Friday, March 29, 2013

Lewis Miller

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Lewis Miller, owner of Lewis Miller Design, is an event designer for posh clients like Mayor Bloomberg, Jamie Dimon, Carolina Herrera and the Bulgari family. His fascination with horticulture and design started in early childhood. Born and raised in California farm country amid peach and almond orchards, Miller would cut roses from his mother’s rosebush garden and obsess about filling the house with them. “The long and the short of it is that I like making things pretty,” he declares. “And I like instant gratification.”

I can see you’re very tired—but that must be a good sign! Tell me why you’re very tired.

I’m tired—it’s not a good thing—because I work out at five o’clock in the morning—boot camp every day. It makes me exhausted—I’m up at a four-thirty. It’s a habit. It started about fifteen years ago when I was doing flowers [and going to flower markets] so I became a morning person.
In the entryway, a mirror from Bobo Intriguing Objects hangs behind a large container filled with myrtle.
A pair of chandeliers from Arteriors Home accent two areas of the living room. A Piranesi etching hangs above the living room sofa.
White Ballerina tulips are placed next to collection of alabaster vessels from Jacques Carcanagues. The oak trestle table is from Paris and a nearby iron stool is from Brimfield.
Well, I thought it was because you have a lot of work right now. How did you get interested in horticulture?

I do have a lot of work. [The interest in horticulture] started when I was a kid. I grew up in California. I have an agricultural background—I grew up in Modesto, which was the home of Blue Diamond [almonds]. My family had peach orchards. My family bailed when it turned into a suburb of San Francisco. They started pushing down the vineyards and the almond orchards and building condominiums.

How much land did your parents have?

Oh … I have no idea. Orchards aren’t like hayfields. Twenty-five acres of almonds is  equivalent to six hundred acres of corn—the expense, the cost. It’s very lucrative. It wasn’t the farm where you see the chickens, the goats and the barn. We landscaped and planted nearly one hundred and fifty trees, between Chinese pistachio, olives and California redwoods. I just really got into it. The thing about Modesto is that everything grows because it has a Mediterranean climate. My mother had a rose garden and the rose bushes would literally be six feet tall. From March through November, we could have up to six hundred blossoms on them. I became obsessed actually. I also became obsessed with filling the house with flowers.
Looking into the corner of the main seating area.
A vase of white anemones is arranged near a pair of bronze candlesticks from Stamford Antiques Center.
A model sailboat diorama from Margaret Doyle Antiques peeks out from under the trestle dining table.
An Art Deco chair stands next to an iron side table from Margaret Doyle Antiques. The oversized lead urn is from Belgium.
Vintage binoculars line a windowsill in the living room.
So this is something you’ve done from a very early age. Then you went and studied horticulture.

What I realized that what I do like is design. The long and the short of it is that I like making things pretty. I didn’t have the head to be an architect and I couldn’t sew—I don’t have the attention span to learn—so obviously I’m not going to be a fashion designer. So [I decided to design] outdoors and create spaces outdoors.

What goes into creating a space outdoors as opposed to an indoor space?

Climate, time, patience. You’re working with seasons. You have to figure out how plants grow and how they work in certain environments and how they don’t work in others. You’re creating sculpture; you’re creating moods. When I was fifteen I was obsessed. My pornography was HG magazine. So I became obsessed with interiors too.
An oversized photo of a library in Rome by Nelson Hancock from James Sansum hangs above a pair of benches covered in Clarence House fabric from Décor NYC.
A bronze sculpture, 'Drunken Fawn', stands atop a small table purchased from One Kings Lane.
An illuminated alabaster lamp from Mecox Gardens stands next to a grouping of mid-century German pottery collected over the years.  On the bottom shelf a container filled with molten glass chips from a glass factory in Pittsburgh stands next to oversized leather bound books.
Looking through the French doors toward the bedroom. The hemp and wool rug is from ABC Carpet & Home.
A mix of art, objects and furniture all come together in this chic West Village apartment.
Reflections of the 'medicine cabinet' from a 1970's mirror. The very tidy 'medicine cabinet' .
A group of orchids adds color to the kitchen countertop.
Photos of nieces and nephews cover the freezer door.
A hanging fixture from Circa Lighting illuminates the all-white kitchen.
A vintage ladder from Brimfield hangs next to a blueprint of an apple orchard from Thistle in Nebraska.
Eventually your family moved. Where did you move to?

We moved to Washington State, Columbia Valley. Just to back up, my father was also an X-Ray technician. He started one of the very first mobile technician businesses. I had this very strange background growing up with old black-and-white X-rays everywhere and garden roses! If my vision skews a little … that’s probably partially why. Eventually my father got burned out and Modesto was becoming kind of hideous at the time. Over a period of about ten years, he started going to Columbia Valley where all the wineries are and apples are grown and started investing in real estate there. [In the eighties] it was sort of the next big thing.

And the climate is so different.

