HIGH PROFILE: Little Rock florist's fascination with flowers began in his grandmother's garden

Published 4 December 2017

It's a sunny Friday midmorning in early November. Michael Walls is working busily in the small pool house behind the home of Lenora and Richard Steinkamp, close friends whose son's wedding will be at the home the next day. The main room of the house, done up in beachy hues, is a contrasting backdrop for the fall-hued flowers -- some in containers -- adorning counters, a makeshift work table and the floor: Marigolds. Teddy bears. Blue thistle. Hypericum. Gypsy roses.

Dressed in hip-casual workwear, a scant salt-and-pepper beard accenting his tufts of black hair (which he actually wishes would get some gray), Walls deftly puts together a bridal bouquet of variegated, orange-y roses in two sizes; coffee-bean berries, hydrangeas, dusty miller.

Watching Walls working alone in such a relatively modest setting, those who don't know him might find it hard to believe the Little Rock native is one of the most sought-after floral designers in Los Angeles. But it's true: During his 25 years in the City of Angels, Walls has done flowers for the likes of former professional boxer Laila Ali and Little Rock native and NBA player Derek Fisher. He has done events for actor Tony Danza -- of Who's the Boss? fame -- and his family. He has even done a party at the home of filmmaker -- and "Madea" himself -- Tyler Perry. In October, Walls did a Halloween party for celebrity he couldn't come out and name, but who he describes as "an R&B singer who is a legend, married to a model. Figure it out. You know who it is."

After the Steinkamp wedding, he says, he'll return to Los Angeles and begin pre-production on the premiere for the movie Pitch Perfect 3, whose release is scheduled for Dec. 22. He also did floral design for the Pitch Perfect 2 premiere.

"Movie premieres are a lot of fun," he says. "But I do find the weddings a little bit more exciting ... because they're more challenging. And you kind of create a connection with the bride, and you hope that at the end of the day that her wedding is an extension of her taste and personality and is what she had envisioned.

"I actually like to underpromise and overperform, because it's going to make them want to talk [me] up to their friends," as well as seek his services for other events, he says.

It has worked: Walls' reputation as a wedding florist has him booked as far out as March 2019. "His work is absolutely astonishing," says friend and longtime Los Angeles client Kim Amphlett, mother of a future bride. "He's always gone above and beyond any of my expectations. I can have a picture of something and he triples it. He is above and beyond what you would expect from a florist."

When it comes to weddings, Walls says, he loves throwing in extra touches. A bride last summer wanted a white-petal swirl down the aisle. The budget wasn't there for that, but as luck would have it, he'd just done a corporate event with white roses that were made available to him afterward.

At the wedding, he says, "I was at the side of the aisle ... watching the bride, because I wanted to see the look on her face when she saw it. ... She looked over and winked at me. And it made it all worthwhile."

BLOOMING WHEREHE'S PLANTED

Walls' work speaks for itself ... these days, largely through numerous Instagram photos (@michaelwallsfloral). In one, he's creating an elaborate "wall" of pink, mauve and white flowers, largely roses, for a corporate event. But he has a penchant for understated-but-stunning, "less is more" elegance. In another photo, stage decor and florals -- flower-lined stairs and all -- for the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising graduation at Staples Center. And in others, simple red-rose tabletop decoration for the 2017 Daytime Emmys. Metal dress forms he'd adorned, making dresses out of flowers. Oh, and that other table centerpiece ... the creatively free-spirited jumble of terrariums, birch logs, moss and succulents.

"He can .... take a sow's ear and turn it into a silk purse," Lenora Steinkamp says. "And he has ... this caring about his work. If he's going to do it, he's going to do it, and do it right and do it well."

To hire such a talent, one must pay the gross national product of a small country, right?

Actually, says Walls, it doesn't matter what the budget is. This especially goes for weddings. Whatever the budget, "I still put the same amount" of time and work into it, Walls says. "It's not enough for a bride to be happy about her wedding. I want her to be overjoyed."

You can take the man out of Arkansas but as far as Walls is concerned, you can't take Arkansas out of the man.

"I think Arkansas is one of the most beautiful states," he says. "I'm so proud to be from here. And I'm sure I'll end up right back here someday. I plan on it."

Don't get him wrong; he appreciates where he is. But, Walls says, "I cringe when people say 'Oh, you're a Los Angelean now.' I think, 'Well, no. I love L.A. and I'm proud of it, but I'm a Southerner and I always will be.'"

These days, when he's not doing flowers at his home studio, Walls is gardening and doing yard design at the two-story, Spanish-style home he shares with three cats in the trendy, mid-Wilshire "Miracle Mile" district. Interestingly, his career also began in a yard ... the yard of his grandmother in Sherwood, where he picked flowers as a child.

STOPPING TO SMELLTHE ROSES

The youngest of six children of Mary Ellen Pack and the late Clement Sampson Walls Sr., Walls grew up in North Little Rock. His grandmother just grew flowers, but it was Walls' aunt, Shannon Stormes Watts, who worked in the floral business. Visiting her at her job at Tipton & Hurst in Little Rock, and accompanying her to flower shows at the former Vestal Floral Supply in North Little Rock, then-11-year-old Walls felt he'd found his calling.

"I would sit there for hours and hours and hours and watch these three designers up in front, working on tables, creating these amazingly gorgeous arrangements with everything from branches they find in the yard to things they find at the fruit and vegetable department at the grocery store," Walls says.

