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Real Estate / Houses

The Secret World of Houston’s Flower King

His UH Student-Designed Town Home May Astound You

BY // 10.12.15
photography Chris Plavidal

There’s the public side of David Brown, whose namesake River Oaks-area floral design boutique is light-drenched and bursting with colorful blooms. In the business for 40 years, Brown is known for his highly stylish and artistic arrangements, which make him a top resource for Houston’s smart party set and brides-to-be.

At the shop, the double doors to Brown’s back work area are left open, and he often waves customers in. “People are always welcome to come back into the studio and watch the magic happen,” he says. “They like that.” Plants and petals help him connect to his patrons, many of whose houses he’s inside on a regular basis, doing flowers for dinner parties or other special occasions. The communal and convivial aspect of Brown’s job brings out his more sociable side.

Then there’s the flower designer’s carefully guarded private life. Few venture inside Brown’s own home, a three-story modern stucco town home off West Alabama and Greenbrier, designed by University of Houston architecture grad students, which he bought 16 years ago while it was still under construction. He has lived there ever since and rarely entertains.

“I’m the consummate loner. I love coming home to an empty house. I’ll sit back and have this silent dialogue with my art collection,” he says of the mid-century and contemporary sculpture, paintings and photography he began amassing 40 years ago. Most of Brown’s longtime customers and acquaintances might be astounded to see behind his closed doors.

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Joseph Havel’s large Shiva sculpture, 1989. Over fi replace, Luis Tomasello’s 2008 wall sculpture. Pair of leather MR chairs by Mies van der Rohe for Knoll International, purchased in 1974. Vintage Poltrona Frau John-John sofa. Vintage 1976 reproduction African statue from Brown’s former Ivory Hunter store. Folk art vase made of shards of glass, circa 1980, from Area. Mirror-polished steel coffee table from Internum. Flower vase by London artist Michael Ruh.

“A few years ago,” he says, “a prominent art collector and patron of the store stopped by to pick up some things I was donating to a charity event, and he said, ‘David, why don’t we know this about you?’ — referring to the obvious abundance of art in my home. It’s just something very personal to me.” Brown’s dozens of multi-ethnic artworks range from traditional African artifacts to works by notable contemporary artists in Korea, China and Germany, along with a growing contingency of contemporary masters from Latin America. He also owns a painting by blue-chip British artist Damien Hirst, and works by Texas heavyweights Joseph Havel, Joe Mancuso and James Surls.

Brown grew up in Jefferson, a northeast Texas town resplendent with antebellum architecture and bayous dense with moss and cypress. It had an effect on him.

“I loved to wander the woods,” he says. “But my father had the green thumb, and my love of flowers came from him. I’d dig in the dirt around his vegetable and flower gardens, and the joke was, somebody would ask, ‘Where’s David?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, he’s out rearranging the backyard again.’

He was also fascinated by architecture and abstract art. “At 8, I was drawn to Jackson Pollack and Louise Nevelson. Abstract art just talked to me,” he says. “I was always trying to replicate those artists’ works in particular.” Brown went on to earn a degree in architecture from Texas Tech, landing in Houston and working for an architectural firm designing high-rises. “After five years, there was nothing to satisfy the creative urge in me,” he says, so he quit and bought a store in Houston called the Ivory Hunter, which sold tropical plants and reproduction African artifacts. Over the years, it evolved into his highly touted flower-design business. “I never trained under anyone, I had to invent a lot of the rules,” Brown says. “I looked at what others were doing in Europe and across the country.”

Likewise, he navigates the often cutthroat world of art collecting by his wits, befriending gallerists and artists along the way. “When you’re spending significant amounts of money, the art world can be like a used car dealership,” he says. “I have become such good friends with gallery owners in Houston. I trust these people. I try and get to know the artists, and I have good relationships with most of them. If something interests me, I’ll go home and research the heck out of it,” he says. Brown buys only what he loves and hangs onto everything. “If someone tries to sell me something as an investment, that’s the end of it,” he says.

Large vases by Moooi, Rosenthal and Michael Ruh. Side table and chair from Ligne Roset. Contemporary Asian black ink painting by Island6 Collaborative in Shanghai. The image comes to life with an Asian girl when the back-lit red LED lights are turned on and projected through the rice paper.
Large vases by Moooi, Rosenthal and Michael Ruh. Side table and chair from Ligne Roset. Contemporary Asian black ink painting by Island6 Collaborative in Shanghai. The image comes to life with an Asian girl when the back-lit red LED lights are turned on and projected through the rice paper.

Except for a handful of more vibrant works, Brown’s art collection is as understated as his interiors, which are cocooned in tones of rich chocolate and tan. Home is the elegant antithesis of the color-drenched atelier where he spends his days. “I don’t live at home like you might think a florist would,” he says. “I work all day long with color, so when it comes to the house, it’s brown on brown with black-and-white. That’s where my comfort zone is.”

He began collecting classic, modern furnishings while an architecture student, such as the 1972 Knoll Mies van der Rohe MR chairs, later adding antiques such as a 19th-century gilded French armchair and 1840s Brazilian rosewood pedestal table from England. He’s mixed vintage pieces and antiques with new furniture from Ligne Roset and Internum, including Poltrona Frau’s leather John-John sofa.

“Despite the fact that everything I have comes from diverse parts of the world and times in history, it has a thread of continuity that brings it into harmonious focus,” he says. That thread is the unseen hand of the artist. Some acquisitions, such as the Smoke armchair by Dutch design house Moooi, overtly straddle the line between function and sculpture. “I try not to buy anything that doesn’t have a real artist’s presence behind it,” he says.

By opening the doors to his private home, Brown not only wants to recognize the artists whose work he cherishes, but hopes to reveal a bit of himself. “I want people to know there’s another side to me,” he says. “This house is like my secret garden.”

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