Green typically reigns supreme in garden idylls, but today the subtle burgundy hues of barberry bushes and the shadowy violet of hyacinths may take the crown. We’re walking through the grounds of interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud’s home in Litchfield, Connecticut, during one of her favorite times of the year: the fleeting days between spring’s end and the full swing of summer, before clusters of bluebells and delicate Aruncus give way to the showstopping blooms of July. Says Champalimaud, “It’s a feast for the eyes.”
And this globally renowned designer knows just how to fashion such a feast, having worked on some of the world’s most luxurious hotels—London’s Dorchester and New York’s Waldorf-Astoria among them. Along with her obvious affinity for interiors, Champalimaud nurtures a deep connection to the outdoors, which she traces to her childhood in Lisbon, Portugal. “My parents were known for throwing what we called 'sardine parties' on our farm underneath huge pine trees. You could see the Atlantic Ocean from the property, and the evenings often ended with fireworks. I would be gathering fallen pine nuts or bottle-feeding a pig. There were horses, cows, chickens, and rabbits … raspberry and strawberry patches. These were beautiful surroundings that set me up well for life.”
Her love of history and the decorative arts (she studied at the Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva Foundation in Lisbon) finds full expression in her and husband Bruce Schnitzer’s country home, now a National Historic Landmark, and originally built in 1753 by Oliver Wolcott Sr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Champalimaud and Schnitzer have been actively involved in the preservation of Litchfield since joining the community decades ago—one large project being right in their own backyard. “The land, as we found it, was a mix of an old farmyard and orchard from the 18th century—a complete mess of poison ivy and maple saplings,” she recalls. As the overgrown vegetation was peeled away, the designer “came upon a few ornamental shrubs, scattered mint, and rhubarb—the toughest of plants!—and indentations suggesting Victorian perennial beds.” Champalimaud used the fading blueprints as a guide to re-create the spirit of a historic garden. “I wanted to reinforce what was there before without overdoing it. I wanted it to remain serene,” she says. Regional traditions also informed the garden’s architecture—in true New England fashion, her grounds (apart from the pool area) lack fences and walls, a custom dating back to the Puritan resistance to class and exclusion.
The garden advances west from the back of the L-shaped main house, spreading to a poolhouse just north that serves as guest quarters, and an egg-shaped perennial bed to the south. The main sprawl of the property—a sloping 15 acres—unfolds in panoramic style right out the back door. Three stone steps lead down to the second level, the setting for a handsome watering well that is original to the property. Another set of steps leads further down to the third elevation, home to double-border perennial beds. The borders end at a horseshoe-shaped expanse of lilac and other shrubs surrounding an 18th-century sandstone sculpture that Champalimaud and her husband purchased together to mark their 10th wedding anniversary. (Other anniversary gifts include a weeping beech tree that separates the main house from the pool area.)
The garden is the site of numerous celebrations. “We’ve married three children on this property,” Champalimaud says. The most recent ceremony, last summer, was that of their eldest daughter, Annabel Schnitzer Noth, whose reception included an evening cocktail hour beneath an enormous black-and-white-striped tent, followed by dinner and dancing in the westward meadow. Champalimaud recalls the sunset procession led by the bride and groom past the rose garden and through a trail of giant redwoods to the meadow where an even larger tent stood, lit by torches and lanterns.
Precious in a different way are the occasions Champalimaud calls “small gatherings and quiet moments.” Intimate lunches take place beside the poolhouse at a table for four beneath a bright-orange umbrella (made of fabric from the Comptoirs Collection, her collaboration with Holland & Sherry). The poolhouse is just far enough away from the main residence to feel like something of a staycation. “I’ll bring out some salads and a nice bottle of wine and sit for hours,” she says.
The cottage also serves as Champalimaud’s work studio, and the designer can often be found tackling her latest project in the sunny bay window. Not surprisingly, this seat offers a meticulously framed view. “In a four-season house, you must consider what the garden looks like from afar, from each window—not only from within it,” Champalimaud says. The architecture and decor of her own New England home dwell peaceably with the land that surrounds it—and the result is a richly satisfying living experience.