So now I’m in a spot where it’s sage brush and fields but you can see for one hundred and fifty miles. It was gorgeous … the most sensational sunsets you’ve ever seen. They built a beautiful home on top of this ridge and we had a 360 degree view. So, again I had that when I was really into it. In the meantime, I started working summers and after school jobs in nurseries and I loved it.

This is almost in your blood, isn’t it?

It’s completely in my blood. I can’t shake it.
A bed from IKEA is covered in a lavish coyote fur throw.
A colorful bouquet of David Austin English roses stands atop a bone inlaid wooden box from Jacques Carcanagues.  The pair of Venetian glass lamps is from Décor NYC.
Bedtime reading is neatly stacked atop an ornately carved wooden side chair.
A diorama of a sailboat from Maine antiques dealer, Margaret Doyle, hangs above the bed.
I suppose that’s a good thing … you’ve never thought about doing anything else.

Well … I went to Edmunds College in Seattle because it’s famous for its horticulture program. It was either that or Washington State University—their landscape design program was very commercial—“landscrape” architecture … I wanted to do a much more personal program. Seattle was amazing. I was basically in horticulture heaven.

What was your first real job?

I got a summer job at a golf club—exclusive, four hundred members only, a men’s club, built in the twenties. I think they had one token black man and one token Jew. I was on the greens department but I got to do all the flowerbeds. There was one woman on the board—she became my friend. I don’t know why she singled me out but I was asked to put together a presentation for the Christmas décor. I might have been nineteen. I had no idea what I was doing. I put together my first storyboard—very understated and tasteful champagnes and creams. It was pretty chic. That got me noticed. And suddenly I started doing flowers for all the ladies’ private events. Then I got to build myself a greenhouse.
Lewis often rotates his bedroom plants, now comprising acanthus, begonias and baby tears as well as a cactus.
From the bedroom window the Empire State Building peeks out from behind West Village buildings.
Another view, this one of the landmark Jefferson Market courthouse clock tower built in 1876 and now a public library.
What does it take to put together beautiful flowers?

Well, to be quite honest with you and God bless those people because they were my guinea pigs but I got to try out every single week numerous arrangements. Some things were great and some things were quite unfortunate, to say the least. But I knew that my style—I liked—very overgrown, very lush, very Constance Spry. You know, vines and blooming branches. At that point, modern flowers were all these tight pavé balls and kind of big. I understood how flower arrangements could decorate a space and that there is a hierarchy. If you do a big simple arrangement of branches, then over here, you have a one-type-of-flower arrangement.

How did you jump from Seattle to New York?

I started my own business with a friend and we were doing a lot of weddings. And then, to be quite honest, I started getting a little bored with it. I backtracked to my HG magazine days. Robert Isabel was my idol—his work was so layered, so natural and so chic.

You wanted to be Robert Isabel.

I didn’t know that was a job!
A 1960's Italian ceramic lion and a mercury lamp from John Derian stand atop an American oak bureau.
Design and art books are stacked atop a carved and gilt wood pedestal in the bedroom. The terrarium is by LMD. Looking into the bedroom from the dressing room. The walls are painted in a Donald Kauffman blue hue, the bedroom rug is from Stark.
A second bedroom was transformed into a study/dressing room. Purple tulips are arranged atop a desk from West Elm.
You didn’t know event planning was a job.

Not planning, event decorating. It’s just aesthetics. But I didn’t know that was a legitimate profession. I just got to the point where I wanted to switch gears. I’d just done Bill Gates’ New Year’s party. Anyway, I woke up in 1 January 2000 and my boyfriend at the time just looked at me and said, “You need to move to New York.” Just like that. I’d never even been to New York. My boyfriend said that being in Seattle wasn’t going to be enough. It was a moment of pure revelation. I had no idea how it was going to happen.

So what did you do?

It was basically me pounding the pavement. I went to different florists and event designers. I went to fourteen places and I got seven job offers. I started at Belle Fleur as their head designer. That was my move to New York.
Vintage baskets from the Marché aux Puces are an attractive storage alternative in the dressing room.
Brass bowls hold found objects and spare change. Light from the living room streams through the French doors into the bedroom. An ornately carved side chair is from Margaret Doyle.
What did it take to start your own business in flower design?

Well, it took capital. I’m the worst social networker—I don’t put myself out there. I don’t enjoy it. We rented a very small space and kept our overheads very low and made some contacts with event planners. Work started coming in. But they used to say, “What is your look?” It used to drive me crazy. I used to think, I’m supposed to have a “look”! What is my “look”? My look is “I’m-a-farm-kid-but-I-want-to-live-in-New-York-but-I-still-want-nature!

How did you achieve that?

I don’t bang out the same look every time. I’m a Gemini. I like change. I like instant gratification. And that’s what I love about my job.

Are there certain flowers that you hate or that you won’t use, like carnations?

Absolutely not—I adore carnations. I think floral snobbery is just stupid and means that you don’t know what you’re doing.