Flower Arranging Finds a Younger Audience
By EMILY WEINSTEIN
THE first time I bought flowers for myself was about five years ago at the Greenmarket in Union Square, in the midst of the hottest, dullest days of summer. Feeling very alone that afternoon for a reason now forgotten, I stood admiring some tulips. For $8 they could be mine. I was in my mid-20s and it seemed like such a luxury to buy myself flowers for no reason, no occasion. But that day I had the money in my wallet, and soon I was carrying the tulips home. I stuck them in a glass pitcher and watched them bloom, until their stems bowed and swept the tabletop and the petals all dropped off.
Over time, I became a regular flower buyer, at farmers’ markets on weekends or at the bodega on the way home from work. The bodega tulips were often the color of margarine and just as engineered. I loved them anyway.
Yet arranging flowers was something I avoided. As with baking sourdough bread or building bookshelves, I was too intimidated to try, especially since buying individual stems can be expensive. Easier to buy a bunch of the same flower, or two or three kinds at most, snip their stems and plop them in water, all while handling them as little as possible.
It turns out that I am not alone in wanting instruction: flower-arranging classes are on the upswing. Established institutions have long offered programs in traditional arranging, but newer schools, with a natural, free-form aesthetic, have begun popping up across the country, part of a swell of enthusiasm for things homemade.
“I think it might have something to do with a younger audience seeing all the great design on blogs,” said Brooke Howsley, a floral designer in Austin, Tex. “Floral classes used to be for the blue-haired ladies, right?”
Other designers also report an increased interest, including two from Brooklyn, Tassy Zimmerman of Sprout Home in Williamsburg and Sarah Brysk Cohen of Blossom and Branch in Clinton Hill, who both added that private lessons are also popular.
And so I enrolled at one of these new places, the Little Flower School.
The school is run by Nicolette Owen, a 32-year-old floral designer, and Sarah Ryhanen, 30, an owner of Saipua, a flower and soap-making studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where class is sometimes held. For my class, the students gathered at Ms. Owen’s pale-blue studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the home of a young, creative population that pairs do-it-yourself inclinations with bespoke tastes.
“People our age, even if they could afford to call and order an arrangement, would rather say they made it,” Ms. Ryhanen said. “Versus 20 years ago, when the point of pride was saying you bought the arrangement — that you could afford to buy it.”
The Little Flower School offers a variety of arrangement classes — in peonies, herbs, lilacs and more. At my class, given in late July and taken by seven students, all of them women in their 20s and 30s, the focus was arranging wildflowers.
The students stood at two work tables in the long, narrow studio. They faced shelves filled with about 25 bunches of different flowers — an altar of blooms, really — with each type set in a pail. Early on, Ms. Ryhanen and Ms. Owen asked each student to introduce herself and name her favorite flower. “Tulips,” I answered, especially the ones with fringed petals — elegant and a bit sinister. Jamie Lee Rice, 24, the director of research and discovery at a music design agency in Austin who is working in New York for the summer, said, “This might be boring, but ranunculus are my favorite.”
“I love ranunculus!” exclaimed Ms. Ryhanen and Ms. Owen, in stereo.
The teachers started the Little Flower School last October, holding single-session, three-hour classes once or twice a month, for a $250 fee. Both women have backgrounds in the fine arts: Ms. Owen worked for photographers and at the shelter magazine Domino, now defunct, and Ms. Ryhanen was the assistant curator at an art gallery. Theirs is a “more organic-looking, looser style” of arranging flowers, Ms. Ryhanen said. The aesthetic is pretty but not reserved: lush, abundant, expansive, each arrangement a different dance of colors and textures. Think of a berry pie with a messy crumble of golden brown topping, or loose curls escaping from a pinned-back bun, a perfect imperfection.
In front of the studio, Ms. Owen and Ms. Ryhanen held up stems one by one and offered insights into their arrangement potential. Dahlias, Ms. Owen said, are quite fragile and don’t do well in the heat. The stem on a sedum is almost black, a striking contrast with its pinky-red blossom. Ms. Ryhanen noted that coxcomb has stiff crevices and fuzz — some people “are freaked out by the texture,” she said — but that the flower can form a nice carpet against which an elevated rose would pop.
A brief tutorial on arrangement followed, with demonstrations.
Step 1: Pick the base material — bushier foliage, branches, flowers with sturdier stems — and place it in the vase so that the stems cross over one another. This is the infrastructure of the arrangement, the web that will hold the next flowers you add. (We also used a flower frog, or spiked disk, taped to the inside floor of the vase to help anchor the stems.) The base also determines the size and shape of your creation, which should typically be one and a half times the size of your vessel.
“It’s like cooking,” Ms. Owen said. “This is the foundation, the broth for your soup.”
The teachers encouraged us to turn the arrangements around as though they were on lazy susans, the best way to fill out all sides.
