What does a florist need to know? Botany, plant science, marketing, accounting, design, event planning, wedding etiquette, public relations…I could go on. But one element I hadn’t considered and sorely craved: the history of style.
Why this resurgence of moody romanticism? Why the return of the still life? And what precisely does the term ‘history of style’ mean? What, decoratively speaking, is style? And where does one start to learn about style? People have arranged plants for eons, so whose history plays into ‘the’ history of floral design?
I took all of these questions to England in November to study at Zita Elze’s Design Academy in London. Elze is known for her couture work—in floral design, but also flower embroidery (picture hand-sewn bridal bodices of flowers, parasols, and Chelsea floral gowns). Her floral shop and school is in Richmond, steps from Kew Gardens where I interned in my twenties. It’s a neighbourhood I know and love, so a trip back didn’t take much coaxing.
What did take coaxing was my body—sorely jet lagged, I’d awoken at 1am the day of the class and headed off to Covent Garden Flower Market before dawn (blog post here), tubed back to my cousin’s near Chalk Farm to say farewell, then tubed back to Kew for a 10am start. I was near cross-eyed by the afternoon, pacing to stay awake—not ideal student behaviour, but thankfully the class was tiny: myself and one other American woman joined instructor Lucinda Sanderson, who had come in from France.
Floral school this was not. Rather a crash course in the history of interiors. From the Baroque to Art Deco, we moved through kings and queens, dictators and designers, examining fabric, architectural styles and furniture for two days straight.
As I write this—and I’ve long put off looking at my notes because they are so detailed—I’m still overwhelmed. What decorative themes separate the Baroque from the Rococo, that movement from heaviness to light?
Having the time now to sink into the images, I see a playfulness of form. During the Rococo shells, scrolls and flowers replaced lion’s feet, eagles and trophies. Why? A reaction against formal grandeur, I wrote in my notes. Louis XV loses colonies to England. So why the pastoral romance? The fantastical designs? I don’t entirely know. Looking back, I can see the Revolution rising from the froth of frivolity in France, but turning a page I find not politics, but colour: delicate pastels were favoured in the Rococo over the Baroque’s heavier reds and golds.
I want to know more. To place those colours in context, to have them mean something more. Tantalized, I read on.
Plants like peonies, carnations and roses were used during the Rococo. I find a list of plants recorded by writers and painters between 1715-1774 including: Lonicera, Jasminus, Ipomoea, Ranunculus, Fritillaria meleagris, Dianthus, Auricula, Gladiolus and Citrus bergamia. That list tells me plant collection continued apace; that list fills me with the excitement of the age. Imagine seeing a morning glory for the first time. Or smelling jasmine. Glasshouses and orangeries were in vogue and the palette of floral designers broadened by the day as new plants came into cultivation. And the vessels used for floral work broadened as well—fine porcelains, epergnes, bulb holders, baskets, and urns.
I could go on and on: from the Regency’s fetish for dolphins to Biedermaier’s sleek geometry; from Gothic arches to Sheraton’s neo-classical simplicity. I could study further still, and I might—turn my gaze back in time, try to unfurl the history of my culture one leaf (or motif) at a time.
One wonders why a florist might need to know such minutiae. So picture this: you’re a florist in an old city, a city with architecture dating back hundreds of years, and you are calledto do the flowers. What do you use to evoke the period? What plants were in vogue? What style should your work take? Tendrils or not? Symmetry or asymmetry? Scented or unscented? Structured or not?
Or perhaps you have a bride who loves Art Deco, maybe wants a grand Gatsby affair; should she carry a tussie mussie or ferns?
Or say you’re a curator of a heritage site—a Tudor building or a Federal estate. Or (lucky you) an owner of a Georgian home and want to hit the right botanical notes.
There’s no shortage of what one can learn. And I think that’s what I like best about flowers—how beauty becomes botany, and botany ethnobotany, how the history of design guides us to who we were and how our tastes have been formed.
PS: You can read more about Zita’s Design Academy classes here: http://zitaelze.com/classes/