Welcome to Make Yourself at Home, a collection of home tours as told through the items within them. Up this week, in the second of four installments we’re running in honor of Renovation Month, Hilton welcomes us into his plant-filled apartment in Baltimore.
In 2008, on a trip to Paris, Hilton Carter saw a painting in the Louvre that would alter the course of his life. It was called “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais, and it depicted a woman floating lifelessly in a body of water, surrounded by plants and flowers rendered in, as the Tate Museum put it, “painstaking botanical detail.” When he saw it, he was awestruck. I’m done, he thought, I don’t know what happened but I came to see this painting.
A student of art and film, he decided right away to make a movie about it. His homage, Moth, came out in 2010, and it all takes place in the apartment of his protagonist, a version of Ophelia. As he designed the set, taking special care with the details just as Millais once did, something sparked: “I understood that in filmmaking, the spaces your main characters are in have to be a character themselves,” he explains.
From there, Hilton fell in love with production design, becoming especially attuned to the energy and character of the spaces he worked in. And then, in 2011, his new passion collided with a second: While working a freelance gig in Glenn Mills, Pennsylvania, he went to lunch at a plant nursery and cafe called Terrain. As he sat in the greenhouse, nestled among dark leafy plants and twirling vines, he thought, I have never sat in a space that felt this comfortable. That’s when it hit him: There was no reason he couldn’t recreate this feeling by his own design, in his own home.
Today, Hilton is an interior and plant stylist by trade. When he worked in film, he never imagined he could do this kind of work full-time, but when he moved in with his girlfriend in 2016, everything changed in a matter of months.
It started when she suggested he catalogue the process of decorating their new home on Instagram. By then, he’d been taking care of around 70 or so plants, and she thought people might be interested in seeing what he could do with a space. Doubtful but eager to nurture his hobby, Hilton agreed (even to the “embarrassing” hashtags). In November of that year, West Elm reposted one of his photos, which became so popular they requested an interview, which in turn earned him the attention of several other brands, sites, and people curious about his unique approach to plant styling. As the attention increased, he picked up professional styling work, eventually quitting his job and diving into leafy greens full-time.
Hilton spends around five hours a week caring for his 300 plants—both in his rented apartment and the studio space his landlord lets him style and host events in for free (apparently it’s such good PR for them, it pays for itself). His Instagram, which now boasts about a quarter million followers, is what the internet might call plant porn. In March of this year, Hilton’s first book on plant styling came out, Wild at Home, and he’s currently working on his second, Living Blooms, which has him traveling all over the world. I caught up with him between trips to hear about some of the most beloved items in his (most beloved) space.
#1 The Paint on the Dining Room Wall
When my wife and I went to Paris in early 2016, we went to a lot of old cathedrals, and I really loved the texture of these old cathedral walls. I knew I wanted to bring that into our space, so I decided to paint the wall separating our dining and living rooms. This was actually the first thing we did in the apartment—the building allowed me to come in a week before we moved in to do it. They were like, “You can paint whatever you want, but when you leave, you’re going to have to paint it back.”
The process was literally to do what felt right. I would just place a little bit of color on the wall—let’s say it’s a copper orange color—and let it dry for about two minutes before wiping it away. Then I’d sand it down and add a gray color. Then I’d take a rag and dip that into the water that I was cleaning brushes off with and almost polish the wall with this wet rag to give it this worn patina look.
When I was in art school, I used to start all of my drawings or paintings on surfaces like this. I would use old coffee grinds and work that into drawing paper, and then draw on top of that. It was just mixed media, just trying to figure things out. Undergrad stuff. I think that kind of prepared me to understand what I wanted.
When I was done, the building people saw it and were like, “Is it possible, when you actually do move out, that you just leave that up?”
#2 The Mini-Motorcycle in the Living Room
Apparently, back in the early 70s, Harley didn’t have enough money, so they partnered up with a bowling alley chain called AMC and made these mini Harleys. And in 1977—now this is all speculation, but I’ll just tell the story as he told me—my dad worked all summer to purchase one. When he got it, he rode it all over town, and that’s how he met my mom. And then in 1979, when he found out she was pregnant, he never rode the bike again. My mom and my dad split a year into being married, but I remember going to his house and seeing the bike as a kid. I was always like, “What’s up with this bike? Why can’t I ride it!?”—because it was perfectly my size. But he never let me. It wasn’t until I was 35 years old that he finally said, “I think it’s time for you to have it.” And I was like, “Who are you!? I am 6’5”!”
