Living art: Green wall installations

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
booth
May 12, 2014

1Nicole Lerescu weathered the winter deep freeze better than most in Chicago thanks to a piece of living wall art in her Ukrainian Village home. The installation last fall transformed her kitchen and back room into a garden oasis.

It looks cool, too.

“When people come over and get closer to the art, they’re surprised to see it’s alive because it’s so unexpected,” says Ms. Lerescu, 30, a lawyer who owns the home with her husband, Nick Jakubowski, also a lawyer. “We have other art and sculptures in our home, but this is a big statement piece.”

Ms. Lerescu collaborated with Kaisa Dille, owner of K Dille Designs, a Chicago landscape and wood design firm, to create a mix of live succulent plants and dried mosses to fit into a custom 5-by-2 wood frame with an opening along the top for watering the live greens. It cost about $1,300, says Ms. Dille, who has crafted a few of these custom pieces for residential settings.

2Living walls and moss walls are sprouting in commercial office buildings and luxury condo high-rises. They’re also getting high visibility at some of the hippest restaurants in Chicago. It was a matter of time before these vertical gardens started cropping up in trendy homes around the city and among those who want to show their support boldly for eco-friendly design elements, landscapers say.

Chef and restaurateur Bill Kim has two green wall installations at his popular BellyQ and Urbanbelly restaurants in the West Loop, where they get lots of attention.

“The walls are show-stoppers,” Mr. Kim says of the installations, by Sage Vertical Garden Systems and Bottle & Branch, both based in Chicago. “Every day we get people telling us they want one in their house, and they ask us where they can get it.”

Other recent high-profile installations have popped up at Nico Osteria in the Gold Coast and Boka in Lincoln Park, where a long wall is adorned with decorative dried moss punctuated by vibrant live plants jutting out of a frame.

Molly Meyer, a Chicago landscape designer who owns Omni Ecosystems, created the massive living wall of more than 2,000 tropical plants suspended above the bar in Nico Osteria’s lounge. A sophisticated drip irrigation and drainage system hides behind the plants.

CARE AND FEEDING

Homeowners who install these walls are likely to have simpler watering setups or none at all if they opt for a moss wall, says Ms. Meyer, who will begin offering small-scope projects for residences this fall. A 6-square-foot wall panel with plants will cost about $500, including plumbing and other structural elements, she says.

Designers have to select the right mix of plants for hanging structures based on sun exposure and the minimal amount of soil that supports the root system. Dried mosses evoke a garden feel but are lower-maintenance because they don’t have to be watered or replaced if some of them die, Ms. Meyer says.

There can be unanticipated hazards, however. A Chinese businessman and his wife who live in Chicago’s Trump Tower last year commissioned Ms. Dille to create an elegant wall of succulents and decorative mosses surrounded by an octagonal wood frame upholstered in cream-colored ostrich skin. The $3,000 artwork was hung over a bureau on a wall with a southeast exposure to outside light, but a visitor moved the framed greenery to a spot over the fireplace this past winter while the couple was in China, where they spend part of the year, says Ms. Dille, who stops by the condo every two weeks to water the plants.

“Then it got cold in Chicago and they cranked up the heat and turned on the gas fireplace,” she recalls. “It emitted so much heat the bottom half (of the plantings) shriveled and dried out.” She was able to replace the plants that died.

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At last year’s Chicago Flower and Garden Show at Navy Pier, Steve Neumann, a sales specialist at LiveWall LLC, sold about 20 outdoor vertical gardens to Chicago-area homeowners impressed by the elaborate display of the company’s proprietary system of growing and irrigating plants that climb upward. The outdoor walls allow gardening buffs to grow vegetables and herbs by attaching the connected rows of plants in boxes to a wall or fence already on the premises, Mr. Neumann says. Another version is a screen on wheels, with plantings on both sides, which can be moved around on a patio or strategically positioned for more privacy, he says.

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The most commonly grown vegetables include cherry tomatoes, peppers, carrots and herbs.

“People who are into the local food movement are attracted to these walls,” says Mr. Neumann, whose firm is a subsidiary of Hortech, a nursery in Spring Lake, Mich. “But living walls—both indoor and outdoor—are also speaking to the cutting-edge trendsetter and early adopter who wants to wow their guests and show they’re into sustainability.”

CHANGING ART

Homeowners who don’t hire a landscaper to install the walls can expect to pay between $40 and $60 per square foot for LiveWall’s systems, Mr. Neumann says. Hiring someone to do the installation and provide the plants generally costs closer to $100 per square foot, he says. A typical outdoor panel is 4 feet high by 8 feet wide or 7 feet high by 4 feet wide.

At the Navy Pier show in March, LiveWall added an indoor plant wall display to entice landscape designers and architects to offer residential clients a way to bring nature into their homes year-round in innovative ways. Mr. Neumann reports there was lots of foot traffic, but he’s waiting to see whether orders stream in for the indoor version.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lerescu says visitors to her home are amazed at the changing personality of the artwork. “These succulents grow out of the wall and arc up toward the light. It changes every week, every month,” she says.

– Judith Nemes

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