Hester Street Fair Profile: Casa Helecho

Everyone’s a bit grumpy about this week’s soggy weather, but things are looking up: Saturday’s forecast seems pretty good (75 and only some scattered showers expected). This is, of course, good news for the third weekend of the Hester Street Fair. Today we’re profiling another fair vendor, Vashali Maria Aggarwal of Casa Helecho.

Lots of people talk about breaking away from high pressure careers they don’t find particularly fulfilling in order to “live their dream.” A year ago Vashali, an attorney, did more than talk — she acted! During the debut weekend of the Hester Street Fair, she got to chatting with a group of friends about what they would each, hypothetically, choose to sell at the fair. Vashali declared she would finally put her degree from the Parsons School of Design to good use and turn her hobby – creating custom-made terrariums – into a profession.

The very next week, there she was behind a display table at the fair, showing off her “little urban sanctuaries,” literally planting the seeds of a new business on the Lower East Side. Week after week, Vashali returned to the fair, lugging her terrariums in a shoulder bag from her apartment on the west side of the Bowery. They sold well, and now Casa Helecho (which means “Fern House” in English) has become popular for bridal showers, photo shoots and as gifts. In the not too distant future, Vashali hopes to open up a brick-and mortar store. She’s already offering classes, teaching people how to make their own terrariums.

Vashali’s parents, both architects and urban planners, instilled in her an appreciation for green design (family trips to the rose garden were a regular occurrence). But it wasn’t until she arrived in New York (on September 10, 2001) that the idea of designing mini-urban gardens became a passion. Vashali says she designs terrariums that recreate places she’d like to be. The materials used come from all over. There are shells from Nantucket’s beaches, coral combed from Bali’s southern shores, rare ferns from Oregan and wood carvings from Ubud. She also uses sea urchin scavenged from Jamaica.

Many of the vendors involved in the Hester Street Fair have formed an informal support network. Vashali, for example, provided legal advice to Kareem Hamady and Julian Plyter (who we profiled last week) before they signed a lease for their new Orchard Street store. Similarly, Tuan and Huy Bui (of the Orchard Street restaurant An Choi) and William Tigertt (of Freemans and Peels) have given Vashali lots of good advice about building her business. For vendors like Vashali, this cooperative spirit is making entrepreneurship and artistic expression in a very tough town slightly less daunting.

If you’d like to have a closer look at Vashali’s terrariums, check out her web site. Or you can stop by this weekend’s Hester Street Fair to see them in person. The fair is open Saturday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. It’s located where Essex and Hester streets meet.