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How Floral Arrangements Began to Take Over the Table — and the Entire Room

By Nancy Hass

Ruby Barber of the floral studio Mary Lennox created a climbing formation of dried hydrangea and dried marcela at Chorin Abbey in Brandenburg, Germany, threading the blooms through a foam-free skeleton made from copper and chicken wire.
 
Photo by Guido Castagnoli. Styled by Mary Lennox
Ruby Barber of the floral studio Mary Lennox created a climbing formation of dried hydrangea and dried marcela at Chorin Abbey in Brandenburg, Germany, threading the blooms through a foam-free skeleton made from copper and chicken wire.

A plate is dually useful, holding food or church collections, and so, too, is the cup, at once a trophy and a grail. But the vase has always simply held flowers, the vessel and its mate inseparable. Inside, greens stand upright, just as they grow in the fields, the reservoir of water at the bottom a magic trick that prolongs the illusion of life.

But what if the bouquet breaks free to snake up the edge of a door, lies on the tile floor like a thick, knotted carpet or gathers above our heads — an unruly poof of twisted, thorny stems and palm fronds laced improbably with purplish-black hydrangea — like a stop-motion explosion, miraculous and disorienting? What if we allow flowers to transmogrify into a sculptural medium like clay or marble or steel, unique in their ephemerality but ultimately just another organic formation?

“I almost can’t remember the time when I was a slave to the vase,” says Ruby Barber, 31, among the floral artists who have in recent years rendered the word “arrangement” quaint. The daughter of contemporary art gallerists, Barber moved from her native Sydney, Australia, in 2012 to Berlin, where, in her studio, Mary Lennox, she often crafts monumental Rorschach-like installations that seem not merely to defy gravity but to openly taunt it: armfuls of dried pampas grass, amaranth and loopy hops that hang from hooks on the ceiling; a geyser of translucent lunaria seedpods — glinting like silver dollars — in place of a chandelier in a Paris apartment; a staircase bannister wrapped with cherry and orange boughs braided with Queen Anne’s lace. While she works with fresh flowers in the spring and summer, Barber finds herself increasingly using dried materials; their stiffness lends itself to abstraction and frees her from using imported commercial flowers from the Netherlands or China in the autumn and winter. “More and more, people want something that can be reused and have another life,” she says. “I have hardly been asked to do a regular table centrepiece lately, which I think is indicative of change in the air.”

Guido Castagnoli

At the Chorin Abbey in Brandenburg, Germany, Ruby Barber of the floral studio Mary Lennox creates a boundaryless climbing formation of dried hydrangea and dried marcela.

 

It makes a certain sense that the once ubiquitous symmetrical dome of roses, clonelike in its perfection, seems to have vanished. “Let’s face it, they were like a salon blowout,” says Alex Eagle, who often features Barber’s concoctions in her eponymous clothing and furniture boutique in Berlin. The demise of conventional floristry has been hastened as well by the rejection of toxic floral foam; its replacements — chicken wire or recycled coconut husks — have spurred creativity. At a recent dinner Eagle hosted at her London home, the florist Simone Gooch of Fjura placed rose plants in large cubes of exposed soil at the centre of the table, their roots fanning out in all directions. “They were so transfixing, so beautiful to look at. Afterwards, I took them and planted them in my garden,” Eagle says.

Social media is behind some of this change, of course, altering how we perceive beauty, freezing it in place, giving an afterlife to a cluster of blossoms that might wilt overnight, but floral artists have also tapped into an inchoate desire in recent times to cultivate imperfection — and even a touch of chaos. As the world beyond seems to spin out of control, we try to soothe ourselves for a while with the illusion of order and symmetry. But at a certain point, we simply let go.

Violeta Gladstone, 40, whose floral studio is in Barcelona, Spain, appreciates the raw geometries of the artist Richard Serra, whose recent series of sculptures, exhibited at Gagosian in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood last fall, featured 50-ton forged steel cylinders of varying heights and diameters. “You want strength and courage in your forms,” says Gladstone, who listens to Chet Baker and Claude Debussy, among others, as she works, letting their riffs inspire her floral imagery. For an installation last year, she stacked philosophy books amid a jungle of magnolia leaves, grasses and snapdragons, punctuating the scene with newly sprouted grape hyacinth bulbs caked with dirt, like tiny purple pearls in the wreckage. In another of her arrangements, a mass of tissue-petaled ivory peonies is disrupted by an alabaster anthurium, its spadix jutting up from the flower’s plate-like surface.

Are there limits to floral abstraction, as the vase recedes further and further into the distance? Perhaps only those of nature; the New York-based floral designer Emily Thompson, 46, a pioneer of sculptural interpretation, cautions us not to stray too far from what makes a flower bloom: a source of water. Flowers, she says, remind us of what it takes to sustain life. At the Pool, one of two restaurants inside the landmarked Philip Johnson-designed space that was once the Four Seasons, her massive revolving installation was erected for nearly a year in the dining room’s 14-by-14-foot pool, transforming it into a giant vase. Like a volcano, it seemed to spit forth its arrangement: a 14-foot-high foundation of gloriously twisted mountain laurel branches covered in lichen, wrapped in foraged invasive greenbrier vines. Each week, Thompson altered its identity, dappling the mass with local flowering quince, velvet philodendrons or autumn foliage and berries, depending on the season. The flowers spilled, they climbed, they drenched one another. “There is a balance between pushing the boundaries of art and retaining identity, the very essence of what makes flowers so powerful,” Thompson says. “It’s as much a moral question as an aesthetic one.”