The Houseplant Era

By Connor Tomas O’Brien

On a Saturday morning a few months ago, I took my place at the end of a long line stretching across a carpark and toward the entrance of a Brunswick warehouse.

‘It feels like we’re lining up for a club,’ said the young woman in front of me, gesturing at the dozens of twenty-somethings in front of us. The human procession inched forwards, and fifteen minutes later, we were both inside – in a tiny partitioned-off corner of the warehouse, shuffling between a few tables of succulents and ferns.

‘Don’t buy anything!’ a friend messaged me, when I told them where I was. ‘It’s too expensive. It’s for people who don’t realise nurseries exist.’

I flicked over to Facebook and scrolled through the listing for the event, which was simply titled ‘Plant Sale’. The description was sparse: just an address, a time, and a simple listing of a handful of the types of plants on offer. Still, over eight thousand people had marked ‘attending’ – as many as a small music festival.

‘It’s too late!! :-(’ I typed back. I picked up a dwarf umbrella tree gripping tightly to a stake and hobbled through the crowd, over to the counter. On the way, an old co-worker found me, scurried over, and loaded up my free arm with a philodendron.

*

In attempting to understand an era’s aesthetic zeitgeist, one of the most dependable forms of documentation is, for better or worse, the annual IKEA Catalogue. Because IKEA’s homogenising aesthetic shifts slowly, when it does change, it’s usually a signal of what will later come to characterise a decade.

In this regard, it’s clear that indoor greenery is the defining design trend of the 2010s. On the 2016 IKEA catalogue cover, a father and son stand in a kitchen dominated by herbs and vines. In the 2017 catalogue, meanwhile, one spread suggests the possibility of relocating the kitchen entirely, to a balcony garden in which pots and cooking utensils have been replaced by terracotta-potted plant life. On later pages, bathrooms are reconstituted as greenhouses, and living rooms as spaces for cultivating succulents.

It can be difficult, now, to recognise that the centrality of indoor plants isn’t enduring, but intensely cyclical. Over the past six years, interest in succulents, in terms of raw Google search frequency, has increased tenfold, and ‘hanging terrarium’ twenty times over. In the retail space, florists are reconstituting themselves as ‘botanical design studios’, while fast-growing Facebook groups dedicated to houseplant swapping are emerging in most major cities. There is a sense, too, in which indoor plants are now functioning as high fashion sartorial signifiers. In February, Vogue proclaimed that, at this year’s New York Fashion Week, eyes were fixed as much on the clothes as on the spectacular ‘aloe, succulents, and banana trees’ dotting the showroom. A few months later, in the Style pages of the New York Times, an article bearing the title ‘The Have-to-Have-It Houseplant’ claimed that, ‘This decade belongs, undeniably, to the fiddle-leaf fig’ – an evergreen that has recently been claimed by both French fashion house Céline and mattress startup Casper as their oversized pot plant of choice.

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Every houseplant era has its own unique character. In ‘The Era of Palms and Ferns’, Tovah Martin suggests that the 19th century home botany boom was driven by scientific curiosity, architectural innovation, and the global movement of exotic flora. The last houseplant era, meanwhile, was triggered in 1970 by a shock at the extent of rampant, unchecked (sub)urbanisation, coupled with an inability to identify structural solutions to impending ecological collapse. Prior to the politicisation of environmental science, reimagining homes as contained jungles seemed a wholly suitable response to TIME’s February 1970 suggestion that, ‘The environment may well be the gut issue that can unify a polarized nation in the 1970s […] No one knows how many Americans have lost all feeling for nature.’ In Australia, as Amanda Lohrey outlines in an early Quarterly Essay, it was the formation of the United Tasmania Group – an early precursor to the Greens – in 1972 that first seemed to provoke any recognition at all of the concept of ‘nature’. Coupled with Robin Boyd’s work in the late ‘60s – particularly Featherston House in Ivanhoe, with a central interior garden – a local architectural template was established in which indoor plants slowly edged kitsch decoratative elements out of Australian living rooms.

“Succulents may be the ideal successors to lattes or sunsets, in terms of being ostensibly one-of-a-kind visual objects readily available to capture and share – in great quantity – on mobile devices.”

Kate Losse has proposed that our current use of plants as design elements is a way to address ‘newer anxieties about our looming environmental apocalypse’. There is truth to this, especially in the style of houseplants that currently define this era: large, leafy, and almost exclusively green species, like the rubber plant or mother-in-law’s tongue – plants, in other words, that seem to draw overt attention to their purificatory eco-credentials. There appears to be something, too, to our growing penchant for ivies, which are, by their nature, virtually uncontainable. As Losse argues, ceding internal space to plants may serve as a kind of ‘beautiful, unruly introduction to our fate as a civilization overtaken by the nature that we once sought to shape and control’.

So far, in many ways, so seventies – but the difference, in the 2010s, is that there is an underlying, and inherently contradictory, technological component to houseplant culture. On the one hand, after all, the increasing presence of plants in otherwise high-tech interiors seems designed to act as an aggressively analogue corrective to the increasing proliferation of digital devices… while on the other hand, houseplants in 2016 gain currency primarily through their visual proliferation on social networks.

Succulents, as Rachel Zuckerman noted in a 2015 article for Mic, have ascended to cultural prominence at least in part because they are the ‘botanical stars’ of image-based social platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. At the time Zuckerman wrote her piece, she remarked that the hashtag #succulent had nearly 1 million posts on Instagram – a year later, and that number has almost doubled.

