Friday, July 11, 2014

Michael Walter

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Co-owner of Lexington Gardens on the Upper East Side, Michael Walter talked about “the floral world” and a personage who is the “German Master of Floral Design.” The floral world isn’t always as poetic as it sounds with competitions and strict apprenticeships, especially if, like Michael, you grew up in Germany. Although he still does flower arrangements, his main area of concentration over the past ten years has been designing terraces, which he sees as extensions of indoor rooms. Given the constraints of Upper East Side elevators, parking problems and the threat of leaks occurring from watering a lush terrace, it requires a flair for logistics as much as a flair for gardening. His own terrace, overlooking  Harlem and Central Park to the south, is a delightful little sanctuary which, he says, he uses pretty much all year round.
Looking across the living room. A painting that Michael found on a street corner hangs above a pair of linen-covered chairs.
A vase of chocolate peonies adds a pop of color to a side table in the living room.
So we want to know did you have a garden when you were growing up in Germany—and did you garden when you were a child?

I had a wonderful childhood and I did have a garden. Apparently I had famous grandmother—I’ve never met her—who was very famous for gardening. I loved gardening; I loved animals—anything nature.

Is there a strict education for gardeners in Germany? I always think of education there as very serious.

You do an apprenticeship in Germany, as you have to. So I finished all my ten years of school by the time I was sixteen, surprisingly. Then I did a theoretical year for gardening and then the apprenticeship for three years. I also did a florist apprenticeship. It was very old school and really tough.
More chocolate peonies are arranged atop a birch log coffee table designed and constructed by Michael.
Wood beams found at a reclaimed materials yard are transformed into a unique corner sculpture.
Bamboo poles create a dividing 'wall' between the front entryway and living room.
A set of leather French chairs stand in a row in front of the living room window.
Hurricane lamps, scented candles and chocolate peonies share space with art books.
A delicate wire sculpture was given to Michael as gift for a lecture he gave in New Orleans.
So I’m right about the serious German approach to things.

Yes, very thorough and strict. It’s wonderful—it’s a great basis.

What is considered correct for flowers in Germany?

All the technicalities are important, so how to cut them, how to treat the flowers when they come in, the temperature, the humidity.

Do the arrangements end up looking rather stiff?

Well you know there’s a whole different world of thought out there. There are some schools where they it’s all very natural and of course, there’s a very tailored, modern approach.
A view of the living room through the bamboo 'wall'. The wood columns are from a Hudson antiques store.
Light from the apartment's east facing terrace streams into the living room.
A small wall is filled with architectural fragments collected over the years.
Glass shelves are carefully arranged with books, architectural fragments and favorite objects. "I like to play with different textures and always want to bring in a natural element like moss leaves or flowers with grasses," he says.
What brought you to the States?

I worked in Germany for a couple of very, very high end florists. I realized that I wanted to go beyond just owning a flower store. I got a job offer in Switzerland where I met the German Master of Flower Design and the Swiss master …

Ooh, I love that, the “German Master of Flower Design” – how do you become that?

There were—and still are—lots of competitions. If you really have new ways of looking at things, you might get yourself there. You know, it’s like what does it mean to be a good painter? It’s about being inventive, looking at the wheel in another way.
As soon as Michael spotted this outdoor space he knew this apartment was perfect for him. It is filled with an array of trees and flowering plants including (but certainly not limited to) foxgloves, hydrangeas, a hardy palm tree collection and juniper bushes cut clipped into slightly Asian forms to create an older and more established look.
Looking south from the terrace towards Central Park and the skyscrapers surrounding Central Park South.
Well, let’s get back to how you came to the States …

I got a book by Kenneth Turner in London who, at the time, was like the Armani of floral design, okay? To me I looked at this book and I literally had this epiphany. It was like, “There it is. This is what I have been looking for all along.” Whenever I talk to other florists they say they know what I’m talking about. I literally felt moss between the pages! It was so original! It had a beautiful English sensibility and it just blew my little German mind. I had to go and work for him. I flew over and he was like, “Oh, whatever, he’s kind of cute … let’s get him.”

It’s just as well you’re good looking …

[laughs] At the time it really helped me … nowadays not so much but you’re very kind. Anyway, I started working there. It wasn’t easy but it was fun. Everything was so new for me. Everything I thought I was good at, it was completely, like “Forget this.” I was like counting the flowers, no waste but he was like … I don’t care about that.
German Otto ceramics from the 1950s stand atop the upper kitchen cabinets. A photo of Michael is tucked into a corner of an architectural fragment hanging in the kitchen.
The kitchen herb garden. "I always need to have herbs in the kitchen, even though I never cook," says Michael.
Family photos of Michael as a child share space with boxwood-filled urns and a pair of bronze discus throwers.
A group of busts, including one sporting Michael's old Pan Am headphones, fill a window overlooking the front terrace.
In the bedroom hallway paintings of bamboo from Ikea hang above Doric capitals on iron stands designed by Michael.
In a corner of the guest bath a French gilt wood sconce hangs next to a shield from West Africa.
Photos of Michael at age eighteen by Ingo Taubhorn hang on a wall of the guest bath.
Fresh lily-of-the-valley upon a half-round table made by Michael out of birch skin and twigs.
Sometimes you have to unlearn in order to get better.

