Up a winding road on the Eastside of Los Angeles, near the highest peak in Eagle Rock, I parked my car and set out to finish my journey to Flamingo Estate on foot. Jeff Hutchison, the resident horticulturist, welcomed me at the front gate, while his scrappy pup, Rani, circled us excitedly. Inside the gates, a majestic scene unfurled before me: a riot of plant life and a path that on one side meets a teeming wall of giant succulents, the biggest I’ve ever seen, and on the other, a precipitous stretch of bright red stairs dropping down the hillside into a lush thicket of green.
This grand, utopic garden is not only the home of creative legend Richard Christiansen but also serves as a sort of muse for his luxuriant, multidisciplinary wellness brand, Flamingo Estate.
Christiansen has a knack for reverent — and revelrous — reinvention, the type that both cherishes the past and throws open the doors to the future.
In 2017 Christiansen moved from New York, where he founded and led Chandelier Creative agency, to Los Angeles. He immediately began restoring this Spanish colonial–style property, which was once an enclave for pleasure-seeking creative spirits in the 1940s. He teamed up with the French landscape designer Arnaud Casaus, and together they radically transformed the seven-acre parcel of land. The gardens now host a dense panoply of life: fruit trees (apples, figs, peaches, apricots, pomegranates, Meyer lemons, and plums), a medicinal garden, a stand of oaks, a macadamia orchard, a colony of honeybees, large plumeria trees, and rare hibiscus species, among many, many other things.
Amidst all of this joyful saturation of life, there is also a punchy array of design elements engaged in their own game of hide-and-seek, revealing and concealing themselves as I snake my way through the sprawling grounds: a cherry-blossom pink Faye Toogood Roly Poly armchair tucked into flowering torch aloe and purple salvia, or vintage John Risley face chairs on a path lined with Mexican sage and aloe. Sometimes, Hutchison tells me, they will leave a branch lying in a walkway as an invitation to touch, smell, and delight in it. This is a place defined by its sensual, puckish impulses.
Christiansen’s vision of Flamingo Estate — first a home, then a brand, and now something more nebulous, yet tangible and inclusive — has morphed dramatically in just the last year. The spirit of sea change suits him: “It has been the joy of my life working on this,” he tells me. And so, we start there.
Dana Covit: I would just love to start off by asking you, what is Flamingo Estate?
Richard Christiansen: It started as my home and my garden. But then, as you know, during the beginning of the pandemic, we started opening up that home and garden to everyone by way of selling products and bringing chefs in and beginning to make things and offer them to people. And before we knew it, my home had become a brand.
DC: You also sell what I would confidently describe as the most luxurious CSA farm boxes in Los Angeles. Can you tell me about that offering?
RC: In the first year, we sold millions of dollars of vegetables and delivered to tens of thousands of homes in Los Angeles. We had a really wonderful, joyful year and helped a lot of growers. Now, 90 per cent of the things we offer don’t come from our garden, they come from regenerative farmers who we love and admire. So, what I think comes next for Flamingo is more of a sort of seal of approval, a mark of quality for all of the most amazing things that are being grown in the world as we start to broaden and deepen our range.
DC: How do you see Flamingo Estate’s role in the world of farming and agriculture?
RC: We started working with a lot of organic growers and regenerative farmers for whom branding wasn’t their thing, marketing wasn’t their thing. I think in some ways we’ve created this platform for these people who are masters at growing, who are more creative than any artist. This project becomes a whole space for them. I like that Flamingo has transcended its original idea. We have our arms around dozens of farmers and growers now and are working with bakeries, too. A thing I keep telling everyone is that we’re doing nothing new. This is not a new idea. This is the oldest idea. It’s the original idea: to plant a tree, to pick what grows and make something. We should get no points for originality here. We are doing, like, the oldest thing in the world, that so many of us have just maybe forgotten about.
DC: What do you think inspired that evolution?
RC: I grew up on a farm in outback Australia. My parents have very big green thumbs, and we didn’t have a separation in terms of work and play. That idea of using your home as your workplace is one part of it. I think also, in that world, you don’t just finish work at the end of the day and close the door. You talk about the farm across the dinner table. Your job does become your life to a certain extent. And if you’re doing the thing you love, if you’re in the garden or on the farm in nature, then it might never feel like work.
And then I think about those decades in New York, working myself to death and not realizing how out of alignment I was and how much joy I had, or didn’t have, in my days. And then you come to the garden and you plant an orange tree and you’re like, “Oh, my god — this living, breathing thing.” It might sound silly, but really it was revolutionary for me.
