Something completely different
Cornerstone is a Neverland of garden delights
The windy corridor connecting the Sonoma Valley to San Pablo Bay is a gateway without a gate, a grand entrance without a signature statement, save for sprawling rows of grapevines, a pair of parallel wineries and a wetlands once the object of a winemaker's feud.
Drive the route too often, speeding down the skinny run of straightaway before the Napa curve, and you could find yourself lulled into a topographical stupor, buried in scenic ennui.
That is, until Cornerstone Place creeps into view-at which point you'll find your stupor instantly replaced by bemused curiosity. Now this is different, you'll think to yourself, spotting the huge, leafless tree completely swaddled in blue Christmas ornaments. That's unusual, you'll note, as you pass the upside-down picket fence levitating in the wind. Haven't seen that before, you'll admit, flying past the ginormous pair of Adirondack chairs. It's whimsical public art at the side of a country road, and as stimulants go, it's better than coffee.
Pull in for a closer look, and that initial sense of delight gives way to wonderment. What is this Neverland of eclectic stores and garden delights, exactly?
What does it do? What is it for?
Sprawling across nine immaculate acres, Cornerstone plays host to a palette of gardens, an array of playgrounds that seem to invite mature children and childlike adults, a handful of cleverly beautiful shops, several venues in which to sample wines and a sense of whimsy that makes the mad, mad world of day-to-day troubles totally recede. It's avant-garde, pristine, and witty to its last inch.
And it all began with a guy between projects, looking for something worthwhile to do. While honeymooning in France, founder Chris Hougie toured the Festival Gardens of Chaumont, a wild outdoor experiment boasting yearly reinventions around unlikely themes like "eroticism in the garden" and "mosiaculture." As he and his bride strolled the grounds, amazed and delighted, they wondered why there was no American counterpart to gardens like these. Certainly we have our public open spaces, our parks large and small, but what Hougie saw that afternoon was something new. An invention, an innovation, a quickening of creativity where art and garden met.
Freshly off a stint at the helm of Great Explorations, a toy company he sold in 1995 for enough cash to pursue alternative dreams, Hougie had always been passionate about art and design. He imagined it might be lovely to work outdoors, and realized with the arrival of his children, Ethan and Ella, that working closer to home held strong appeal. Alongside this short list of demands lingered the memory of Chaumont, and those whimsically inventive gardens. An idea began to germinate.
The idea became a plan when Hougie spotted a dilapidated parcel for sale on Highway 121. Former home to the quirky House of Birds (which sold emus and llamas, as well), the site wasn't perfect, but close. Wind was an issue, as was the hard clay soil, but Hougie and his team of collaborators were excited. "It was kind of a reclamation project as well," he says. "The parcel is a gateway for both Napa and Sonoma. There needed to be something beautiful there."
The gardens came first. Sixteen landscape architects, some world-renowned, stepped forward in answer to Cornerstone's call. Their mission? "To invent, inform and create beautiful and compelling gardens that engage and inspire the viewer intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically." Each was given an identically sized plot, demarcated by fast-growing hedges, and essentially turned loose. The resulting "rooms" run the gamut from serious to surreal. In Pamela Burton's "Earth Walk" the visitor descends a graded slope into the earth itself. Sitting on the bench at the base of this hollow, with Mexican feather grass shushing gently in the breeze and a small pool of fish at your feet, the soil smells pungent and wet. As the world above recedes, the insular quiet that descends satisfies an intuitive, perhaps unconscious, yearning.
In Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot's "A Lullaby Garden," 300 yards of hand-knit material stretch across undulating hills that whisper and echo with song. The eerie Vietnamese lullabies emanate from the hills themselves, a conceptual Mother Earth crooning to her children. Quivering walls surround you on three sides, constructed from seven miles of fishing line woven horizontally between steel poles.
There are political installations at Cornerstone, and others that are expressly for fun. "Everybody's view of art is different," says Hougie, "but this has been going on in Europe for a long time. We wanted to introduce people to new ways of thinking about the garden, to see what we could do with outdoor spaces beyond our fences and our little daisy patch." Like all provocative art forms, these installations are constantly evolving, never static, always changing. Some are intended to be temporary, lasting less than a year, and others are more permanent by nature. New gardens are added each year.
On a recent visit, a middle-aged couple is found wandering the grounds, scratching their heads in seeming bemusement. "Many people have preconceived ideas of what a garden is," Hougie says, "but if you can let those go, most people find they really, really enjoy the challenge." For people confused by the concept of the garden as art, the first installation may evoke a mild "huh?" By the time the second has been absorbed, that reaction has likely morphed into "hmmm." At the third, they're warming up to "wow." That's Hougie's hope, at least. His fondest wish is for people to step outside of their expectations and open their souls to something brand new.
