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Project: The Bluebird Cafe courtyard

Project: The Bluebird Cafe courtyard

Photo: Sara Jane Rothwell

Sara Jane Rothwell MSGD describes how she created a courtyard garden in Chelsea

The Bluebird is a Grade-II-listed Art Deco garage complex on the King’s Road that was converted into a restaurant by Sir Terence Conran in the late 1990s.

It’s a popular, busy café and every year, around the time of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, astroturf would be rolled out in the courtyard to mark the start of summer. D&D London, the current owners, didn’t want a ‘corporate’ look for the courtyard – they wanted a garden, which is why they employed a garden designer as opposed to an architect or interior designer.

They wanted to unify the seating, creating intimate areas, and to soften the grey of the granite cobbles and galvanized steel. They wanted to be able to drive a car in one side and out the other, and to remove everything apart from the central area (a Perspex carousel), for events that take place once or twice a year.

The biggest challenge for me and my design team, Emma Voit and Pre- Registered SGD Member JoanMa Roig, was to make the garden detachable and moveable, while still making it look like a unified space.

We incorporated staggered planters and tabletop trees, with ‘plug and play’ systems for both the lighting and irrigation. To warm up the grey surroundings, we introduced copper, terracotta and Ipe timber. The planters are GRP (glass reinforced plastic) with a copper finish.

Much of the furniture was specified by us, but had to be approved by D&D’s furniture company. Along a boundary wall that wasn’t much used, there is now built-in seating made of Ipe. We commissioned the Copper and Zinc Bar Company to make the tables.

We convinced D&D that they didn’t need to roll out the astroturf any more – although some now sits permanently under the Perspex carousel. The planting was designed to suit a busy café, giving seasonal interest and subtle colour. There’s lots of evergreen structure but we steered the clients away from evergreen trees, as there’s so little choice. Four Gingko biloba flank the entrances, while the tabletop trees are plane; there are also multistemmed amelanchiers.

The rest of the planting includes Anemanthele lessoniana, Erigeron karvinskianus (for frothy planting under the trees), alliums, agapanthus, pittosporum, lavender and camellia. Night-time lighting was important.

We designed the lighting and D&D’s contractor/designer made it work; it includes LED lights under benches and the bars. The copper material has been continued into some of the more decorative lighting, and there are fairy lights in the trees.

I went back to the café a few months ago for a meeting about the design for the interior (it has a glass roof, and we are incorporating trees and climbers) and was very pleased with how it’s looking. It was always popular, but people were queuing outside, which is a good sign. D&D have asked me to do four more projects for them, so I must be doing something right!  

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