Exactly. This idea of not looking at flowers as flowers but texture and color, this was new to me. I went to Japan to teach European flower design for a year but after that I was introduced to Lexington Gardens through Ken Turner. Lexington Gardens had just opened by Susan Collins. She just had this idea and it was right for the time.

What was the idea?

The idea was a garden store right in New York City. It was a new concept at the time.
Peeking into the guest bedroom. A fiddle leaf ficus tree stands next to a glass top desk and iron chair. The cloud garden stool and desk and chair are all from Lexington Gardens.
Painted columns found at Brimfield line the entryway to the guest bedroom.
An abstract 'painting' above the guest daybed is actually a screen that Michael purchased at a Connecticut antiques fair.
A small TV and an alabaster column lamp from Hudson stand atop an old ice chest from Brimfield.
Fresh apples, lily-of-the-valley flowers and a book on architectural elements are arranged upon a painted tray table.
The flourishing ficus.
A pair of church spire fragments stand atop the west facing guest bedroom windowsills. The windows overlook Morningside Park and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
Do Americans take flowers as seriously as Europeans? I remember talking to a Dutch horticulturist once and he said that in France or in the Netherlands, you would see people queuing in the rain to buy flowers in the market but you wouldn’t see that in so many other countries. I rarely see fresh flowers in people’s houses unless, that is, we’re in designers’ houses.

It’s a luxury. If you think about it, if you go out and buy a piece of jewelry, it has some value attached to it. With flowers, the very moment you bring them home … they’re dying. In that sense, it’s the ultimate penthouse luxury.

I’ve always wanted to ask a florist why outside the Korean delis here they have these buckets full of dyed flowers in odd colors like blue and turquoise—I’ve never seen them anywhere else.

Okay, right there—Korean—it’s a cultural thing. It is odd.

When you design a terrace, are you essentially designing an outdoor room?

Very much so. Your outdoor space has to become an extension of the apartment. One of the most important things is the view from the inside out.
Looking into Michael's bedroom.
An abstract painting by Ingo Taubhorn was a gift from the artist.
A series of photos of the Adirondacks purchased at the 26th Street flea market hang on a wall above Michael's bed.
An oversized pair of glazed terracotta candlestick holders from a building in Brooklyn stand near a vase of chocolate  peonies and a pot of 12-year-old kalanchoe behariensi.
A glass desktop displays a vintage photo of the Chrysler building. Michael found the photos in a sidewalk trash bin.
Looking out from the bedroom window across Harlem rooftops is a view of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
What if, like most of us, you don’t have outdoor space?

Then you can bring the garden indoors. Then you need cut flowers and plants. And don’t seal off the apartment by closing all the windows and turning on the air conditioning. I have one tree over there [in the guest bedroom] and it extends to the green of the trees beyond.

Now that you have your own business, do you like it?

Quite frankly there were many years when I didn’t. I’m co-owner with Rosa Szule and the last few years were the worst retail for everyone, ever. I hit the opposite of a jackpot. We didn’t do terraces ten years ago—it was all flower arrangements. Rosa does interior design for us and I do the gardening because I wanted to get my hands dirty. We did a couple of test runs to see how we could handle the Upper East Side, the elevators, the parking issues … the logistics of it all is a nightmare. You know you get forty-five minutes and you have to have all that stuff up there.
A pair of antelope horns and an 19th century farmer's field tool from Turkey hang near a chest of drawers Michael purchased from a guy selling bootleg videos on a city street corner.
A painting that Michael found on the street hangs near a wall-mounted flat screen TV.
Ornamental sunbursts from the 26th Street flea market stand in front of a painted country fireplace mantel and an oxidized ornamental grill from Brimfield.
Architectural artifacts, ceramic tiles, a pair of small alabaster lamps and a collection of souvenirs from The Grand Tour fill the top of a fireplace mantel in Michael's bedroom.
Looking across the bedroom mantel toward the entrance to Michael's bedroom.
In the master bath Michael transformed a piece of driftwood into a shelf for holding towels.
Jeff, Jeff and Jeff again.
And if there’s a leak in the building, it’s always the people with the terrace who get the blame, right?

Always. I’ve had a couple of run-ins. Last year it was leaking downstairs. I ripped everything out. I killed everything … and then they said, oops, it wasn’t you. But I wanted to re-do my terrace anyway.

Don’t you want a big fabulous garden?

Hell yeah! Absolutely! But I have Central Park just over there and I have Morningside Park too.