Jeff Leatham is a man in demand—not only in Los Angeles, the city he calls home, but in just about any other cultural capital you can think of. Over the past 20 years, he has made a name for himself through his monumental floral creations at the Four Season Hotel George V in Paris and through his work with A-listers like Oprah Winfrey, the Kardashians, Cher, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dolly Parton, and more. This week, he’s headed to the Bronx, New York, to unveil his latest masterpiece: a bold and colorful vision for the New York Botanical Garden’s 18th Annual Orchid Show titled “The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,” which opens on February 15 will run through April 19.
Trying to pin down Leatham for a preview of his orchid extravaganza is a bit like trying to catch the will-o’-the-wisp, and when Architectural Digest finally sits down to speak with him, his focus is on nothing but orchids, color, beauty, and how working with the New York Botanical Garden ranks as one of the top two highlights of his career. (The other being when, in 2014, he was knighted with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honor for artists and others who have made a significant contribution to French culture.) He’s distracted only by the fact that he’s sending off birthday flowers for Winfrey, one of his longtime clients, and finalizing plans for an event hosted by Alicia Keys. After taking a call about the former, Leatham notes, “She is such a great client,” before finally silencing his phone. “Oprah has so much style and class, and she likes things that are very much my style, which is clean, simple, chic, and ‘wow.’”
The wow factor is what catapulted Leatham to legend status, and it’s something visitors to the NYBG show should expect to be immersed in. For starters, a 10-foot sculpture of a Vanda orchid spouting water will greet guests. Crafted in Paris by Michel Amann, the faceted-mirror orchid fountain will be surrounded by a display of alternating pink and blue orchids cascading down from the ceiling. From there, each gallery of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory will be transformed into a different color experience, like the turn of a kaleidoscope. This marks the first time in the show’s history that an artist has been granted use of so many of the galleries in the Haupt Conservatory (since three are currently closed during the renovation of the iconic palm dome, Leatham will have the entire run of the eight galleries that remain open). Leatham’s designs will appear throughout 30,000 square feet of this year’s exhibition footprint, nearly double the amount of space given to guest designers in years past.
“Color is the first and most important aspect of my work, always,” Leatham says. “I loved kaleidoscopes as a child. You start dreaming as you look through one. People have seen the interiors of the Conservatory already, but with this exhibition I want them to look through them like never before.” For part of the show, which he dubs “my sunrise/sunset tunnel,” Leatham has engineered arches of hanging orchids in shades of yellows, oranges, and reds in order to create the effect of walking into a sunrise or a sunset, depending on which direction you approach it from. For another part—passing through the Hanging Baskets and Special Collections Gallery—he’s kept all the flowers green and white. “The Botanical Garden has been amazing in helping to pull so many different varieties of orchids—some that have smells, some that don’t,” Leatham explains, calling attention to the sensory aspect of the show.
To achieve his desired effect, Leatham worked closely with the Garden’s horticulturists, including its senior curator of orchids, Marc Hachadourian, who’s assembled flowers from the Garden’s own collections as well as from some of the finest growers in the world. Orchids of almost every shape and provenance, including rare and iconic specimens, will be on display. Leatham has also incorporated two orchids of personally meaningful significance: the Vanda Sunanda "Jeff Leatham," named in his honor several years ago by Ansu Orchids in Amsterdam, and the “Velvet Janet,” a new variety of Phalaenopsis that Walter Grootscholten, also based in the Netherlands, named for Leatham’s mother, Janet, who passed away last summer. Both mother and son shared a love for orchids. Jeff’s is deep purple and black—“so my vibe,” according to him—while Janet’s is hot pink, “which was her favorite color.”
Though orchids have become a signature of Leatham’s work, they haven’t always been the mainstay. It wasn’t until a 2004 trip to Thailand that he was first introduced to and fell for the Vanda orchid. He returned to Paris with memories of orchids hanging from wires on high in very clean spaces—“the roots weren’t in any soil or fertilizer…they were just kind of living off the humidity whenever it would rain,” he recalls—and would go on to re-create that look to dazzling effect in the marble lobbies and courtyards of Four Seasons properties in Paris, Los Angeles, and, more recently, Philadelphia. “I love orchids because they’re a very sensual, kind of sexual flower,” says Leatham. “There are just so many different varieties, and they grow in the most bizarre and weird spaces…they can just kind of pop up. I love that they create passion in people to collect them in their homes. There are so many reasons to love them.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest