Beyond the crumbling plaster, busted pipes, and peeling paint, a small ceramic plate remains fastened to the wall of an abandoned duplex in Hamtramck.
“This is my house,” the plate reads, “and I’ll do as I darn please.”
It’s a mantra Hamtramck floral designer Lisa Waud has taken to heart. With the help of more than three dozen floral designers from Michigan, Ohio, New York and Canada, Waud and her friends have taken an unlikely canvas, an abandoned house on the I-75 service drive, and transformed it with flowers, plants and foliage.
Friday, Flower House – the equivalent of an interior designers’ show house except for floral designers – opens to public tours for three days only. Once it’s over, the house on Dequindre will be deconstructed – disassembled with its raw materials salvaged to be used for other uses – by a local nonprofit and Waud will turn the green space into an urban flower farm for her business.
Waud, the creator of Flower House who owns pot + box in Hamtramck, says florists aim to awe at special occasions such as weddings. With Flower House, she wants the same reaction – but more.
“My main drive is to take someone’s breath away when they first walk in,” says Waud.
Tickets are sold out, but I got a sneak peek this week inside this one-of-kind art installation as designers scrambled to bring their visions to life. Florists and volunteers swarmed the duplex, stapling chicken wire to walls, stringing yellow roses on fishing line, and wrapping wire around peppers. Outside, thousands of hydrangeas, gladiolus, dahlias and irises stood in buckets, covering tables and the grass. Muralist Louise Chen painted a massive floral mural on the back wall.
Waud says she’s always been fascinated by the work of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who created the gates at Central Park in New York. But she never knew how to channel that inspiration. When she saw videos of a 2012 Dior fashion show in a flower-filled mansion outside Paris, she had her answer.
“I was just always really smitten with the idea of these massive-scale, long-term planning (installations) that can only be experienced for a short period of time,” says Waud, who grew up in Petoskey and studied horticulture at Michigan State University before moving to Washington and Hawaii and then eventually returning to Michigan. “There’s just something about that.”
Waud bought the duplex at a Hamtramck city auction last November for $250. Filled knee-high with trash, Waud and friends spent days cleaning it out. She worked with a contractor to stabilize stairs and make it safe for tours.
After dreaming about this project for so long, Waud says she was driving back from a hardware store earlier this week when suddenly she had a moment. She knew her vision was finally coming to life, but couldn’t believe it at the same time.
“I thought, ‘Is this real?’” she says.
It is – and it’s become a national story. Flower House was featured last month on Martha Stewart’s website. The New York Times wrote about it Thursday.
Liz Andre-Stotz, owner of Parsonage Events in Clarkston who designed a room reflecting Michigan’s seasons, believes one reason Flower House has attracted so much attention is because of the unusual backdrop.
“People like the idea that something had life at one time,” she says.
Many layers to story
But the project isn’t just about an art installation; it’s also about American flower growers and environmentally friendly floral design. No oasis foam will be used for the flower installations.
“There are so many layers to this story,” says Susan McLeary, owner of Passionflower in Ann Arbor and one of the floral designers who are part of the project.
McLeary chose the downstairs kitchen to transform. Working with designer Francoise Weeks, the two created a tapestry of flowers and plants covering the walls and part of the floor. Moss climbs out of the cupboards. Beets and tomatoes emerge from the floor. And green cherry tomatoes dangle from the ceiling.
McLeary says she was very deliberate about the plants she chose, using foliages and berried branches, given that they have no water sources.
By not using foam, “you don’t need to rely on these wasteful methods,” she says.
Beautiful, but creepy
Nearby, in the first floor front room, Jody Costello of J. Costello Designs in Royal Oak, Lia Colapietro of Lia Colapietro Floral Design in Toledo and Kelli Galloway of Hops Petunia in Kingston, New York say they wanted to create a beautiful, but slightly eerie, look.
Tree branches from Colapietro’s property seem to grow from the floor, intertwined with wild grapevine, dogwood and dried Queen Anne’s lace plucked from somewhere along I-75. On the walls, green horsetail creates a wallpaper grid for flowers.
Horsetail “dries really well and it’s really easy to work with,” says Costello.
Costello says they were inspired by a photo Colapietro found of a 15th-century English church, where the town holds a festival with flowers.
“It’s beautiful, but a little creepy,” says Costello. “They use little pops of color everywhere. They use all local stuff.”
“We wanted to feel like it showed up naturally and grew with the space,” says Galloway.
Just off the dining room, in a back bedroom, Martha DeFlorio of Made Floral in Northville strung long strands of yellow roses and stephanotis across the room.
“I wanted to make everything cascade,” says DeFlorio. “It’s called Flower Fall. I just wanted everything to go in one direction. I wanted everything to be really delicate.”
And in between the garland is the small white plate, still fastened to the wall. But it’s no longer surrounded by trash, a forgotten relic from another time. It’s wedged between flowers.
Tickets are sold out for Flower House, which opens Friday and runs until Sunday, but you can still drive by and see some of the exterior floral arrangements. It’s located at 11751 Dequindre just south of Commer Avenue in Hamtramck. To learn more about the project and the designers, go to theflower.house.