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Vermont by Design | Why is a global landscape business based in Saxtons River?

Written by Kim Asch on . Posted in Entrepreneurs, Outdoor Rec and Nature

In 2004, Julie Moir Messervy, a prominent figure in the esoteric realm of high-end design, uprooted from the Boston area and moved her business to a speck on the map called Saxtons River, Vermont. The decision was a gamble — she was already well established where she was, with a client list that included Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and celebrity cellist Yo-Yo Ma — but the chance to live in Vermont’s open spaces and natural beauty seemed worth the risk.

Julie Moir Messervy, second from right, at work in Saxtons River with members of the creative team at Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio Inc. Photograph by Ken Burris.

Messervy, who was 53 at the time, had raised three children with her first husband in bustling Wellesley, Massachusetts, writing landscape books and drawing designs at her dining room table while tending to her family, in the latter years as a single mom. Now that the kids were launched, she told her second husband, longtime Vermonter Steve Jonas, that she would relocate so they could make a rural home together. “I had lived in cities and I had lived in suburbs, but I had never lived in the country,” she says. “I realized that a landscape designer should learn the real fundamentals of living close to the land.”

Together, Messervy and Jonas toured southern Vermont in search of an ideal spot. She fell in love with a 206-acre parcel in Westminster that came with a “funny little house” in need of a total renovation, but offered stunning views and a pond that held the promise of serene summer days spent swimming in spring-fed water. “That was it for me,” she says.

Ten minutes away on Main Street in Saxtons River, Messervy found a 19th-century building, once the village tinsmith’s workshop, that offered both ample charm and office space for rent. Now she was ready to embark on her new marriage as well as an adventure in answering the question that tugged at the back of her mind while she and Jonas drove around admiring so much undeveloped land: Was it really possible to run a successful international landscape design firm from a village in Vermont?

Eleven years later, sun filters through the creaky windows of the firm’s bright second-floor space where staffers pore over drafting tables and computers. Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio Inc., or JMMDS as it is known, now includes a team of six full- and part-time employees who work in such specialties as landscape architecture and design, marketing and project management. With about $500,000 in annual revenue, business is about four times what it was in Massachusetts. The vibe on this particular day is intense focus and looming deadlines. Messervy and senior landscape architect Jana Bryan are busy preparing to fly to Richmond, Virginia, to make a presentation at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where JMMDS has been hired to design a master plan for future development of the property. “The creativity floods out of Julie,” says Frank Robinson, president and CEO of the Lewis Ginter garden.“What she brings is a real commitment to the experience people are going to have in the gardens, rather than design for its own sake.”

Messervy, who holds master’s degrees in architecture and city planning from MIT and studied with Japanese garden expert Kinsaku Nakane in Kyoto, Japan, as a Henry Luce Scholar, built her reputation as an industry guru over the years through the publication of eight books and invitations to speak at such venues as the Smithsonian Institution. When Yo-Yo Ma wanted to build a public space inspired by Bach’s “First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello,” he sought out Messervy, and together they designed a three-acre park on Toronto’s waterfront. Relocating to Vermont hasn’t hurt her ability to win contracts, she says, or find talented people for her team.

In fact, Messervy posted only one job ad on Craigslist; the rest of the staff she found through word of mouth. “All of this talent was right at my fingertips,” says Messervy. “They were already living here in Vermont by choice. In some cases, like many creative people in Vermont do, they were putting together a livelihood by doing many things. When we all finally got together, our abilities and synergy have allowed us to get more and better projects that keep us all fed.”

Unlike most landscape firms, JMMDS restricts its services to design but then joins with local contractors, nurseries, masons and other tradespeople to accomplish the actual building of the project. This model keeps the company nimble and able to accept jobs anywhere in the world, although collaborators on big projects sometimes visit Vermont so they can enjoy a bit of the lifestyle she has cultivated outside of work, with a dip in her pond and a pizza dinner baked by her husband in the outdoor oven she designed.

“I’m spoiled by the lack of traffic, the beauty all around me, the night sky, the wildlife, and having more space and time to think and be creative,” says Messervy. “You have to go out and get a lot of your work, but boy, when you come home, it’s worth every moment.”

Over the past decade, Messervy has compiled a mental list of anecdotes that underscore her deep satisfaction with the artistic and collaborative community she has found here. A favorite incident occurred at a meeting of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, where she struck up a casual conversation with a man who looked like an aging hippie, only to learn that he works with the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee. She told him about her Toronto Music Garden project, and not long after, he arranged for her to meet with Bonnaroo partners in New York City. JMMDS is now at work on various projects for Bonnaroo. 

Photograph by Ken Burris.

Photograph by Ken Burris.

Messervy relishes opportunities to work with Vermonters close to home, but there are only so many local clients. That’s the reality behind her emerging ventures into e-commerce, including a design-it-yourself app, called the Home Outside Palette, that brings the elite nature of her work more down to earth. The app, free to download to a smartphone or tablet, helps users imagine what a redesigned backyard or wedding garden might look like by dragging and dropping images of shrubs, fire pits, patio furniture and other enhancements. Messervy’s firm earns revenue if users upgrade to a $9.99 package of specialty elements, measuring and drawing tools, but the app also introduces users to JMMDS’ online consultation service, another digital avenue that offers personalized design to any homeowner anywhere, at rates much lower than those involved with site visits.

Messervy suspects she would never have been inspired to innovate online if she hadn’t moved to Saxtons River and discovered her desire to stay at home more often, while still keeping her creative team energized and employed. “The Internet changes everything,” she says. “It can bring our work to us, and it allows access for people who could to pioneer new ways to bring landscape design to more people.”

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