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Napa Sonoma Magazine
Summer / Fall 2006

Embracing the Whimsical

Cornerstone Festival of Gardens’ Chris Hougie brings to the limelight the most artistic, the most innovative—and the oddest

By Gary Brady-Herndon

The first time motorists approach the grounds of Cornerstone Festival of Gardens in southern Sonoma County, there’s always a reaction. One of the most common is blatant curiosity directed toward an enormous dead tree covered with more than 75,000 plastic blue balls. If motorists happen to pass by during the Christmas season, they find a small army of brightly lit plastic snowmen standing silent vigil over the garden’s perimeter. Yet Cornerstone is no whimsical experiment in the bizarre; it is a serious attempt to integrate nature, art, and the love of gardening into one enticing, aesthetic package.

For founder Chris Hougie, the nine acres of landscape installations crown a lifetime spent bringing joy to others through innovation. The former toy  company owner has enthralled countless children who know his work through the glow-in-the-dark stars their parents spread across their bedroom ceilings. Hougie eventually sold the company but still treasures inspiring others. “I’ve always had an interest in design and creating things,” he says. “The toy business is about coming up with ideas, building prototypes, and finding out what does and doesn’t work. Our gardens as art installations are really very similar.”

The impetus behind the gardens came after Hougie and his wife visited the celebrated International Garden Festivals in France in 1996. Two years later, he launched his own garden project, carving out a botanic jewel in a region normally known for producing world-class grapes. Eight years later, Cornerstone is a showcase for some of the finest architectural and landscape designers in the world: Topher Delaney, Tom Leader, Yoji Sasaki, Martha Schwartz. It’s a true home for innovation and whimsy—ideals embodied by its founder.

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