Around age 12-13, Walls got to work with his aunt. "When she would let me take the trash out, I would go through the trash and grab all the dead flowers and take them home and make arrangements," he says. Eventually Walls began helping out at Tipton & Hurst during the holidays, watching the florists work and getting ideas from them. During the off-season, he'd camp out in the basement, creating Christmas arrangements that would be sold starting in November. His work on the arrangements drew the attention of company owner Joe Hurst and took him from unpaid intern to paid employee.

Eventually, Shannon Watts left Tipton & Hurst to start her own shop, at which Walls would hang out after classes at Catholic High School. It was there that he met Steinkamp -- "the 'it' caterer of the moment in Little Rock," says Walls, who accepted her invitation to come and work with her.

Steinkamp remembers how conscientious the then-teenage Walls was when he came to work for her. "You [told] him something one time, he knew," she says. "He just has the most natural ability and I've never seen a work ethic in someone that young." Their working relationship turned into what has been a 35-year friendship, with Walls becoming like a member of Steinkamp's family.

Doing food and, sometimes, flowers for Steinkamp's events, Walls knew he wanted to be a floral designer. But he also wanted a Plan B ... namely, a business degree. After graduating from Catholic High, he earned that degree from Christian Brothers College (now University) in Memphis.

While working at his aunt's business, Walls met Tom Chandler, who'd offered him a job at his interior design firm after high school. Walls told Chandler he'd come to work for him after getting the degree, if he still wanted him. Chandler promised to create a job for him ... and kept his word. As Walls puts it, "I literally graduated on a Saturday, moved from Memphis back to Little Rock on a Sunday, and started to work [at what is now Tom Chandler & Associates] Monday morning."

Walls at first created custom accessories, but Chandler wanted him to do flowers. Feeling rusty after four years concentrating on his studies, Walls shied away.

A BLOSSOMING CAREER

"One day he asked me to help him get ready for a party," Walls says. "I showed up a few hours early ... and he had gone and bought some fresh flowers. He was struggling with this huge, long dining-room table, trying to create a flower arrangement with this container and these flowers. I knew exactly what it needed to look like in my mind, so I just basically said, 'Step back. Let me do this.'" Walls created a stunning arrangement that drew many compliments from the design-industry officials who were guests at the party.

"That just built my confidence right then and there," Walls says. "It wasn't until weeks and weeks later that I realized, that was very calculated by Tom. He knew exactly what he was doing."

From that moment on, Walls was the florist for Chandler's firm using some of what he'd picked up in interior design and adding those principles to floral design. But he began to want more. In 1992, he moved to Los Angeles, a city he'd fallen for when he first visited at age 22.

"I have to say the first two or three years were very lean, and very challenging," Walls says. The year 1992 "was a recessionary period for our country, and wasn't a good time to be looking for a job in any kind of design field." He couch-surfed with friends and even spent some nights in his car.

He was eventually able to get a job as an administrative assistant at a doctor's office. In the evenings, he worked as a caterer. Again, he watched the florists who worked at the celebrity-hosted events for which his employer supplied the food. Gradually, he made contacts and began freelancing for various Los Angeles florists. He caught the eye of representatives of "a leading entertainment and event company" and went to work for the company as its studio manager and event designer. The job paid quite well. But "one day I just decided that if I was going to work for them, I might has well have my own business," Walls says. In 2000, he started Michael Walls Floral & Events. "And I never looked back."

This meant starting over and rebuilding his reputation. And rebuild it he did.

Although he has had his share of celebrity clients, working for them isn't as glamorous at it may seem, Walls says. "They're like anybody else who's on a budget. And most of the time, I would say 90 percent of the time, you don't ever see the celebrity. You're dealing with an assistant." And he usually can't bandy the celebrity's name about to drum up business -- "you actually sign a nondisclosure agreement, which means you really can't talk about it."

BOUQUET OFBIG-NAME CLIENTS

Leila Ali's 2007 wedding to Curtis Conway was an exception. The wedding was written up in People magazine and Walls was credited for the flowers. Another exception was Derek Fisher's high-profile wedding to his now ex-wife Candace, for which Walls ended up winning an award in 2005: the Special Events Magazine Gala Award for Floral Design. Both weddings are showcased in Walls' 2010 coffee-table book: Michael Walls Florals & Events ($104.95, Blurb.com).

Walls' career has taken him to such far-flung locales as Rome, Barcelona and the Netherlands -- the latter coming after a prestigious invitation by the Holland Flower Council to meet with tulip growers. At least once a year, he returns to Little Rock to see family and, sometimes, pull off a job.

Walls is selective when it comes to his clients, and it has been a challenge to keep his business small. He'd rather be known as a "boutique studio." And although he has a staff working for him, he oversees all his jobs.

"My reputation is what I feel I hold onto and I guard because you're only as good as your last event."

Michael Walls

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Feb. 17, 1967, Little Rock.

FANTASY DINNER GUESTS: Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; my late grandmother Mary Garrett Stormes; Dolly Parton — three very strong women.

OFF-DUTY PLEASURES: Antiquing and gardening. I love to see the process of planting something and watching it flourish.

THINGS I WISH PEOPLE WOULD “GET” ABOUT FLOWERS: You don’t need a huge amount of flowers to create a beautiful event. Obviously, there’s this trend now to do all these floral walls — “Let’s cover this whole wall with flowers.” That’s beautiful, of course it is, but who has that kind of budget? People can take a small amount of flowers and make them look exquisite and creative without it being so over-the-top.

BEST ADVICE I’VE EVER RECEIVED: To be true to myself and let my upbringing speak for me.

BEST ADVICE I’VE EVER GIVEN: Same as I got. Be true to yourself.

ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Humble

High Profile on 12/03/2017