In the latest installment of the Invaluable Tastemaker series, our editors sit down with designer Stephen Block for insight on how to style outdoor spaces with unique objects and antique finds.
Garden designer and antiques dealer Stephen Block is a study in following your bliss. After a successful career in real estate became drudgery, Block returned to his greatest passion: plants. Armed with a degree in horticulture from the University of Florida and the keen eye for design that he honed as a realtor, he opened Inner Gardens in 1990. He quickly became a favorite of Southern California architects and interior designers (Richard Landry and Michael S. Smith, to name a few), and garnered a client list that included everyone from Matthew McConaughey to Martha Stewart.
When a fire destroyed his showroom and nursery in 2015, he saw it as an opportunity to rethink the business. With his new location in Culver City came some 20,000 square feet of space that he could fill with even more designs: planters, sculpture, furnishings, architectural elements, and decorative accessories. With the recent acquisition of a second location (a 1.3-acre nursery in Malibu), he is now able to offer an even greater array of plants and trees, too. Should you happen to visit the new Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, take a moment to admire the more than 170 pygmy date palms that Block has strategically placed throughout the property.
Our editors recently sat down with Block to talk vessels, outdoor spaces, and the importance of maintaining a modern edge.
You’re always on the hunt for objects for your shop, but what kinds of antiques do you like to collect for yourself?
Stephen Block: I am an avid collector of vessels — all kinds of vessels, in all different materials, and from all parts of the world. I collected them for many years before I realized that I was a “collector.” I display them all over my house.
How do pieces with a little age influence the feel of a house?
Stephen Block: Antiques and vintage pieces lend character to a home, especially when they’re mixed with other styles and periods. Designers enjoy bringing texture and age into their projects, so my antiques are used in the garden, as well as inside homes. But for me, it’s fresh flowers in beautiful vessels that really make a house a home.
What’s your advice for a first-time buyer at auction?
Stephen Block: Be prepared to move fast and hold on to your seat! The first time I ever participated in an auction, I was trying to buy an 18th-century Chinese cast iron tub offered at $6,000. I was bidding on the phone and very nervous. I told the staffer that this was my first time and she was very supportive and told me to relax and all would be well. I was excited because I thought there wouldn’t be many bidders on the item. The auctioneer started at $4,000. I made an opening bid and then everything went crazy — bidding soared to $10,000 before I knew what was happening. I obviously didn’t get the piece. I was scared to death and learned that you have to be ready and know what your top price is.
What are your clients currently looking for?
Stephen Block: Modern, modern, modern. My gardens’ antiques have a modern edge. I don’t purchase many Victorian, frou-frou pieces any more. Mostly I purchase very clean furnishings, accessories, and objects — the less detail, the better. This allows the pieces to be used with many different styles of homes. I’m fortunate that I’m collecting around the world every day, and placing pieces in homes faster than I can buy them!
Any design tips for placing outdoor pieces?
Stephen Block: Placing an object on an axis is always preferred, especially something like an individual urn or an object of really large size. It draws your eye into the garden and lengthens it visually.
Are there any essential objects that you always recommend to clients?
Stephen Block: All gardens need a place to sit and relax, so a comfortable bench is a must. Place it on a sight line or tuck it away in a secret place. Create a space for yourself where you can take in and enjoy the fragrance and coolness of the garden.
About Stephen Block
Antiques dealer and exterior landscape designer Stephen Block is guided by wabi-sabi, the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. He embraces vintage and antique designs as well as aged reproductions that transform garden spaces from ordinary to extraordinary. Stephen’s design work is custom and natural, informed by his sense of place as he moves through a garden. Rather than tracking trends or being ruled by blueprints, Stephen applies a blend of traditional European and Eastern principles organically while working in a garden. His passion for beauty and well-honed intuition have led him to select pieces that clients describe as “hidden gems,” “amazing,” and “place makers.”