The Art of Arranging Flowers
A new hybrid breed of couture florists masterfully mixes humble and haute.
Written by Julia Szabo
Photography by Tara Donne
Produced by Doris Athineos
Stopping by woods on a snowy evening—or walking through your local park—can make one see leafless tree branches in a whole new light. Winter’s exterior decor is so organically lovely, it might inspire you to bring the outdoors in. Gather up fallen specimens from, say, an Eastern White Pine, and arrange those fringy, green-needled twigs in a vessel, accenting them with apples, quinces, or pears. You’ll be in very good company: Talented floral designers from across the country are using simple, naturally beautiful elements in their work to utterly stunning effect.
More and more, edibles and/or humble flora—from potatoes to pinecones, lettuces to leafy greens—are doing strictly decorative duty. A new style of artfully arranged flower design is taking root in refreshingly unpretentious ways; they’re as flexible as bare branches in winter winds and as lyrical as a Robert Frost poem. The names to watch in floral design are finding inspiration in nature for their poetic, understated compositions that favor form, foliage, foodstuffs—and let’s not forget forsythia!—over flash.
The arrangement above is as sumptuous as a Dutch flower painting, but these botanical marvels—a mix of air plants, pine branches, peonies, roses, and ranunculus—are the real thing as styled by designer Bridget Vizoso. “Prague” frame by Larson-Juhl; “London Clay” paint by Farrow & Ball.
Fruits and Flowers
With its subtle splendor, this sculptural floral style is quietly stealing the spotlight in even the most elaborately decorated homes. Ariella Chezar is known for her mouthwateringly lush pairings of fruits with garden roses—and the fancy flowers aren’t the scene-stealers. “To my mind, a cluster of berries or a pile of apples is as exquisite as a bunch of roses, so by combining fruits and flowers I get the best of both worlds,” says Chezar, who divides her time between San Francisco and New York. Bridget Vizoso, of New York City’s Designers’ Co-op, says, “I like to have the feel of a micro-garden in my arrangements. So I’ll start with a small strawberry or raspberry plant, say, and work flowers around it. And I like it when a bit of the centerpiece falls on the table and gets eaten.”
Above, Salt Lake City designer Sarah Winward banishes the chills with an arrangement good enough to eat. “Marais” frame by Larson-Juhl; “Dove Tail” paint by Farrow & Ball.
“A cluster of berries or a pile of apples is as exquisite as a bunch of roses, so by combining fruits and flowers I get the best of both,” says floral artist Ariella Chezar.
Meanwhile, at Intérieurs et Fleurs, her atelier in Bethesda, Maryland, the Obama-appointed White House floral designer Laura Dowling is renowned for using offbeat materials, including fruits and vegetables, to create impactful arrangements. On her Web site, Dowling offers detailed, easy-to-follow instructions on how to make charming wreaths utilizing such surprising elements as purple onions and blue potatoes.
After decades of male dominance, when the rarest, most expensive “status” blooms were de rigueur in bouquets and centerpieces, women are now commanding the floral spotlight. These artful arrangers—call them Flower Powers—are restoring a resourceful, womanly touch to the art of floral design. They’re downplaying hothouse flowers and giving star billing to seasonal plants, letting Mother Nature show her true colors, textures, and shapes on her own schedule. Some are even using weeds, raising humble materials to the status of art.
In her trademark style, Emily Thompson used a vintage umbrella stand as a container for the arrangement above. “Art Deco” frame by Larson-Juhl; “Studio Green” paint by Farrow & Ball.
Channeling Constance Spry
And to a woman, these trendsetters (like contemporary floral artist Bridget Visozo, shown above) are channeling the undisputed queen of Flower Powers: Constance Spry (1886-1960). The Mayfair florist and homemaking authority who became a household name in Britain liberated floral design from a rigid prewar aesthetic that prized rarity over composition. With her ageless creations—some including plant material she plucked from hedgerows—Spry popularized the use of inexpensive, ordinary components, proving that humble design could be charming and homemaking glamorous.
In wartime England, when so many had so little, necessity was the mother of that kind of innovation. There¹s a radical element to the Spry style, sprouting from the notion that, with imagination and guidance, anyone can be uplifted by cheerful flower decor, not just the well-to-do. "I do feel strongly," she once wrote, ”that flowers should be a means of self-expression for everyone.” Spry famously created a centerpiece out of curly kale and repurposed tableware—like footed soup tureens—for a more horizontal, expressive silhouette.
Chicagoan Cornelia McNamara designed a festive bouquet with cymbidium orchids, feathery astibles, and maroon-colored coleus. “Chateau” frame by Larson-Juhl; “Incarnadine” paint by Farrow & Ball.
