NYC fashion designer Ralph Rucci turned a rooftop terrace into his personal Eden
When fashion designer Ralph Rucci saw the terrace of an empty apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side some 13 years ago, he melted. He had asked his real estate agent to find him a place downtown, in the East Village. He was annoyed that instead she brought him to an 18th-floor penthouse just four blocks from his old place on Park Avenue. “I walked in—it was bare white walls—and then I went outside and saw the terrace, and I said, ‘This is it.’ ”
It took time for Rucci to find the right formula for turning the space into his personal Eden. The long, narrow passageway runs the length of his apartment and flows into a rectangle at the corner, forming an L-shape. At first, he placed huge palm trees. “They were torn apart over the winter,” he says. Next, he tried white birch. “They had a short season, and were not strong enough.” With help from landscape designer John Wysocki, he settled on the current arrangement, which has remained in place, with minor tweaks, about 10 years. Rucci gave Wysocki one word of direction: “chinoiserie.” Then they collaborated on decisions.
Photography: John Bessler
Produced by Jo Ann McVicker
Landscape designer: John Wysocki
That terrace is now his garden sanctuary. Rucci, an evangelist of elegance—one of only two Americans ever to be invited to show in Paris by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne— often ends his long days there, collapsed on a white-cushioned chaise longue in a corner. Surrounded by greenery, he relaxes and reflects. In the summer, he sometimes falls asleep and spends the night there. In his aerie high above New York’s streets, Rucci hears little of the city’s noise.
Lush Container Garden
Unquestionably, Rucci’s style and fashion sensibility can be seen in his garden. Lushness takes precedence over a profusion of color. All the planters are black, and soil is nowhere to be seen: It’s covered by moss or black stones. Contrasting textures abound, provided by a dozen different kinds of trees: a spiky silver-blue pine juxtaposed with a feathery Japanese red maple; a weeping blue Atlas cedar, its branches conjuring up the heights and depths of a Chinese mountainscape screen, standing near three boxwood topiary balls. There are no flowers, just flowering trees—a pale pink weeping cherry centering a row of pines along one wall, white Japanese snowbells, or styrax, along another, and citrus trees (lemons, limes, and grapefruits) in a couple of places.
Aside from the greenery, almost everything in Ralph Rucci's garden haven is black or white, down to the stones in the planters.
Potted Citrus Tree
“The scent of the trees, especially the Meyer lemon trees, is incredible,” Rucci says. They are also very productive—he eats the fruit himself, but sometimes the harvest is so bountiful that he takes the surplus to his atelier. Last year, there were so many lemons that his employees were even making lemon curd.
Color, too, comes from the flowering fruit trees—lemon, lime, cherry, and grapefruit.
Fruit Tree Detail
Fruit trees on the terrace provide luscious fragrance—as well as bountiful harvests.
Terrace Dining Area
The garden sits at the end of the apartment’s mirrored entry corridor, entered through a frosted glass door. Golden bamboo trees stand sentry. The terrace itself is almost an apartment—its spaces form four “rooms,” anchored respectively by the chaise, a couch and chairs, another chaise, and, in the largest space, a wrought-iron glass-topped table.
The chic glass-topped table, shimmering in the sunlight is accented by a topiary in a weathered terra-cotta pot.
For dinner parties, the glass-topped table is set with Baccarat crystal, Buccellati silver flatware, china—“I mix patterns,” he says—and pure white linen napkins embroidered with pagodas.
Design in the Details
On first glance, one might miss the presence in the garden of a trademark feature of Rucci’s designs: the scrumptious details.
Here and there among the trees are treasures, mostly of Asian design, placed on a window sill, a tiny table, the red brick floor. They are garden fixtures, but they correspond with the collection of Asian antiquities—Khmer, Chinese, Indian—that Rucci displays inside the apartment (along with a suite of works by Cy Twombly, for whom he named his eight-year-old English bulldog).
In well-chosen places, Rucci has placed a panoply of objects and artifacts, arranged precisely alone or in mini-tableaus, as with tray topped with a book and statue shown here. That makes sense, as Rucci also paints and makes collages; his artworks have been exhibited in various galleries. The designer also surrounds himself with books, in the terrace garden as well as the apartment. And on the occasion of his 30th year in business a few years ago, he published a limited edition book, Autobiography of a Fashion Designer: Ralph Rucci , which consists largely of photographs; many are close-ups of objects in his apartment and elements of his fashions.
Details on the following slide.
The bulldog statue on a tray in Rucci's garden is a nod to his sweet pooch, Twombly.
Renowned for using texture as a design element in his fashions, Rucci selected a dozen trees with variously shaped leaves (among them this Japanese red maple) to give his garden contrasting patterns.
A stone bust is just one of many well placed objects and artifacts in Rucci's garden.
Flowering Japanese Snowbell
Rucci’s garden has no flower beds. Instead, he chooses to cultivate flowering trees, like this Japanese snowbell.
“Chinoiserie”—as seen in this porcelain dog—was the one word of direction Rucci gave his landscape designer.
Curvy Tree Trunk
As in his creations, Rucci is attuned to the telling details of his garden.
Designer Ralph Rucci
Designer Ralph Rucci, with his well-mannered dog Twombly, frequently entertains in his garden with both small dinners and large parties. After dark, tiny bulbs strung in the trees and along the railings provide atmospheric light.
Rucci's Impeccable Cratsmanship
Among the fashion cognoscenti, Ralph Rucci is seen as an artist, not merely a designer—and he looks the part. He usually dresses in black pants and a crisp, white tailored shirt and wears a trim beard. He credits the likes of Charles James, Madame Grès, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Elsa Peretti as inspirations, but his creations are not an homage. Rucci’s clothes are always original, as his many fashion awards attest. He says he’s not creating fashion—which is fleeting—but style, which is timeless. He's also a notorious perfectionist, with his highly structured designs crafted from luxurious, often textured materials. The results are elegant, refined, and classic.