General Manager Dave Aquilina concurs. "Cornertone is completely unique. It's an amazing place. You get inspiration here. You get uniqueness here. You can expect the unexpected here. There's great edginess of art and design. There's winetasting and great events. No single word defines Cornerstone," Aquilina says. "It's ephemeral. It has been and always will be an evolution."
When they opened in July 2004, only Artefact Design and Salvage existed alongside the gardens at Cornerstone. People made the trek to the middle of nowhere and found there wasn't enough there there. "It was not a good thing for the site," Hougie admits of that first year. Since that difficult beginning, a gallery, three additional retail shops, a café, and four tasting rooms have sprouted, along with a traditionally Mediterranean walled garden suitable for weddings or an indulgent afternoon passed in the company of a good book.
Translations, an artful store that promises to draw the browser "into home, garden, life," is stocked with an international inventory ranging from the ordinary (ceramic planters) to the sublime (a diminutively sized Indian portal hand-carved from jackfruit wood). Open for business three years and counting, the store's clientele is two parts Bay Area resident and one part interior designer. Reclamation is a large part of the premise here, with antique Indonesian water jugs crowding one corner, and a massive bar fashioned from salvaged cedar another. A pod of palm coconut tree trunks gleams darkly against a wall. Antique iron tables, sconces, and brackets cluster in rusty displays made beautiful by the patina of age and sense of story that graces them.
Across the courtyard at Opia, an Asian theme seems to dominate at first blush. Inside, the wares are more eclectic. Wind chimes stand guard over garden statuary, modestly priced artisan jewelry shares counter space with a brimming basket of lacquered chopsticks. Jackets and wraps fashioned from recycled polar fleece hang near a display of ancient calligraphy pens, their elaborate handles carved of horn and coral and Tibetan bamboo. There are hand-batiked scarves from Bali and cashmere wraps from Kashmir. A flock of stuffed ravens stand silently in a corner, watching the browser with beady black eyes.
A New Leaf Gallery offers abstract and figurative sculpture in wood, bronze, ceramic, and limestone. Outside the front door, dancing nymphs welcome your appraisal, an intimate celebration captured in high-fired ceramic by artist Mark Chatterly. A witty collection by sculptress Emma Luna-first mistaken for a shelf of textiles-reveals itself to be a pile of ceramic towels titled "my grandmother's terrycloths." A three-dimensional painting of wood and pigment juts thickly off a near wall. In the courtyard leading to the gardens beyond, fulcrummed steel sculptures swing lazily in the near-constant breeze.
Zipper is a hipster's delight. Rated among the top fifty retail stores nationwide by Home Accents Today, it reflects an ultramodern zeitgeist and is stuffed with treasures to thrill the style maven on your list. Rumored to be on Oprah's A-list, the merchandise at Zipper is anything but ordinary. You've been yearning for a whimsical set of winged espresso cups in soft pastels, or a fake stag head trophy of jet black foam with aluminum antlers? How about a paparazzi playset with nine bendable figures for little Timmy? Mom will love the fabulous crystal perfume decanters (trust us), and the wobble chess set made of walnut will look smart in Dad's study. There's an extensive selection of coffee-table books, and a retro-cool collection from acclaimed artist Idelle Weber.
Of course art is wonderful, and commerce is good, but Cornerstone's mission has grown to encompass public education as well. Last September Cornerstone hosted "Sustainamania," inviting a handful of nurseries to present lectures and demonstrations of the newest and best in low-water gardening materials and plants. A huge number of inquisitive, environmentally minded green thumbs turned out to take advantage.
The beautiful and eclectic shops combine with the gardens at Cornerstone like an antidote to Pottery Barn America. It's the precise opposite of mall shopping, with cookie-cutter commerce at every turn. Sticker shock is an inevitability with original and one-of-a-kind merchandise, but strolling the grounds creates such an ebullient mood in the shopper that when one stumbles across a two-thousand-dollar string of copper babydoll heads attached to an iron grid at Artefact, it seems somehow logical and proper, lyric proof that life is lovely and all is quite right with the world.
If you've not been, or been lately, go. Even a card-carrying curmudgeon will love the parade of illuminated snowmen, that platoon of pudgy fellows who annually march up the low hill abutting Highway 121.
Cornerstone has matured beautifully in its short lifetime. Enjoy a savory nosh at the squeaky clean café, sample boutique wines, defend your need for a near life-sized mermaid. Stroll the gardens, surrender your preconceptions. Welcome the whimsy. Smile.
Cornerstone is located at 23570 Arnold Drive
in Sonoma. The phone number is 707.933.3010.
From the winter 2008 issue of SONOMA