Step 2: Add “face” flowers, which are the larger blooms, the attention-getters. Peonies, dahlias, hydrangeas and roses are all face flowers. Do not put your bigger flowers on the same plane; it looks strange and makes the arrangement appear flat. Fill out the middle with flowers of different heights.
Step 3: The tall flowers added last, like scabiosa, with its slender stem and small, contained blossom, are what Ms. Owen and Ms. Ryhanen call the “wispy gestures,” the more delicate forms that draw your eye upward.
But, Ms. Ryhanen added, rules can always be broken. Purple basil — a fragrant, richly colored herb — “could be a base flower, but one with an especially nice structure, with interesting curvature to it, could be used as a third-tier flower.”
As the teachers finished, Ms. Owen asked the group, “Are you thinking about what color palette you’d like to use while we’re blabbering at you?”
I had been, yes. But as Ms. Owen and Ms. Ryhanen casually pulled flowers from their pails and paired them — to show how different combinations can change the look of a flower completely — the task began to feel overwhelming.
I had no sense of how I was going to put this all together.
Still, I had to try. When we were let loose on the flowers, I selected large blue hydrangeas tinged with yellow, peonies and some blooms I had found strikingly or subtly beautiful early in the class, when I held them at arm’s length and close up, cataloging their streaks and bumps and freckles.
I took my choices back to my work area and picked up the clippers we had been given, our names printed on small tags tied to the handles with string. The students worked intently and it was quiet except for the comments the teachers made as they circled the room, fetching different flowers for someone or turning a stem 180 degrees so it reached upward rather than arched downward like a streetlamp. I placed my base flowers, including the hydrangea and some lamb’s ear, in broad blocks around the arrangement.
And then I got stuck at Step 2. A few of the face flowers I had selected — some of my favorites, the ones I wanted as soon as I saw them — just did not work against the backdrop of my base. It looked wrong to me, like pairing paisley and plaid. So it was back to the pails to pick different blooms.
I ended up with a handful of hot pink echinaceas — the flowers I had liked least when I first saw them, gawky and unsubtle. But when I put them in my arrangement they just exploded. They changed the mix in a perceptible but not overwhelming way, just as a squeeze of lemon can brighten the taste of cooked greens, and they seemed to change themselves, too; their simple shapes and punky pink became surprising and elegant.
Two hours passed. I had barely looked up, focused only on my arrangement and the floor, where the snipped stems and leaves had fallen in heaps. When I did, I saw that everyone’s arrangement was different. Some recalled the arrangements in the paintings of the Dutch masters, full of curling vines and fat blossoms. Others were classical, olive leaves and berries offset by garden roses. Some were alien forms, clusters of soft petals pierced by tall branches.
“I think I’m intimidated by my arrangement,” said Leah Wechsler, 28, a commercial artist. She had created something very assertive — an arrangement tightly packed with bold colors that played off one another, shooting off every which way, a small bomb.
Making Arrangements: Classes Across the Country
BOTANIC gardens generally offer basic flower-arranging classes and workshops, and well-established schools, like the Flower School New York and Rittners School of Floral Design in Boston, have more elaborate programs featuring introductory, intermediate and master classes.
Smaller, less traditional courses — like those at the Little Flower School, based in Brooklyn (little-flower-school.blogspot.com, 718-624-2929) — can be found at floral design studios and shops countrywide.
AUSTIN, TEX. Brooke Howsley of Pollen Floral Art treats topics like arranging succulents or aromatic herbs; classes are held in different venues around town and generally priced at about $250: (512) 586-8913, crosspollinationfloral.blogspot.com.
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. Hiroko Takeshita, who studied floral design in Paris, teaches her modern, Japanese-influenced style at Hanaya, $125 a session, as well as in private lessons: (617) 547-1770, hanayafloral.com.
CHICAGO Sprout Home, which also has a location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has offerings like “Uncommon Structures,” a class focusing on vertical or horizontal arrangements. Classes are free; flowers and other materials can be purchased at the store: (312) 226-5950; in Williamsburg, (718) 388-4440; sprouthome.com.
NEW YORK Blossom and Branch, a design firm based in Brooklyn, offers a monthly class in Lower Manhattan, which generally costs about $150 for three hours, as well as private parties, including “Bodega Flowers 101,” a lesson focused on ordinary flowers from the corner grocery: (347) 422-7066, blossomandbranch.com.
PHILADELPHIA The “Floral Fixation” classes at Terrain at Styer’s in Glen Mills, Pa., about 30 minutes outside Philadelphia, are built around different themes; the coming “Grey & Glorious Gardens” workshop will focus on fall colors and textures. Classes typically cost about $85: (610) 459-2400, styers.shopterrain.com/events.
PORTLAND, ORE. Pam Zsori of Ink & Peat teaches three-hour workshops — most recently, on lush hand-tied bouquets — for $150 at her store, which also sells home accessories: (503) 282-6688, inkandpeat.com.
SAN FRANCISCO Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo of Studio Choo hold classes for $150 in their shop on Divisadero Street, with a strong theme in seasonal and local flowers: (415) 624-5981, studiochoo.com.