A question about my work has been nagging at me the way only an unanswerable one does. The question is: What is style? In floral design, or garden design, I might know a designer’s work by a particular plant palette they use or by the manner in which they approach space. Some designers go low and stay there—stems more horizontal than vertical, empty space central to the arrangement, much the way in which some garden designers might envision a path through the meadow before they draw the edge of the meadow itself.
I’m not sure why I’m so hung up on the idea of style but I suspect it’s because people think I have one and I’m not sure what I’ve done to create one, as facetious as that sounds.
Certainly a person’s approach to colour might signal style—a love of bold colours or warm ones, or the use of complementaries or analogous schemes. But these are all ‘elements’ of style one could say, not the ineffable thing itself.
The irony here is that I once taught an undergraduate course titled ominously ‘Elements of Style’. This was in a Creative Writing department. I was recently out of grad school and I suspect no true profs wanted to take it on. The course mixed poets with journalists—not an easy crowd, but everyone had the same materials to work with at least—words.
I began the course with the galling: ‘what is style?’ question. And failing to have an answer, I proceeded to trot out a bunch of quotes by patriarchs instead:
“Style is the man.” ~ Robert Frost
“Style is a relation between form and content.” ~ Cyril Connolley
Had I been teaching fashion design instead of a writing class, I expect similar pithy definitions might have appeared and I suspect they helped no one. At least not those looking for style, young people in hot pursuit of their own.
So I sashayed around the topic of style and taught rhythm and punctuation and syntax. I taught the elements of style without answering the question itself.
I’m about to go to New York to teach some design workshops and I know I will again break style down—to colour, to texture, to shape, and space. I’m not a person who believes everyone is talented, but I do believe everyone needs a language to interpret their work. And I believe anyone can learn about style.
But I suppose what worries me most is, can I?
Throughout my apprenticeship with flowers I have aimed not to have a style. I’ve borrowed styles and adapted them to the flowers I have grown. In retrospect, I think this is a sensible process to follow: copy masters, fail, and by necessity, invent.
I often feel frustrated when an arrangement looks like I made it because I want to surprise myself and too rarely do. Having access to New York’s blooms will be like having new colours in my paintbox, new shapes to puzzle with. Perhaps that’s what keeps me hooked—the desire to be challenged as a gardener and designer. To stand back from an arrangement and be caught at the throat; to see a picture and know that’s IT, is bliss.
To borrow from the writer Howard Jacobson, we should set out to discover rather than assert, go places we never expected to go, and get lost along the way. Theory is all fine and good, but art must “test its flights of abstraction against… obstinate materiality.”
For all our lofty discussions of style, thankfully flowers will always push us humbly down to earth.