Designing Your Bliss with Darwin Fitz
The secret to Darwin Fitz’s success as a master gardener, landscape designer, and interior designer is simple: he follows his heart, and he leads with joy. Growing up next door to his grandfather’s garden, it’s not difficult to see how a lifelong love of horticulture would lead Darwin to create floral designs across the city and beyond. But things weren’t always sunflowers and roses; a lot of soul searching went into this particular life journey.
To hear Darwin tell it, his story could be an hour-long podcast with a break for commercials; in fact, it almost was! Our interview spanned over an hour total, with Darwin needing to leave halfway through because he ran into a client—not the client he was planning on meeting that day, but someone who ran into him on the street and asked if they could hire him again. This is an everyday occurrence now, and it is a testament to Darwin’s charm, integrity, and natural talent for design. His story is thrilling and uplifting, and it all began in a vet’s office.
Although gardening was something Darwin enjoyed doing with his grandfather on warm Chicago afternoons, he always assumed he would go into veterinary medicine to make money and have a stable career. All it took was one fateful vet program to dash those dreams. Darwin didn’t say what exactly went wrong that summer, but it was a strong enough sign from the universe that medicine wasn’t his calling. Instead of rushing into the next career, or choosing a job at random and hoping for the best, Darwin took a concerted time out to try new things and trust that his passion would reveal itself. Marine biology was next (admittedly a kind of lateral move from veterinary medicine) and he even took a job as a welding assistant until a chance encounter with renowned Australian horticulturist, Jamie Durie. The host of HGTV’s The Outdoor Room—one of Darwin’s favorite shows—Durie was in town for a book signing. The next day, Darwin ran into him at a garden center, and Durie encouraged him to follow a newfound passion for design.
“Jamie Durie was doing things with landscape design that I had never thought of before,” Darwin says. “He took interior design and made it fit for outdoor areas. It just made sense.” Suddenly, a world of possibilities opened up. Within the year, Darwin was studying Landscape Design and Horticulture at Harold Washington College. While in school, he landed a job in the gardening department at Jayson Home near Old Town, Chicago. Darwin described that first job as “a real trial by fire,” where he was learning just about everything right away. The specifics of plant material; how to sell a product; interacting with clients; adjusting to different needs and giving sound advice—it was a crash course, and Darwin passed with flying colors. Pretty soon, customers were showing up to Jayson Home specifically requesting Darwin. “People would literally wait for me to be in the store,” he says with an air of modest disbelief. “If I wasn’t there, they’d just leave until my shift started!” Finally, a newlywed couple approached Darwin about designing their entire garden through Jayson Home’s unique, hands-on gardening service. It was the first time he received permission from the company to design on his own. Before long, new clients were pouring in. “It’s an entirely referral business. Every client I’ve ever had has come from a reference from another client.” Darwin describes one wedding as particularly lucrative. He was hired to design the floral arrangements and, by the end of the reception, nearly a dozen more clients were asking the bride for his number. He really is that good.
Darwin’s career as a landscape designer has been built on a series of immensely supportive relationships. With each subsequent day job, Darwin found himself working for bosses and managers who genuinely cared about his passion. While working for the Painted Lady in West Town, owner Beth Harlow went so far as to cover Darwin’s shifts and offer up her pickup truck whenever he had another gardening gig. Unbridled encouragement from friends and family gave Darwin the confidence (and client list) needed to take on his floral and design work full-time. By then, he had amassed another loyal companion—his cousin Natalie.
Natalie moved back to Chicago for art school and took a part-time job assisting Darwin. “She totally changed the game,” Darwin says. “Natalie brings in a lot of funky and different color schemes that I traditionally wouldn’t have done…I was always very green and white, keep it very simple and sublime, and Natalie comes in and injects pops of color and created a real diversity of aesthetics.” With Darwin’s expertise from years in the field, and Natalie’s academic background working with color theory, the duo are indomitable. Eventually, his cousin’s part-time job turned into full-time work, with Natalie taking on clients of her own and splitting up the workload between them. Then, something of a miracle happened. Mere months before the pandemic, Jayson Home announced they would be discontinuing their outdoor gardening services, and Darwin was their first call. In an instant, Darwin and Natalie found themselves with a rolodex of every Jayson Home private gardening client.
Of course, the pandemic threw a wrench into an otherwise unstoppable machine. With lockdowns approaching, Darwin’s business halted, and anxiety surrounding his future set in. The uncertainty wouldn’t last long, for as people grew weary of seeing the same four walls every day, they began to reach out and ask to get on Darwin’s list for spring gardening. Add to that the floodgates of Jayson Home clients, and Darwin and Natalie found themselves with more work during the pandemic than ever before. “It’s crazy,” he says. “We’re often at seven days a week, with no time off.” Talk about commitment!
Olive Well knows that “living well” necessitates time for yourself; time to relax, unwind, and not think about that project you’ve been so focused on. So, how does a heavily in-demand designer working seven days a week take time to live well? “Luckily,” he says, “gardening is a daytime job, right? We’re limited to
daylight, so in the evenings I can take a few hours to walk the dogs, hang out in my garden, and just relax. I find meal-prepping to be especially relaxing, because then I know I have one less thing to worry about for the week.” Darwin’s best piece of advice for detaching and relaxing? Leave the phone at home. “Whenever I walk the dogs, I don’t take the phone with me. If I take it, I’m going to get a work call, guaranteed.”
Perhaps one of the defining draws for Lauren Mitrick Wood when she met Darwin was their similarity in taste and style. The Olive Well aesthetic, lovingly referred to as “Chi-lum” (a mix of Chicago and Tulum, Lauren’s two favorite places) features muted greens and neutral colors to give a sense of nature in an urban environment. In fact, when Darwin describes why he loves using eucalyptus in all of his designs, he cited its similarity to an olive branch in color and vibe. A match made in heaven, if you ask us. This muted palette has been key to Darwin’s ability to stand out in the Chicago design community. “When I began working,” he explains, “interior design in Chicago was so much about layering and patterns and having no restrictions.” Darwin’s West Coast sensibility of a more muted, spa-like quality drew people in and readjusted the way they thought about both interior and landscape design. For this he credits Jamie Durie, and a host of other Australian designers, whose sense of calming, natural flourishes had not yet penetrated the Chicago aesthetic when Darwin began working.
Darwin stresses that even though his style airs on the side of “Chi-lum,” years in the industry have taught him that the golden rule of design is to always be flexible and mold with the client’s needs. His biggest advice to aspiring designers? “Emotion is everything. What are you seeking in this space? Do you want to feel serene? Do you want to feel bright and happy? Ask these questions and then go with the materials that follow those emotions.” He says his muted palette came from being surrounded by florals all day long. “The rest of my life is bright and bubbly, and when I come home, I don’t want to be bombarded by anything” (except his dogs, we presume).
When working with Darwin, there is an innate magnetism that often helps clients trust his eye and bold choices. Darwin ascribes it to the joy and passion he’s found in horticulture. “Early on I learned that the money would come. If I’m passionate about it, and pursue it and have a good work ethic for it, and made sure I was respectful to my clients, the money would come. Building relationships has been so important to me. I don’t see clients as ‘clients,’ I see them as friends I’m interacting with. All of that has helped me be happy and have this life that I find interesting. I just followed everything that made me happy and [was] interested in. I never stayed in one particular lane because I was always exploring every little thing.” Some success stories are rags-to-riches, some simply win the lottery, and then there are the success stories like Darwin Fitz, who reminds us that a life worth living is the life that you find interesting to live.