Today, with the United States just beginning to emerge from a general economic downturn, a more modest approach to accenting the style in lifestyle strikes a chord with taste-conscious Americans. And creating flower artistry on a budget can be a year-round art. Fresh-faced floral designer Sarah Winward of Salt Lake City, Utah, likes to combine summer tomatoes on the vine and fresh basil leaves for an arrangement. “It’s fragrant and long-lasting,” she says, “perfect for a summer dinner centerpiece or just to display in your kitchen. Plus, you can pinch the basil for your cooking needs!”
Modest materials produce a surprisingly magical effect, as Emily Thompson proved when she was invited to help decorate the White House for Christmas 2011. She arrived bearing hundreds of spiny, spherical, surprisingly sculptural pods shed by the sweet gum trees in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Thompson and her team had gathered the pods from where they’d fallen, then strung them together with velvet ribbon to create “necklaces” to embellish the East Room’s mirrors in lieu of pine garlands. “I think acquiring material—from the most banal things to the most exotic—in a garden or a park is a wonderful choice,” Thompson says. “Branches are a real focus for me. I love working with the flowering branches of spring, the foliage branches of summer and fall, even the bare branches of winter.”
Dandy Pink Arrangement
Floral design at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had been very formal until First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy introduced arrangements influenced by 16th-century Dutch still-lifes. Emulating Spry, she repurposed antique china as vases, including 18th-century dessert coolers used by the Madisons and items from the presidential collection of vermeil tableware. It was during the Kennedy administration that the position of chief floral designer was established.
Now, a new generation is rediscovering Spry and the inexpensive, cheerful charm she championed. “Constance is someone I’ve looked to from the beginning,” Thompson recalls. “I found an old book of hers at a junk shop once and was hooked. I spend a lot of money in New York City to create things that look like they came from your backyard.”
Utah florist Winward echoes Spry when she says, “Anything you think is beautiful can go in an arrangement.” Winward creates verdant neo-romantic vignettes with greens common in a garden but not typically used as focal points: sweet pea foliage, ferns, and begonia leaves. Herbal arrangements incorporate humble elements; she even uses Queen Anne’s Lace (a.k.a. wild carrot, found on most roadsides), giving this ubiquitous white botanical pride of place in her poetic bouquets.
Pictured above is flower designer Ariella Chezar’s fruitful arrangement. “Ambrosia” frame by Larson-Juhl; “Mahogany” paint by Farrow & Ball.
Cornelia McNamara and Bridget Vizoso
“I don’t like it when people put rules to floral design,” says New York City’s Bridget Vizoso (right, above). “It should be pleasing to the arranger’s eye. Constance advised going into your garden and taking whatever you find. I like to incorporate dried branches with ranunculus, which never have a straight stem. I also put in unusual fall foliage, like clusters of acorns.”
Cornelia McNamara (left, above) of Chicago takes a sustainable approach to her métier. As a working member of the Chicago Honey Co-op, an urban bee farm and community garden, McNamara raises crops of her own specialty flowers and uses only beeswax votives in her event designs. She’s also a fan of foraging; her signature style is the prairie grasses native to the Midwest, including the stunning Bluestem grass, as well as milkweed pods, which are “as beautiful when they’re brown and dried as when they’re fresh and green.” Incidentally, the pods are also edible—and delicious—whether parboiled, fried, and/or stuffed. An arrangement combining the pods with native grasses is “urban floral foraging at its best,” she concludes.
Somewhere, Constance Spry is smiling.
How-To Tips from the Flower Experts
■ Lettuce and chard can look decorative, but they tend to wilt quickly. Designer Doan Ly, of Sprout in Brooklyn, prefers burgundy kale for its sturdy leaves. “Burgundy is a good accent color,” she says. “Combine it with white ranunculus or roses in a soft blush color for a neutral palette, or do a really vibrant palette with red, orange, and yellow.”
■ “Use a pedestal vessel—a porcelain tureen, a silver goblet, or a Japanese ikebana stand,” advises Bridget Vizoso. Find containers at flea markets.
■ “To me, the ultimate combination is golden-toned garden roses with peaches or apricots,” says Ariella Chezar of California and New York. “Clear, peachy currants look beautiful with white or yellow garden roses.”
■ “I like to incorporate everything—from tight buds to blossoms at their peak,” says Vizoso. “Catch them at the right moment because it’s bloom and bust! A lovely reminder that everything is ephemeral—that life is beautiful, but it also decays.”
Fashioning flowers ladies (from lower left) Bridget Vizoso, Emily Thompson, Ariella Chezar, Sarah Winward, and Cornelia McNamara in New York’s wholesale flower district on West 28th Street.
How to reach the new “flower powers”:
■ Bridget Vizoso Designers’ Co-op 212/721-2188; thedesignersco-op.com 
■ Emily Thompson 347/529-5145; emilythompsonflowers.com 
■ Ariella Chezar 413/528-3285; ariellaflowers.com 
■ Sarah Winward 801/231-3088; sarahwinward.com 
■ Cornelia McNamara 773/252-2276; corneliamcnamara.com