Wednesday, January 12, 2011


In the first two of the accompanying images on the right we see some fairly unusual materials, namely arundo donax accompanying the artichoke flowers in the first, and francoa racemosa arranged with some bronze spider mums in the second. The designs and the containers are embarrassingly dated but the materials are striking. I found them in a publication by leading American floral designer J. Gregory Conway from the 1953 called “Conway’s Treasury of Flower Arrangements” and I was absolutely stunned by the diverse floral materials he used, many more of which was clearly visible in the pictures and expanded upon in the text. Going back even further in time, in Constance Spry’s “Garden Notebook” from 1940 there is a disarmingly modern arrangement of giant Fennel in plain white vase. (Compare with Christian Tortu’s arrangement of giant Fennel from the late 1990’s shown towards the end of this article.) However, it was upon reviewing the appendices of their respective books that I can say I was shocked to see just how comprehensive the use, awareness and understanding of these flowers was in the 1920’s, ‘30’s, 40’s and early ‘50’s.

A lot of these floral items are hard to procure even today, and in truth, I was dumbfounded. When I first started in the flower business in 1980, virtually none of these items were available at the Los Angeles Wholesale Flower Market, or at florists’ shops. My recollection of the early eighties was that each month there would be a maximum of 15 products available, comprised of roses, carnations, mini-carnations, chrysanthemum disbuds aka “Mums”, chrysanthemum sprays aka “Pompoms”, baby’s breath, statice, glads, anthuriums, which were staples of almost every month, and augmented by seasonal items, that would come and go as the seasons changed.
Starting in the nineteen-eighties, imports started reaching the markets from South America, Holland, and Australia It was also a time when a lot of progressive floral designers demanded new and novel products, and we were prompted to source all kinds of unusual products from local Californian growers. Through the end of the eighties and into the nineties a Renaissance in flowers was under way that continues to this day.
I was intrigued as to why there had been such an embarrassment of floral riches in the first half of the 20th century, and why there was such a dearth of these flowers in the latter half, until reappearing towards the end of the century. This was not an experience exclusive to the United States, but also occurred in Europe and Australia. It is just that the amplitude was greater in the USA. My intrigue became an investigation, and my conclusions show that this massive change (one could say a virtual extinction) in the product mix derives, like many things that have shaped America, from a confluence of socio-economic events occurring in a short period of time. And like most significant deviations in our culture, there was a crucial turning point, a trigger as it were, that precipitated this severe reduction in the variety of floral material that was used.
The 1950’s were an era when the seeds of change were being sown in every walk of life in America. The Sixties clearly bore the fruit of transformation but the changes were well under way in the Fifties. The generation of men and women who had survived WWII, set about rebuilding their lives. Putting that behind them, they were now busy constructing a new, bright and shiny America. Sleek, chrome-trimmed automobiles rolled off assembly lines, providing the mobility to drive from newly constructed suburbs to thronging city centers. In the new homes, sparkling electric appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators were installed to give the modern woman more “freedom”. The new machines “liberated” their owners from tedious manual chores. This generation, with it’s newfound wealth, was ready to embrace each and every new development.

Richard Hamilton’s collage “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” created in 1956 perfectly illustrates the era. Each new development begat another, the spread of automobiles led to drive-in movies, and drive-in restaurants. In 1957 the McDonald brothers started their first drive-in restaurant in San Bernardino, and one of their suppliers, Ray Kroc, wanting to know how they were selling so many milkshakes. He flew out to see them and the rest, as they say, is history!                                      In fact virtually every innovation in the fifties was aimed at time saving for the consumer, without regard as to the quality of life.
Just a few years earlier, in 1954, Swanson’s introduced its first TV Dinner. That year, Swanson’s had a massive surplus of turkey after the Thanksgiving holiday, 625 tons extra, and in an effort to find a way to move the inventory came up with the idea of a prepackaged meal that just needed to be reheated. It was a smash hit, selling 10 million in 1955, and was popular for many years. Eventually the “TV Dinner” name was discontinued, but it set in motion the evolution of the “instant” meals that we now have today.
By sheer coincidence, the first block of floral foam composed of phenolic foam (phenol and formaldehyde) was also developed that same year by Mr. Smithers. He had been looking at the arrangement he had sent his wife, and noting her frustration with the way the flowers had shifted after delivery, set about conceiving a medium that would support the flowers.
From these early trials, he developed the ubiquitous Oasis brick. This event is the trigger that precipitated a profound change in the floral industry. It offered solutions to many problems encountered by florists of the day, and it was quick, it was easy and it was fast. However, as much as it solved problems caused by movement and poor construction, it was forgiving to florists who perhaps lacked solid technique and adequate training. As such it quickly enabled “formula” designs to be executed by persons with little formal training. Alas the formulas tended to descend towards the lowest common denominator, and eventually resulted in the “roundy-moundy” arrangements of the seventies; chrysanthemum, carnation, and rose compositions, all trimmed with leatherleaf and dotted with gyp. Or worse, the “poodles” made of mums and carnations!!
The floral foam was none too receptive to the thinner, weaker stems of some flowers, and did not provide enough water to the stems of certain other flowers, as well as fruiting and flowering branches. As such, an unintended consequence of the introduction of foam was that the flowers that did not conform to the new medium were branded as being short-lived, impractical, unnecessary and were condemned to obsolescence.
The parallel direction of the cut-flower business to that of the food industry since the fifties is remarkable, both disciplines regressing, in terms of integrity of products, and both sacrificing their intrinsic values to convenience, speed and ease of production. Flowers lost diversity of products, diminished colors as well as severely compromised aesthetic values. Food similarly lost the diversity of ingredients, flavors were diluted, and overall taste and quality were confused. Towards the end of the eighties, food enjoyed a renaissance which was quickly followed by a revival in flowers. In fact many people in America were starting to examine the state of their cultural, aesthetic and spiritual values and evaluating the quality of their lives.

