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2013 Master of the Southwest Joe Zazzera - Plant Guru

Author: Nancy Erdmann
Issue: March, 2013, Page 112
Photos by Michael Woodall

Zazzera poses in his showroom, where finished examples of his creative talents are on display.

Joe Zazzera’s Interior Garden Designs Set a New Bar for the Extraordinary

It is rare to find a person who has seen the work of interior plant guru Joe Zazzera and not felt moved by it in some way. The designs he creates transcend the conventional and almost always evoke something much more memorable. Rows of barrel cacti in a planter, for example, are interesting to look at, but place them inside a framed box and hang it on a wall and you have something quite magical.

Never one to think inside the box, Zazzera believes in taking risks and figuring out solutions to design problems that seem nearly impossible. In 1981, he started his Scottsdale-based business, Plant Solutions, which specializes in vertical living walls and specimen interior plantings. His diligence, creativity and hard work have paid off with scores of clients who are passionate about his work.

“Joe is one of those rare finds that one expects to come across in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and the like, not in Phoenix,” says interior designer Anita Provost Cohen. “He has an infectious curiosity that is inclusive of everything alive. I did not meet Joe first; I met one of his ‘specimens,’ and I had to know who was responsible for its installation. What he brings to the table is not only an element of surprise, but also the dramatic order and balance of color that defines Zen.”

A living wall of greenery designed to connect an interior space with nature is made up of many types of dracaena, pathos and other plants.
Zazzera’s alignment to Mother Nature and design began at a young age. Born in Philadelphia, he moved to Phoenix when he was 9 years old and recalls feeling very connected to the desert. In high school, he spent “every possible moment in the ceramics art lab,” where instructor Vic Verbalitis helped mold his creative development. “Vic was very much a purist and believed creative expression was far more important than profiting from sales of artwork,” Zazzera remembers. “He would never allow students to create ashtrays or trinkets.”

After high school, Zazzera was accepted into the California College of the Arts, where he planned on studying ceramics; but due to his “insecurities about being able to make a living as a ceramic artist,” he chose instead to study electronics technology and later, horticulture. He married, had three children, and then began building his plant business. Mostly self-taught, this Master of the Southwest says that the majority of his design knowledge and horticultural experience came from trial, error and instinct.

“I am obsessed with connecting people and nature,”Zazzera remarks. “The best part of my job is experiencing the reaction from people when they connect with nature after I complete something. Witnessing this honesty at a deep level is extremely fulfilling.”

Three orb-shaped pots filled with ZZ plants (Zamioculas zamiifolia) add drama to a Phoenix-area home and draw the eye to the patio’s distinctive wall planter.
Phoenix attorney Ron Cohen has worked with Zazzera on several projects. “Joe’s passion for his artistry matches his remarkable, creative gifts—a rare combination,” he comments. “I have repeatedly witnessed Joe transferring that sparkle in his eyes to a lasting sparkle in every venue in which his work finds a home.”

Aside from receiving many industry awards and belonging to several professional organizations, Zazzera has a strong interest in green living and hopes to one day bring native-style green roofs to Arizona. In his free time, he is an avid road bicyclist who shares this passion with his wife, Karen. The pair also coaches cycling for those taking part in Leukemia & Lymphoma Society bike events. “It is fulfilling in that many of the participants come in with fear and doubt and walk away with a new confidence about themselves and what is possible.”

Joe Zazzera created this framed wall piece with rows of golden barrel cacti planted in an “overstuffed” manner.

A living wall of art consists of randomly placed succulents. “The intent was to allow the strongest species to create their own vertical pattern over time,” Zazzera says.
A trio of air plants set into moss-filled metal vessels are part of a series Joe Zazzera collaborated on with Phoenix craftsman Robert Wilkinson. “The pedestal planters elevate the significance of these plants and remind us of the value and function of plant life within our ecosystem,” Zazzera remarks.

Low-maintenance pathos and bromeliad plants fill this indoor planter. Tanya Shively of Sesshu Design Associates, whose company advocates green design, comments: “The living green walls Joe designs are a great example of cleaning the air while also adding a unique style element and focal point to a space.”
While Zazzera says he doesn’t have a signature look, he is drawn to clean lines and repeating patterns. “Organic, sculptural shapes and designs are my favorites,” he notes. “They feel unforced and very natural.” Here different varieties of sansevierias planted in diagonal rows make up a living artwork panel

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