The lobby of the Wolfsonian-FIU in Miami Beach has been transformed into a veritable jungle. Three large, elaborately planted topiaries set the stage for "Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern." The exhibit examines an overlooked element of modern design that's been a substantial — albeit little discussed — addition to our homes and gardens since the turn of the 20th Century.
The show follows the evolution of the philodendron from exotic species to design icon — from its discovery, European study, and popularization to its introduction as a critical component of art, architecture, and design. "I argue that plants are the material basis for everything we make," curator Christian Larsen says. "There's some sort of plant part in the raw material of design, and I'm looking at how they're... becoming cultural symbols."
Larsen, also the exhibition's primary organizer, focused his doctoral dissertation on the flow of Brazilian design into Europe and the Americas. He honed in on use of tropical plants when he joined the Wolfsonian in 2013. The philodendron exhibition, which took almost two years to complete, features more than 250 objects, including select works from the Wolfsonian's collection and major loans from other institutions. Taken together, they show the plant is as ubiquitous to design culture as it is easily discounted.
From drawings and magazine covers, to wallpaper and furniture, to film and fashion design samples, "Philodendron" explores the social cycle of a plant that's been used to further political agendas, engage cultures, and integrate the beauty of the tropics into the average American home.
The lush lobby topiaries, designed by landscape architects Mauricio del Valle and Veronica Schunk, set the tone by distorting the viewer's original ideas about plants.
"The way we view nature is highly constructed, even with plants, which we just think are natural," Larsen explains. The topiaries were planted with different species of philodendron in varying geometric shapes, demonstrating the integration of art and architecture.
The exhibition continues on the Wolfsonian's seventh floor, where Larsen incorporates herbarium specimens, field notes, and photographs collected during scientific expeditions. Serving as a sort of passport for the eight species of philodendron, this area documents the plant's origins and its time frame of migration and cultivation in various parts of the world. The exhibition's oldest object, a book plate from French botanist Charles Plumier, who was commissioned by King Louis XIV to discover medicinal plants in the Americas, is displayed alongside specimens taken mainly from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which became an epicenter of research and mass production of these plants for use in the home.
The exhibit shows how native peoples viewed the plant amid a discussion of its initial medicinal uses. The philodendron was used to cure everything from back pain to obesity and was later incorporated as a critical aspect of ritual dress and religious practice. To natives, the philodendron was a sacred icon to be revered and enjoyed.
Amazonian headdresses and figurines display the early uses of philodendrons, while painting and photography usher the plant into the 19th and 20th centuries. A mural study created in 1943, on loan from the Ministry of Finance in Rio de Janeiro, depicts indigenous plants and people in the five ecosystems of their native Brazil, where the plant today is seen as a symbol of natural wealth that allowed the nation to prosper.
But for early European explorers and colonizers, plant life in South America and the Caribbean represented a primitive, romantic symbol that fueled Latin American stereotypes that in many ways persist today. To them, it was a lush region filled with sensual passion, nearly naked savages, and wild tropical vegetation. Drawings of natives making twine ropes, women adorned with fruit baskets, and plants growing wild in jungle landscapes infiltrated the European consciousness.
"Incorporating nature into buildings was a way for Europeans to say, 'Look at our mastery over nature. We can reproduce all of Panama and its nature inside of this building,'?" Larsen says. The Royal Waiting Room at the Imperial Station in Vienna, a photograph taken by Wolfgang Thaler in 1894, captures Austrian architect Otto Wagner's depiction of a philodendron garden as an homage to the Austrian king's love of nature. Notably, he shunned Austrian flora in favor of the more exotic.
In the 1920s, a cultural exchange with Latin America began to blossom among the European and American elite. A Jaguar Hunt in a Mexican Jungle, a mural study commissioned for the estate of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, suggests the infiltration of such an aesthetic in a wealthy American home. The United States was presented with a taste for tropical landscapes, bold color, and exotic fantasies through editorial layouts in magazines such as House & Garden and Holiday.
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"The images of Latin America that begin to circulate in the 1930s through the 1960s create a popular trend for integrating plants into the home," Larsen notes. "Nature is a way for Western Americans to convey a tropical identity, but there is no distinction between Mexican culture or Brazilian."
Despite a lack of specific identity, the tropics trend inevitably stuck, and "Philodendron" presents plenty of evidence. There's Dorothy Draper's furnishing line Brazilliance, film clips displaying scenes of Carmen Miranda and her hip-shaking samba, and photos of modern living rooms stuffed with philodendrons, usually placed in corners as a way to bring nature inside. The exhibition also showcases architects such as Richard Neutra and Herzog & de Meuron, who since the 1970s have created modern structures that directly respond to the environment in which they're built. Fashion and industrial designers use the plant as an inspiration for prints, shapes, and embroidery in designs that trickle down to widely consumed brands like H&M and IKEA. And artists use the philodendron as a backdrop for their portraits, like in Karl Lagerfeld's photo of artist Michele Oka Doner.
The show is a swan song for Larsen, who will soon depart the Wolfsonian for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "Philodendron" presents a lush historical panorama of a plant that's rooted in our subconscious in an utterly immersive way: In bold wallpaper patterns, classic filmography, and sculptural hand-carved furniture, the philodendron is everywhere you turn, and after this show, it's unlikely you'll overlook its influence again.
"Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern"
Through February 28, 2016, at the Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; wolfsonian.org. Open Friday through Tuesday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Wednesday. Admission costs $7 for adults and $5 for seniors, students with ID, and children 6 to 12. Children under 6 get in free.