"White House curators ok'd some designs I thought were fairly outrageous... dumping giant moss and lichen-covered rocks all over their mantelpieces."
Emily Thompson is a floral designer based in Brooklyn. Her fantastical creations have graced everything from weddings to the White House during the holiday season. She recently spoke with us about the business of blossoms, the inspiration of mythic landscapes and how a month in a flower shop during college got her where she is today.
What surprised you about designing the First Family's Christmas decor?
The White House curators ok'd some designs I thought were fairly outrageous, given the context, such as replacing the crystals in the chandeliers with raw quartz, and dumping giant moss and lichen-covered rocks all over their mantelpieces. This was mildly shocking to me. Then—predictably perhaps—they changed their minds about the chandeliers. The rocks, however, stayed. The First Lady originated the theme and the sensibility of bringing the outdoors in, but beyond that, I worked both independently and in collaboration [with] the White House florist, Laura Dowling, who developed palettes and moods and designs for all the other rooms. I was encouraged to run a bit wild, knowing that we'd all have to face the possibility of scaling back once the administration actually saw the results.
Does the client usually originate the concept, or do you retain that creative freedom?
Although I do get the occasional client who gives me total creative freedom, more often I need to let them guide me. Basically, we swoop in and change things that may have been a certain way for ages, and it takes a very deft touch not to disturb the existing equilibrium, at least as it's perceived by the client who passes through these rooms day after day. This is more or less the center of what I do, which is try to apprehend the languages of interiors, the associations of, say, an orientalist Tudor structuralist mish-mash, and finding ways to inject this with life—whether sliding into the wallpaper to create a perfectly subtle match, or making something splashy in reaction. Sometimes I have no idea where my flowers will go, and in these cases I try to stick to my own predilections. I favor certain kinds of wild materials, particularly branches—wild spirea, cornelian cherry, witch hazel—and I like austere, yet lush juxtapositions that have strong distinction and delicacy no matter where they end up.
Despite this whimsy, you bring a formalism to your work, and I wonder if that stems from your graduate training in sculpture at UCLA. When did you incorporate ideas learned there into floral design?
I initially started working with flowers just to make some beautiful things for my brother's and, later, my sister's wedding. Nothing out of the ordinary, but I immediately recognized a great affinity for the materials and the strange balance of rough and delicate work that they required. I soon gravitated toward the tradition of flowers in the home as a small sort of spectacle, and I saw it as a marvelous expression of sculptural ideas about display that I'd always been interested in—how objects are presented and how we present ourselves, particularly through the objects we own or the way we entertain guests. Domestic objects were a preoccupation for me. The table and so forth; taste and style as markers and indicators. I played off of various traditions of animal sculpture particularly, and later turned these animal-objects into vases and vessels for plants and flowers.
Who were some of your mentors?
I owe a great deal to working with artists at UCLA, such as Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray, and the great Nancy Rubins. But one of the most important figures for me was my boss during a brief summer job in college. Her name is Anne Miller, a master florist, and I worked in her lovely flower shop for a month or so. It seems I never really left! She and I still work together whenever we can, but when we work together now, it serves as a kind of design incubator where we match each-others' enthusiasm and innovation.
Do you think floral design is something that can be taught and learned? Or is it a natural tendency, an outgrowth of someone with a good eye and discerning taste?
I'm primarily self-taught other than my time with Anne in college, but I have trained my crew, and in them I have certain evidence that it is teachable, even in its more ephemeral iterations. I do keep a firm grip on all the design though, and try to strike a balance between encouraging everyone's creativity while maintaining a strict, streamlined vision. I try to push myself and everyone I work with toward more obscure and outré solutions to basic problems, and a broader education in the medium, as well as increased attentiveness to visual culture. This makes me sound like a taskmaster, but maybe that's a bit true. I do like the cultishness of it all.
I know you grew up in rural Vermont. Do you have early memories of flowers, fields, and the open wilderness? Does floral design bring you back to those sensations?
I often wandered in the forest, galloped down the walls of sandpits on horses, and staged complicated G.I. Joe wars in stream beds. I like to imagine I am inverting a certain countryside or configuration of cliffs and fields in my work, and a lot of my ideas stem from wild landscapes and landscape design. I try to keep aspects of mythic landscapes alive in my designs, however subliminally. I like drama and scale, and evocative, narrative use of materials that memories can conjure. I remember finding an abandoned house while cross-country skiing, and climbed through a broken window with my mother. The house was full of snow. I took home a water-stained medieval-style gown that I might still have somewhere!