How One Designer Treats Houseplants Like Art

Stephen Block can turn almost any plant into a showstopper.

“Ten years ago, plants in the home acted as a filler,” says Stephen Block, owner of the Los Angeles nursery Inner Gardens. “There were empty corners that people weren’t filling with a piece of art or a side table, so they just put a plant there.”

In recent years, however, Block has noticed a design change—particularly with the revival of the L.A. modern movement—that has pushed the boundaries beyond the ordinary palm tree. “Those kinds of plants have been used so much in office buildings. People don’t want them in their homes,” says Block. “Today, a houseplant can be a structure, an architectural element, its own piece of art.”

It’s a welcome shift for Block, who opened Inner Gardens in 1990 in Culver City and added a second location, in Malibu, last year. His obsessive quest for unusual plants has made him the go-to guy for over-the-top greenery. Block explains that nurseries often have what is called a “hospital section” for damaged and imperfect plants deemed unsellable. Block scours all of Southern California to add the most intriguing of these outliers to his vast inventory.

His new location includes a 25-foot-tall greenhouse, which allows him to amass large trees. This has made him the leading source for landscape architects and designers such as Martyn Lawrence Bullard, Michael S. Smith, and Kathryn M. Ireland. He recently did all the landscaping for Soho House West Hollywood.

Block initially fell in love with the field after purchasing a rubber plant for his first apartment in Florida (where he grew up) during the early 1970s. He had broken off the plant’s top during move-in, so his mother told him to put it in water and wait. “One day there were little roots coming down into the water and a new leaf unfurling, and I was smitten, like lightning had struck me,” says Block. In 1976 he opened a plant kiosk in a mall in Gainesville, Florida, and his career eventually landed him in Los Angeles.

To this day, he still cherishes the way plants recover from injury. “Growers of plants are like farmers—they grow crops and try to make everything cookie-cutter,” says Block. “Well, I’m not interested in those. I’m interested in the ones that fell over, broke, or maybe have an odd bend. If you have the eye for it, you’ll see this incredible plant that’s been created.”

He notes that, if you lay a plant on its side, the stalk will eventually lift up and grow toward the sun. When you stand that plant straight up, it makes a right angle. “I now have a weird plant that I can put into the corner,” says Block. “It’s a way for a plant to not just stand there like some soldier. The plant creates interest.”