How Plant Stylist Vionna Wai Designed a Serene, Oh-So Green Rooftop Space

Plus, her go-to summer tunes for completing the scene.

June 23, 2022

We’ve teamed up with the audio innovators at Sonos to present Groove With The Seasons, a video series that showcases experts creating memorable hosting moments with the help of Sonos speakers.

Unlike my mother, I simply was not born with the gift of a green thumb. For her, tending to our backyard garden and caring for countless house plants comes naturally; for me, keeping an unfussy philodendron alive is quite the accomplishment.

Architectural designer and engineer Vionna Wai most certainly falls in the green-thumb category—her New York City apartment is an oasis of lush leaves and vines. And it’s no wonder: She’s also a professional plant stylist, with a specialty in harmonizing natural elements with urban environments. Who better to transform a near-empty rooftop patio into a jungle-inspired wonderland, just in time for summer happy hours and hang-outs? I sat down with Vionna during her latest plant-styling session and chatted tips for incorporating greenery into any space, her fave varieties, and how she brings it all to life with her favorite Sonos speaker (hint: It’s the adorably portable Roam).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Tim Morrish

Erin Alexander: Summer is finally here—what varieties of plants thrive best in the hotter months?

Vionna Wai: There are a lot of plants that grow and thrive in the summer. But if you're looking for plants that really like the bright sunlight and hot temperatures, I would recommend a bird of paradise or the yucca plant. Those are bigger plants, but if you want something smaller for your table, I would say go for the succulent, go for the cactus or aloe. My personal favorite is called the bear’s paw succulent—it has this fuzzy texture that reminds people of fur and a puffy leaf that has ridges on it, so it kind of looks like a bear's paw.

EA: That sounds so cool—I can't wait to look it up. Beyond just the summer, what are your all-time favorite indoor and outdoor plants?

VW: Any season, anytime? I tend to go for plants with bold, architectural leaves and I’ll usually buy multiple ones if I really like that plant. So plants that I have multiple ones at home are the monstera deliciosa, the philodendron Florida ghost, and the whale fin snake plant is also a cool one. Then daffodils are just my favorite outdoor plant because of their vibrant color. It's this fun yellow, and usually they're the first flowers that bloom during the warmer weather—they just tell me that spring is here.

EA: I love when you can see the first flowers blooming.

VW: When I was walking around the city in April, every few minutes I was like, “Ah, daffodil!”

EA: And the tulips! They were everywhere this spring. When you're designing a space for plants, where do you typically start?

VW: When I create a plant-filled space, I like to start off by assessing environmental factors, like the light, the sound, the views, and the thermal comfort, because those are factors that have a huge impact on how people interact in a space—and it's the same for plants. They all have specific requirements for light, temperature, and humidity. After I assess those factors, I think about how I want the space to function and how the user experiences that space.

Then it's just about creating that vision where plants and people can coexist. During that time, I do like to put on some music since it really helps me bring out the mood. Plant styling for me is a relaxing ritual. A lot of times we're stuck on our phone or computers, but being with plants, I really get to enjoy the moment and having the right music really puts me in my happy space.

Photo by Tim Morrish

EA: Tell me a little bit about the happy hour hangout spot you designed today—it’s so perfect for summer.

VW: I wanted to create a space that has this jungle oasis-inspired feel to it, with warm wood and green tones that really contrast with the austere urban fabric that we have right behind us, New York City. I used low-maintenance plants like bird of paradise, pothos, anad philodendrons, as well as cacti. You’ll probably be surprised that a lot of plants I used actually don't like direct sunlight, so having a canopy really helps add shade for not just people, but also for the plants.

For plants like the bird of paradise and cactus that really enjoy that bright sunlight, we placed them outside of the canopy where they can soak up all the sun. I also utilized the structure of the wooden slats on the canopy to hang trailing plants so that there's a seamless blur of architecture and nature.

EA: That’s nice to know that even if your outdoor space is shady for a good portion of the day, your plants will be just fine.

VW: Exactly—you just need to pick the right plants for the right environment. And then to give the table a finishing touch, we have the fresh herbs on the table. I went with thyme and mint to top off the summer cocktails.

Photo by Tim Morrish

EA: That's a really cute touch for a happy hour or party that I never would've thought of. Speaking of finishing touches, let’s talk music. I am obsessed with the color of the Sonos Roam speaker you have on the table.

VW: I love the new Olive color—it really fits in seamlessly with green spaces. I also like how small and portable it is; I can easily pop it in my bag and bring it anywhere with me.

EA: Where else are you taking your Sonos Roam with you this summer?

VW: I'm planning a lot of outdoor trips this summer, so I'm definitely taking it with me to family barbecues and picnics.

EA: It really can go anywhere.

VW: Totally, and it’s super user-friendly. When I have friends over, they can easily connect wirelessly to the Sonos Roam with bluetooth and play their music.

EA: What’s your go-to summer playlist?

VW: I really like the Rare Grooves station on Sonos Radio. It really has a beat that gets people dancing, so that’s my go-to for any parties and social events.

EA: Ohhh, that sounds like a fun one. Ok, I’m gonna wrap things up with a really hard question: What’s your quintessential summer song?

VW: Wow, this is a tough one. But I’d have to say my summer song would be "Honest" by Gareth.T featuring moon tang.

EA: Adding that to my playlist right now.

What’s your quintessential summer song? Tell us in the comments below!

Our friends at Sonos help listeners feel more with their immersive, easy-to-use speakers. From the Ray, a sleek new soundbar designed for the ultimate home movie viewing experience, to the Roam, a totally portable, outdoor-friendly option made for music on the go—Sonos has a sound solution for every occasion. To transform your listening experience and find the right speaker for your space, check out the full Sonos lineup here.

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Erin Alexander

Written by: Erin Alexander

Erin Alexander is the Managing Editor of Food52.