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Hamptons Life

At Home with Dianne Benson

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By aimee fitzpatrick martin   May 10, 2010 11:14 AM

As one would expect from a woman whose professional career revolves around the world of gardening, Dianne Benson—known by her many fans as Dianne B.—wanted to begin the tour of her home amid the flora of her lushly landscaped acre in East Hampton.

“Let’s go before the rains starts,” she urged, grabbing a fashionable black jacket from her hall closet.

Looking chic in ankle-length panther print gardening boots and “little black” gardening gloves, Ms. B. was a walking endorsement for the 10 “gardening essentials” she sells through her year-old website, diannebbest.com. There, gardeners can pick up—at fairly reasonable prices—rust-proof trowels; prop-open yard bags; Felco Swiss-made gardening pruners; plant markers; Japanese garden clippers; garden tool belts; and monogrammed steel shovels.

“I wish I had brought along my latest innovation, the Gardener’s Peeping Stick,” she said, bending down to touch one of her exotic plants. “It’s like a dentist’s mirror that sees underneath flowers.”

In the case of Ms. B.’s lushly appointed garden, that peeping stick just might have revealed an enchanting underworld hidden with delights living among all the unique varieties of Japanese maples, spruce, cryptomeria, snake’s head, fritillaria, magnolia macrophylla, and hellebores. Her garden-tour worthy property—which is bordered by the East Hampton Village Nature Trail and a half dozen majestic London plane trees—also includes a rare

acer monumentale

(an extremely narrow and towering deciduous tree in the sugar maple family that serves as an unexpected exclamation point in the landscape), a decades-old magnolia tree in full spring bloom and weeping hemlocks that “canopy a graveyard of past dogs,” according to Ms. B.

“I love to mix weepy and highly textured variegated plants and have a predilection toward plants with big sexy tongues and burgundy, white and purple colors,” said the woman who penned the 1994 gardening classic, “Dirt: The Lowdown on Growing a Garden with Style.” “I consider myself more of a garden stylist, because to me it’s all about adding dramatic gestures and unexpected combinations.”

Unexpected is right. When a contorted hazelnut tree in her garden died, she decided to spray paint it a Cotswoldian blue instead of tearing it down. Now the re-imagined tree perfectly matches the blue of a nearby bench.

In deference to the tamer tastes of her partner, Lys Marigold, Ms. B. also left space for a vegetable garden, an expanse of green lawn, and an 18-foot dipping pool on the property.

A writer and religionism archaeology scholar, Ms. Marigold co-authored several best-selling books with trend forecaster Faith Popcorn, including “EVEolution: the Eight Truths of Marketing to Women” and “Clicking.”

The couple shares their home with daughter Skye Qi Marigold—a champion swimmer and freshman at East Hampton High School—and two very pampered pets, Flora Pandora and Magnolia, both Cavalier King Charles spaniels.

Ms. B. said that when Ms. Marigold purchased the house in 1992, it was a charming but basic 1940s ranch house with a rabbit warren of rooms and an odd indoor pool annex. After the couple joined their lives together in 2004, they began a renovation project designed to open up rooms, convert the pool annex into a private master suite wing, and add an old-fashioned screened porch.

In decorating the space together, Ms. B. said that she and her partner found it initially challenging to “edit” their individual “lifetimes of past accumulations”—but were amazed that “so many of their things looked like they always belonged together.”

With their home filled to the brim with eclectic furnishings, antiques and artwork, it’s hard to single out a favorite possession. But Ms. B. said she reveres the pair of upholstered mahogany “Picasso” chairs that she and Ms. Marigold custom-crafted from tapestry inserts. The chairs once belonged to Ms. Marigold’s grandmother and now flank the fireplace in the living room.

“We lifted the idea from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who had real Picasso needlepoint chairs in their Paris salon,” said Ms. B. proudly.

A flair for style comes naturally for Ms. B., a well-known presence in the fashion world in the 1970s and 1980s. As the owner of the avant-garde Dianne B. stores and the first Comme des Garcons USA (four in all), she was the first to import such big fashion names as Issey Miyake and Jean Paul Gaultier, while simultaneously designing her own collection.

Artwork worthy of the best Manhattan art galleries graces the walls of the Benson-Marigold home. Highlights include works by photographers and artists such as Bill Viola, Christopher Makos (“Andy Warhol in Drag”), Andy Warhol (“Cow Wallpaper”), William Kentridge, Yoko Ono, Peter Beard, Hans Namuth, Eric Fischl, Joseph Beuys and Robert Mapplethorpe—to name a few.

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