The changes in the food industry, initiated by people such as Alice Waters, were founded on a philosophy of providing customers with meals composed entirely of premium, healthy ingredients. Organically grown and locally produced old and forgotten varieties of vegetables; dairy products, meats and poultry that were free range, and not fed with hormones; local seafood and so forth, all simply cooked, and beautifully presented. Gone were the sauces, the pretentious constructs, the frozen produce, and instead there was a quality product presented to the customer that appealed to all the senses.
Today, the USA has one of the most vibrant food cultures in the world, and which has trickled down to the kitchens of many consumers. Programs about food preparation are to be found all over the cable networks, and even has two channels dedicated solely to food. Even McDonalds has gone so far as to introduce salads into their menus!

Similarly, the flower business has a new-found appreciation of forgotten and long ignored varieties, and arrangements tend to be far less contrived and much more intimate. Modern, professional designers have better knowledge of care and handling, and the designs they are creating rely on freshness, and consequently, strong color intensity, unusual shapes and forms, and simplicity. More and more arrangements are being done in vases with water, and particularly in clear vases. And the fact is flowers last longer in water. There have been many studies done on this, but when it comes to using only water, as opposed to using correctly saturated floral foam, flowers last significantly longer in the water, all other things being equal.
I refer you to George Staby’s excellent organization “The Chain of Life”, for the statistical analysis, but commonsense tells us that if we are supposed to keep the water free from detritus, bacteria and so forth, in order to extend flower life, it makes no sense to place stems into a dense medium, laden with various chemicals and surfactants. The optimum scenario, at this point in time, is to display flowers in water treated with the correct dosage of flower food. (Please note the italics.)
Floral foam can be a very useful tool, but should only be deployed when there is no other alternative. Of course it is fast. And yes, it is quick; and yes, it makes life easy; but this is the precise purview of the mass-markets, because they cannot afford the skilled labor to create properly constructed and aesthetically pleasing designs, let alone delver them. Their window of opportunity lies in the mass production of rapidly assembled homogeneous products that will function within the parameters of the quality standards and conform to specific price-points designated by the supermarkets, or big box outlets.

The reason that I bring this up does not arise from some lofty idealism or because I do not care for foam. It is because as Floral Professionals, the existence of our business is predicated on the success of our customers. I do not believe that most florists can go head to head with the mass marketers, nor, in most cases would they want to. The large majority of our clients work in high quality niches with a focus on aesthetic design. By developing a methodology that employs the optimum environment for the flowers, the florist will be well-placed to outwit and outlast any onslaught the supermarkets may launch. I propose that the contemporary designer, who is striving to differentiate him or her self in the marketplace, must look to the absolute best methods of presentation and construction for his/her designs and arrangements. New remedies and supports must be created, and if necessary, referring back to how things were done before the advent of foam. And in the act of solving these problems, the very act of creation can, who knows, lead to giant steps in one’s personal advancement of design.

J. Gregory Conway, images #1 and #2 from “Conway’s Treasury of Flower Arrangements”,1953, Knopf
Constance Spry, image # 3, from her seminal book "Garden Notebook" Dent,1940
Christian Tortu, image #4(strawberries) and #10(fennel), from his book “Sensational Bouquets”, 2001, Harry M. Abrams, Inc., NY

Thanks to Pinnacle Food Corporation for their image of the Swanson’s TV Dinner. Image # 6
Oasis is a registered Trademark of the Smithers-Oasis Corp

Image # 11 from the Divine "Miss PIckering"; a bouquet appearing in the UK's "Wedding Bouquets" 2011

Richard Hamilton  "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" , 1956 - Image # 5

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