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Case Study – Santa’s Secret Garden


Project Overview:

In an Australian first, a Christmas experience like no other – “Santa’s Secret Garden” – brought the outdoors indoors to Sydney’s Macquarie Centre, with a one-of-a-kind, living, breathing Santa set installation. Santa’s Secret Garden took visitors on a journey through Australia’s favourite landscapes, from the beach to the bush, through a large glow worm cave containing over 250 live plants and tall gum trees. An innovative, forward-thinking project with community and sustainability at its heart.


At the heart of the concept was the driving notion to engage and educate younger visitors about nature, as well as unifying and reigniting the memories many Australians have during the lead up to Christmas – family & school holidays – nostalgic summertime adventures in and amongst our beautiful diverse landscapes.


So in an Australian retail first, Macquarie Centre’s open floor space was transformed into a visual stage to promote a sense of family and joy via a reconnection with nature.


The design strategy incorporated the opportunity to give back, to raise awareness and funds for three incredibly important AMP-nominated charities, as well as connecting with AMP’s primary community by donating plants to local schools, parks and community spaces.


Visitors from across the state and Australia were captivated by this world-class Santa Experience. So much so, Santa photo sales increased 2.5 times the projected increase.


Project Brief:

The brief was far from simple – “We want you to reinvent and bring to life a truly Australian Santa Experience like no other!”


The Macquarie Centre Marketing Team handpicked a collective of collaborative cross-discipline design teams (Chas Clarkson, Outhouse Design, Outside Space & Alpine Nurseries) to deliver an innovative, immersive Santa Experience with a truly unique installation that was media-worthy and would deliver a massive social & traditional media buzz. A living, breathing Australian festive garden.


The brief stipulated strict criteria around immovable installation times, weight loading restrictions and longevity of design. The set needed to be installed over a maximum of 3 nights. As the set was being built directly over a void, we needed to ensure that the weight of the set (including all soil, plants and water) didn’t exceed 500kg per square meter. Finally, for the 8-week duration of the campaign, it was vital that the set remained looking like a living, breathing garden: fresh and full of vitality. All plants had to be easily removable during the installation period to ensure the garden looked in full bloom at all times.


As this garden needed to be reborn every year, material selection and sustainability were key. In essence, the design approach was similar to that of an infinite show garden using materials that offer longevity and a flexibility in planting display.



The most complicated part of the project was working with living plants – bringing them into an artificial, air-conditioned environment during the height of the Australian summer, and ensuring they survived for the duration of the 8-week installation. All the while, making sure the plants could be easily removed from any part of the garden and swapped with a replacement.


The plants needed to survive inside the modular set which could break down into smaller components for transportation, allow easy access to the plants for watering and possible replacement, whilst also being waterproof and damp proof. The set contained many electrical elements, including a feature LED fish pond complete with pond-life sound effects and an illuminating glow worm tunnel. Keeping these electrical elements dry with so much water in the set was of paramount importance.


The physical set was designed and built within an 8-week period, so time constraints were also a major factor.


With all the logistical aspects considered, planting the garden was also a challenge. Like any garden, the planting needed to feel natural, but without a ground planting option. Plants had to be selected on individual merit such as colour and form. However, group composition was also important so that when on set and dropped into a pre-cut hole, the layering and positioning would be in likeness to that found in its natural setting.


Delivering Sustainability:

Santas Secret Garden, delivered by Chas Clarkson in collaboration with Outhouse Design, was produced by a local network of suppliers who are all striving to lower their carbon footprint and ethically source their manufacturing materials. All the decorations within the set can be broken down and stripped into their various base materials (such as PVC, timber, plastic, etc.) and be recycled.


The project was an Australian first for the AMP Group’s 2030 Real Estate Sustainability Strategy ‘green’ initiative. This innovative and “outside the tree” thinking resulted in the final design reducing the environmental footprint of a traditional Santa set by 30%.


To ensure that the plants used within this set will continue to benefit the environment and community, Macquarie Centre auctioned off the plants with all proceeds donated to charity. Macquarie also gave each child that had a photo with Santa a bark chip. By placing their bark chip in their chosen charity’s container, the child cast their vote for donations to go to one of 3 charities. A beautiful way to ensure that Santa’s Secret Garden is the gift that keeps on giving every year.


After the installation, Macquarie Centre donated the larger trees and plants to their wider community of local schools, nature reserves, parks and public spaces, ensuring the spirit of the project lives on and truly benefits the wider community.


A Unique Result:

This was a one-of-a-kind collaboration between multiple Sydney-based suppliers including landscape architects, manufacturers and Christmas specialists in Chas Clarkson. This eclectic group of specialists designed, built and installed a unique temporary installation.


At the heart of “Santa’s Secret Garden” was the driving notion to engage and educate younger visitors about Australia’s natural environment. By bringing the outdoors temporarily indoors, a visual platform was created through which visitors to the set could be immersed in a visual, educational, sensory experience about their native habitat.