Succulents may be the ideal successors to lattes or sunsets, in terms of being ostensibly one-of-a-kind visual objects readily available to capture and share – in great quantity – on mobile devices. For those who enjoy observing their own planters, there is something almost narcotic about scrolling through accounts like @succulove, @succulentcity and @succulent_wonderland, which each offer a daily fix of artfully-arranged aloes and jade plants and pincushion cacti. On Pinterest, meanwhile, the ability to claim ownership over images of succulents by saving them to personal boards opens up the possibility of cultivating new kinds of plant collections that exist only in the digital space.

It’s possible, of course, to take the idea of the digital plant even more literally. On my phone, I open an app called Viridi several times a week. It is, ostensibly, a succulent simulator. A stoneware pot spins in space, full of pastel polygonal models of houseleeks and haworthias. ‘Water’ a plant, and it scales up in size; leave it ‘parched’ and its colours simply fade. I open another app, Everyday, to create time-lapse videos of my real-world succulents, tracking their daily growth – or silent cries for care. As I tend to my planters, I’m engaging with an odd new form of nature – one that exists, at least in part, in the interplay between digital and physical space. This, perhaps, is what makes our current houseplant era unique.

*

Last year, Mr Kitly’s Bree Claffey released Indoor Green, a hardback dedicated to interviews with those who live with houseplants. In ‘The taste for indoor plants’, one of the book’s most thoughtful essays, Melbourne-based architect Julian Patterson reflects on the complexity of treating indoor plants as primarily aesthetic signifiers.

‘Part of the appeal of indoor plants,’ he writes, ‘stems for a sense of freedom from value and meaning. Plants offer natural form, undesigned and uncomplicated by questions of style, and there is appeal in the unplanned, when plants take over, or surprise us in unexpected ways.’

This is mostly true. While houseplant culture is structured, in some ways, around highly conspicuous consumption (of pre-arranged pairings of designer pots and plants, sold at a suitable premium) and the chasing of trends, plants themselves can never be compelled to hold meaning in the way that man-made objects do. In a global marketplace teeming with functional alternatives, Warby Parker glasses or Nike sneakers or Gorman dresses gain, and threaten to lose, their cachet primarily based on what they signify – they are, as Patterson would put it, ‘complicated by questions of style’. Natural objects can never entirely fall in or out of fashion, in part because their forms both predate and will outlast us, and in part because they were never created ‘for’ us in the first place.

Even so, one persistent refrain in the interviews with long-term houseplant-lovers in Indoor Green is the fear that, if the houseplant boom is based primarily on the shallow aesthetic appeal of disorderedly greenery, plants will be left to die once predilections shift. It’s always worrying to recognise that dominant aesthetics, however durable they appear, eventually exhaust themselves.

Often, of course, aesthetic corrections tend to be the result of a destructive dual pairing of two impulses: a drive toward the continuous amplification of an aesthetic to the point of ridiculousness, followed by a swift sense of exhaustion at the excess. Usually, too, there is a class element at play. The ‘70s houseplant boom ended once the aesthetic was fully co-opted and exaggerated by malls and chain restaurants – and was followed by a correction in the Memphis aesthetic, in which plants were often entirely absent from interiors dominated by deliberately over-designed geometric elements. A sense of disgust is already evident when it comes to the fiddle-leaf fig. ‘Some grocery store chains are even selling fiddle-leaf figs,’ writes interior designer Kathy Kuo, ‘and seeing them all over social media has slightly killed the buzz. It’s time for a refresh on the plant that’s been occupying homes for well over a decade now.’

*

In the middle of the building in which I work – Melbourne’s Nicholas Building – the walls wrap around themselves, forming a light court. By crouching down and peering through the windows, it is possible to glimpse the inner studios on the north side. For months, one studio, across the landing from mine, has caught my eye. Through frosted windows, I can see the outlines of hanging parlour palms and peace lilies and figs and hoya.

“It’s always worrying to recognise that dominant aesthetics, however durable they appear, eventually exhaust themselves.”

When I’m at my desk, I can see clearly into the living room of an apartment across the lane. Dozens of succulent planters and terrariums are stacked on bookshelves, and there is such a density of inner greenery that it appears as though the plants are benevolently making space for the apartment’s human inhabitants.

What, if anything, does all of this mean? In one sense, it does feel as though – perhaps! – the reconstitution of indoor spaces as homes for plant life could presage more substantial shifts in (sub)urban architecture. When we bring plants inside, and tend to them, and share and engage with their digital representations, we are reconstituting our relationship with nature – drawing it closer, and positioning it so that it sits persistently within view.

That said, we are always liable to assign too much meaning to our current aesthetic obsessions, mistaking our fleeting, contemporary ideas of beauty for timeless and Platonic ones. Our fascination with especially fashionable plants, like the fiddle-leaf fig or the succulent, seems to challenge the way we assign value to natural things. Why, after all, do we find the enormous and uneven green sheets of the fig so pleasing now, after having ignored the plant for decades? Are we simply paying more attention to the indoor plants we surround ourselves with – or are they acting, in the aggregate, as vessels for signifiers of taste and class? As Patterson suggests, unless managed carefully, there is a possibility of the houseplant aesthetic ‘over-ripening into kitsch once we acclimatise to it and the curiously banal becomes insipid.’

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to the plants, of course. If they are aesthetic vessels to us, we are propagatory vessels to them – but ultimately unnecessary ones. Long after we’ve aesthetically exhausted ourselves, overdosing on images of perfectly imperfect arrangements of leaves and stems, the plants will find a way to creep back in.

Image: The Flora of Bensonhurst by Joan Linder

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