I remember being so frustrated with him, but the thing was—and I didn’t get this as a kid, but I got it when he gave it to me—he cherished this bike so much. As a kid, I would have destroyed it. While he was probably protecting me from getting hurt, he was also trying to protect the bike. I know my dad. He’s very anal when it comes to keeping things pristine. It’s his thing. And I think when he saw that I moved out to Baltimore and planted roots here, he was like, “I think now is the time to hand you this bike.”
I appreciate that he decided to hand it down at the moment he did. I’ll never ride it, and I’m sure one day my kids will go, “Can I ride that bike?” And I will also go, “No.” And then give it to them maybe when they’re 35. Who knows? I mean, my dad gave me his name, so maybe that’s just the way we hand things down.
#3 A Wooden Tiger Head With a Plant Sticking Out of Its Mouth
The reason I love this tiger head is because I found it at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, California, right before I moved back to Baltimore. When I purchased it, I was like, “I don’t know what this piece is for yet, but I know I want this thing to exist in my home, and I want it to hold something.” I didn’t know what though—it wasn’t until I had this large air plant when I was like, “I need to stick this somewhere, where can it go?” And then it was obvious.
I had seen pieces like this in magazines here and there, but I wasn’t sure exactly where it came from. And then a year and a half ago, my wife and I got married in Tulum. And in Tulum, there were so many of these heads in so many different shops, and I was like, “Look at this! This is it. This is where the tiger head probably came from!” It just so happened that we found our way there, because I had never even been to Tulum or really to Mexico. When I saw them, I just felt a real connection. I bought the piece not knowing how it was going to tie in or relate to or connect with the whole picture, but at the end of the day it happened naturally.
#4 The Living Wall
This is probably the most collaborative thing my wife and I worked on together. And I say that because she wouldn’t let me do what I originally wanted to do—which was the kind of living wall you might see at a restaurant, which would require a water system and piping and all this stuff that wouldn’t be possible because we don’t own the space. So when my wife pointed that out, I was like, “You know how I have that IKEA spice rack with plant cuttings in it? What if I decided to buy, like, 16 of them and then we’ll have 66 cuttings on the wall and it will be its own kind of living wall?” And she was like, “Okay! That sounds cool.”
My whole thing, when it comes to plants, is to try to turn things into vessels that aren’t supposed to be vessels. When I originally saw the spice rack at IKEA I thought, It’d be really cool to just put that on the wall, and, instead of putting spices in the tubes, put water and cuttings of plants instead. But in the end the spice racks weren’t exactly what I envisioned, so I got with a wood maker here and designed what I now call the cradle, which is a piece of wood that feels more natural. Not so processed like the IKEA ones.
For me, the wall is a piece of art that’s forever changing, forever a work in progress. And what we decided to do was not only keep it as a living wall, but when people come over to the house, if they see a plant that’s in the wall that they don’t have, we will it take it out of its tube, put into a little terra cotta pot with some dirt, and send them home with a new plant. Then we cut another piece off a plant and plop it right back on the wall. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving, right?
#5 The Plant Hammock Over the Bed
There was a moment where I realized that we had… a lot of plants. We had zero floor space left. But my mom had given my dad a saddle leaf philodendron with big leaves—probably ten or twelve of these huge leaves sticking out of a pot—and he wanted to give it to us because it was taking up too much space in his house. I looked at it and was like, “I don’t know. This is huge….”
When I showed it to my wife, she was like, “Where are we going to put that?! There’s no floor space in our entire apartment!” And then I said: “All right. Bear with me, what if it hangs over the bed, like on the wall?” And she was like, “Are you crazy?” I said, “Let me sketch something out.” So I sketched out something like a hammock and said, “What if we purchase a hammock and instead of swinging in it ourselves, we put this plant in it over the bed?” And she was like, “I think that might work! It might look cool.” She’d been working in macrame here and there at the time, so she decided to make it herself.
Then we got these really heavy screws to hang it—things that we knew for a fact would never fall down. And in the end it looked awesome [ed note: here’s a photo of the hammock in its original form], but we were still a little freaked out that it might fall on our heads in the night. So over time I moved the larger plant out and replaced it with a really nice fern, but ferns are difficult because you have to water them so much. So I switched again to a plant that only required watering every 7-10 days, which is the xanadu philodendron you see in the photos.
I feel like this collaboration with my wife was important for us, because there were some tough compromises when we first moved in. It was nice to work on something together. I think the hammock is one thing she, to this day, feels really excited and happy about when she sees it.
Photos by Hilton Carter.