Make An Aerium: Projects for Interior Rewilding

Posted on Jul 17, 2014

We’re always striving for simplicity at Pistils. Our small shop walks the line between carefully curated and chaotic clutter. Perhaps that’s why, in recent years, we’ve gravitated towards aeriums both in our shop and in our homes: they’re elegant and eye-catching, yet contained. And fortunately, you can make an aerium with that same cherished simplicity.

What is an Aerium?

You’ve heard of terrariums. All the rage in the 70s, terrariums, in which desert and tropical landscapes are crafted within a glass vessel, are once again fixtures in homes, commercial spaces and design blogs. Building and caring for these interiorscapes, however, isn’t as simple as it looks, and many terrariums quickly fall victim to improper watering technique or a dearth of sunshine.

That’s where aeriums come in. Simply put, an aerium is a glass enclosure which features tillandsia air plants, rather than soil. Tillandsia are epiphytic plants (plants that grow on other plants and surfaces), native to the forests, mountains and deserts of Central and South America. Their tiny roots affix the plant to whatever surface it’s growing on, and they absorb water and nutrients from the air (hence the name Air Plant) through their foliage pores. Since they require no soil and come in an immense variety of shapes, sizes and color, tillandsia are extremely versatile and easy to care for plants for interior spaces.

How to Make An Aerium

We take a material-driven approach to aerium building. By selecting your materials in this specific order, you can be sure to have a well-designed final product. But before we get to materials, the first and perhaps most important step is to…

Get inspired.

If you’re local, visit the shop and check out some of the aeriums we’ve made. Our Wren’s Nest Hanging Aeriums, Classic Aeriums, Gallery and Web Shop have some other great examples of aerium design.

Step 1: Air Plant.

Tillandsia Air Plant Variety at Pistils Nursery
Do you want to put several small air plants in your aerium, or one larger plant? Do you gravitate light feathery leaves, or thicker, more sculptural forms? Is a dark or light-colored plant more appealing to you? Answering these questions, and selecting an air plant that fits your aesthetic, is the first step in crafting a beautiful aerium. We carry over 20 varieties of tillandsia for you to choose from.

Step 2: Glass.

Just about any vessel will work for your air plant, so long as it has an opening large enough for you to get your materials and plant through. Old recycled pieces, like lighting fixtures, can give an aerium a rustic feel, whereas light, hand-blown hanging orbs feel more sleek and modern. Whatever glass you choose, steer clear of tinted glass and thick panes; both tend to distort, rather than complement, the contents of a well-designed aerium.

Step 3: Substrate.

This is where the fun truly begins. We experiment with all sorts of materials as the “ground” in our aeriums. A few of our favorites are layered sands, multicolored rocks, and dried mosses (which keep their color and don’t require watering!)

Step 4: Accent

For natural-looking aeriums, driftwood, a delicately placed piece of lichen or a large stone can make your air plant seem “at home” in its new environment, as if it had been growing there for years. For another approach entirely, a tiny plastic animal replica can give a larger-than-life feel and lend some humor to your piece.

Aerium Design Principles

Aeriums are living works of art. In our shop, we've spent many, many hours building aeriums and are always trying out new design and stylistic elements to allow our aeriums to meet the needs of a diverse range of spaces. No matter how big or small, though, we use a few guiding principles to guide our design choices.

Sideways Aerium at Pistils Nursery

Balance is essential to the well-designed aerium.

Lightness and Weight: The 1/4 Rule

Early on in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says, "The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all." Capitalizing on the opposition between lightness and weight -- between elements like rocks, driftwood and gravel that lend gravity to an aerium and those like moss, sand and negative space that make it seem to float -- is crucial to the well-designed aerium.

While it's easy and fun to get carried away creating intricate layers of rocks, sand and moss, often the empty space in the glass around our landscape is as or even more important than the landscape itself. We let The 1/4 Rule guide us as we create the layers of substrate in our aeriums: For every inch of substrate (weight) below the air plant, there should be three inches of space (lightness) above it.

Rope Hanging Aerium at Pistils Nursery

Rule of Three: Sand, Moss and Rocks create the perfect cushion in this Hanging Aerium.

Texture: The Rule of Three

Anyone who has explored our "Terrarium Bar" knows that sometimes it's hard to hold back: with over 70 drawers filled with sands, rocks, lichens, mosses of endless sizes shapes and textures, we often want to incorporate a little bit of everything into our creations. While the well-designed aerium includes a diverse variety of elements, we've found that it's best to limit ourselves to three textural elements. In a pinch, the trio of sand, rock, and moss always seems to create a beautifully textured canvass which keeps the focus on the air plant itself.

Consider Your Space

Synchronicity goes hand in hand with simplicity; as you're designing your aerium, make sure not to lose sight of the space in which it will live. Define the aesthetic of your space, and try to match that aesthetic in your aerium. Considering whether your space is modern or rustic can give you guidance and direction while designing your piece.

Care, Lifecycle and Transience

Air plant care is simple. If you can, remove the plant from its vessel once monthly, and soak it in a bowl of room temperature water (yes, the whole plant) for 20-30 minutes. Make sure to let the plant drip out and dry entirely before placing it back in the glass, otherwise they're prone to rot. If your air plant fits in its home like a ship in a bottle, simply mist inside your aerium once weekly. Try not to drench the plant, but rather create a humid environment. Place your aerium in a space in which it will get bright, diffused light.

The air plant lifecycle is shorter than many plants. Whereas the small succulents commonly used in terrariums can, over the course of 20 or 30 years, grow into trees, you can expect your airplant to grow slowly and moderately. At maturity, the plants can flower beautifully for weeks or months. After the plant flowers, it makes way for new plants by shooting off “pups” - tiny air plant babies that can themselves grow to replace the original plant. After your plant flowers, it’s time to start thinking about a replacement. One of the great benefits of aeriums is that air plants can be easily swapped in and out without disturbing the substrate.

Living Art

If aeriums are living works of art, you are the artist. Give yourself the time and space you need to craft a vision, explore, and try again. Your creativity might surprise you.

If you're looking for more aerium inspiration, and are local to Portland or visiting town, be sure to sign up for an upcoming aerium-building workshop.

So go make an aerium, and happy crafting!

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