If you ever thumb through the pages of a “shelter magazine” such as House Beautiful or House & Garden, you will see photographs that contain very few human beings and lots of flowers and plants. This focus on greenery is not restricted to the one or two feature articles that such publications generally devote to gardening. Growing things are everywhere in magazines these days. In Grosse Pointe, Swedish Ivy drapes itself langorously over the top shelf a glass etager, while in Boston an arrangement of Gerbera daisies in an Art Deco vase sits perched on a tufted ottoman. Meanwhile a stand of ornamental bamboo shoots up from an old copper boiler in a corner of a New York penthouse terrace.
It’s exactly the same in designer showhouses, which after all, are like a shelter magazine come to life. To walk through a showhouse is to be lost in a fantasy world of eclectic furniture, faux finishes, and fancy trims, all combined in a variety of probable and improbable ways. The most inspiring thing about the whole effort is that all the art and artifice has been combined for a good cause. Showhouse visitors, who pay generously to see whether chintz can actually coexist with leopard prints, are also supporting homeless shelters, soup kitchens and the countless other charitable endeavors supported by the sponsoring organizations.
The other day I went to the Brookwood Showhouse and Garden, a massive fundraising project put on by the Junior League of Montclair-Newark. Like everyone else, I was impressed by the imaginative ways that various designers and artists had transformed the vast phalanx of rooms in an Edwardian-era house. Being a passionate gardener, the thing that impressed me the most was the number of ways in which the designers brought the outdoors in. Horticulture collided headlong with fashion, and the result was a showhouse full of botanical themes, motifs, arrangements and accents. Trends abounded and it was fun to pick them out in each room.
With two orchid-theme books recently on the best-seller lists, it is no secret that orchids are hotter than the rim of Mt. Kilauea. They were everywhere at Brookwood, with cattleyas, dendrobiums, cymbidiums and phaleonopsis accenting almost every design scheme. The most impressive orchid on display was a forty year-old, purple-flowered specimen that was holding court in a downstairs alcove. Foxgloves and other flowers with orchid-like blooms added to the total effect.
Almost more exotic than the orchids was an arrangement of pitcher plant leaves that filled a metal container in the first floor hall. The heavily veined leaves looked like marble, a perfect compliment to the faux finishes that appeared throughout the house. I suspected it before, but I know it now–the carnivorous pitcher plant has clearly gained entry into the world of high fashion.
Not since Oscar Wilde was pictured holding a drooping calla lily, has that South African native been so popular. At Brookwood calla lilies showed up in several arrangements, as well as in the shape of two tall wire accent pieces in one of the rooms.
Decorators and crafters have been known to go to great extremes with hot glue guns, and one of this year’s hot-glued decorator accessories of choice is clearly the styrofoam ball covered with dried botanical material. These items, enveloped in dried magnolia leaves or crushed lavender or desiccated moss are generally mounded decoratively in bowls or containers. They made attractive accents in a couple of different places.
One of the designers took the garden theme to a higher level, turning a narrow second floor bathroom into a darling potting shed. The only thing that was left out of the plan was a dumbwaiter to convey pots, seed trays and other equipment down to garden level. Maybe I just missed it.
A whole gallery worth of botanical prints adorned staircases, halls and walls, and of course, there were many botanical motifs on rugs, draperies and wallcoverings.
Just as decorators at Brookwood brought the outside in, landscape designers incorporated indoor elements in the various gardens. One designer created a “room” complete with a boxwood couch, fireplace and a checkerboard pattern floor of alternating grass and bluestone squares.
Other horticultural fashion trends on display in the garden areas included the use of culinary herbs in an ornamental setting, and the installation of a Victorian mosaic-like bedding out scheme at the property’s carriage entrance.
Spotting the horticultural fashion trends at a showhouse is a bit like playing “Where’s Waldo”. The difference is, you’re playing for a good cause.