DC: How did you come to start making the apothecary items?
RC: Because of my background in advertising, I know the bullshit that goes into branding. I know the half-truths and the quarter-truths that go into many of the brands that we love. But, you know, we started making shampoo and soaps because the water from my showers and baths at the house would flow into the garden. I noticed that my roses started to die because of the actual contents and chemicals of the shower products I was using. So we started making our own. It was quite literally from a place of wanting to make stuff for my garden. And I started to really understand the gulf that exists between brands that say something is not bad for you and then the things that are actively good for you. I started to educate myself on the difference. I spent my entire professional life creating fictional stories for brands, and I really wanted to start creating one from a real place of truth.
DC: I love that your impulse came from a place of being kind to your garden. I appreciate that; I just started gardening this year, and it’s my favourite thing on the planet. Do you have a favourite aspect of the gardens?
RC: There’s no one favourite piece. It changes all the time, but lately it’s been the way the garden smells. You might miss it if you are just looking at it — but if you can spend some time there with your eyes closed, it’s very fragrant. It changes constantly depending on the season. But there isn’t really one thing I love the most. It’s a tapestry, and it all brings me great joy.
DC: I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between nature and creativity.
RC: I used to say things like, “Mother Nature is the most creative force,” or “Mother Nature is the greatest artist” — and those clichés are true. But what I’ve come to learn more recently is that, maybe as a reaction to this visual diet we get almost exclusively from little screens, there is a very powerful silent joy in texture and smell and foliage and getting your hands dirty: in the sensual, in our senses like smell, touch, taste. I think we’ve lost some of that by receiving all of our inspiration from these little screens. And I think it’s why these more sensory things are becoming so coveted. And I think the second part of it is that we all remember things like the smell of our grandmother’s kitchen or how a past lover’s skin smelled like cigarettes. There is infinite inspiration in really respecting your senses, paying attention to these things.
DC: Can nature help us access certain aspects of perspective or self?
RC: Yes, I mean, a resounding yes. I’m very interested in how we can work with nature, how we can collaborate with nature to have better sex, better sleep, to have even just a better day, to look at life differently. And I think that’s probably where we’re going to go as the brand develops.
I think the other thing that nature gives us access to is real awe and wonder, the kind we just can’t access or see through or on the screen. My bookstore [Owl Bureau] has all those original National Geographic magazines. I often pour a glass of wine and sit and look at the really old ones. I think about what it must have been like to live at that time, how exciting to get a magazine and see something completely awe-inspiring and new and foreign and unreal and get that real thrill of surprise. I find it sort of sad because I feel like we all know everything about everything these days, but it’s often just through an image of the thing, not the individual sensory experience of it. I think the new frontier for us all is really feeling those things, rather than just seeing them from a screen.
DC: That reminds me of the concept of “aura” from Walter Benjamin, when he talks about how something’s inherent aura gets diminished by reproductions of it — for example, seeing a photo of a place on Instagram. We have to try very hard to remind ourselves we do not actually know that thing just because we have seen an image of it. We have to give ourselves the gift of experiencing something as if encountering it for the first time. It takes work.
RC: It does. And you know, from the beginning, we have always said that Flamingo’s mission was pleasure from the garden. We think pleasure is a human right, but we’ve become disconnected from seeing it that way. I think Mother Nature really can be a therapist, a best friend, a sex therapist, our guide to experience and feel more deeply. What’s interesting, though, is that over the course of this year, we learned that people are really looking for solutions. They are looking to nature as a way to meet very human needs. I want people to come with a goal and I want to be able to satiate that with pleasure as our North Star.
DC: What lessons have you learned from nature?
RC: I remember when I went through a breakup, one of the gardeners who I work with gave me a set of secateurs, garden shears. He said, “This is what we use to cut the roses down every year, and those roses come back even stronger because of it. Maybe this is time for you to treat yourself like a rose bush and cut down the pieces that are not working so you can come back fuller.” I thought it was such a nice analogy, and I think about that a lot. Recently, we had a tree that fell down, it just snapped in half, and we saw it repair itself, we saw it keep going. There’s a great expression about a flower not blooming for the bee, but rather the bee coming because you have blossomed. And that’s a big lesson from nature to me. You know, life isn’t a race, it’s not about comparison. You just blossom, and it will come.
Dana Covit is a writer, researcher, collector, and nature enthusiast based in Los Angeles. She grew up on the East Coast, where flowers are fleeting and fruit-bearing trees are fairy-tale stuff. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Broccoli Magazine, Sight Unseen, and more.