and the color were perfect and I had it. I’m donating it to Naples Botanical garden. It was a great opportunity to unveil it.

FW: Are there any orchid-specific challenges you faced?

RJ: Not really because I wasn’t the only one working with the orchids per se. I’d just say that where I wanted them. Other than that, I knew that Fran [Francisca Coelho, the Vivian and Edward Merrin Associate Vice President of Glasshouses at The New York Botanical Garden] would be making the final choices. She was very clever to hang orchids upside down and things like that — although, they do hang like that in nature.

FW: Do you have a favorite orchid?

RJ: I like the ghost orchid. It grows in the everglades. It has no leaves. It just has a bloom. Have you seen the movie Adaptation? It was about the ghost orchid.

FW: What is the most important thing you learned from Roberto?

RJ: It doesn’t have to do with anything but life. He enjoyed every day. He always had music and friends and laughter and art and interesting people around him all the time. He was the youngest soul I ever met. One time at a Chinese restaurant, a guy took Roberto by the arm and walked him back to the table and he said, “He thinks I’m old?” He wasn’t old, he was the most perceptive and curious person I’ve ever met. He would always say “do what you like” — not in the sense that you forget about everyone else, but to do what you enjoy in a profound sense. He was a great student of human nature. He once told me a story about a couple he was good friends with. And, the husband comes to him and says “I’m leaving Maria.” Roberto says, “No! You guys are perfect together. Why are you leaving?” to which his friend said, “I didn’t ask you. I’m telling you.” He was able to admit that he didn’t know everything — he was very broadminded like that. For instance, there was a very garish plant that I hated. Roberto said not to, that one day it might be just the element I needed for something I was working on.

There’s just one more thing I wanted to say: my new book didn’t start out to be about me. It was supposed to be about Roberto. I had already designed this book. I had gone to the publisher and told them everything down to how I wanted the pages to be, but they said that now wasn’t the right time and that they really wanted a book of my work. This was before the Botanical Garden Show and Naples. Whenever I get a chance I lecture about him and talk about his work. I really want to give back what he gave me. He died years ago and they’re still doing articles about him in the New York Times and Vogue. Architecture students are discovering him all the time. The best thing I can do is donate my time and energy to give him the credit he’s due.

*Could there be a more perfect name for a tropical garden specialist? Flavorwire is inclined to think it’s fake even though we have repeatedly received information to the contrary…