How trendy florists borrowed 16th-century paintings and made the flower arrangement cool

Floral design by Jean François Legault of Le Tulipier, Montreal. Styling by Alanna Davey. Vase provided by Cynthia Findlay Antiques. (Photo: Hudson Hayden)

Of all the threads on Instagram, who would expect #flowers to crush #kimkardashian 18 to one. And yet, flower arrangement, a traditional pastime with a mummy’s reputation, has indeed, in recent years, built a considerable cachet in the inner circles of the style.

In part, that’s because the flower arrangement found a younger audience and a hip Champions League – including street-style star-turned-florist-turned-owner Taylor Tomasi Hill and 30-something Sarah Ryhanen and Nicolette Owen. founders of popular Brooklyn’s, and influential, School of the Little Flower, who has been teaching the art of modern flower arrangement to design-savvy New Yorkers since 2009.

But what is more surprising, and about which much less is said, is that, among the numerous clever provisions winding their way Through the Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr accounts, a very particular aesthetic asserts itself: a low, wide, asymmetrical grouping that has nothing to do with the tidy bouquets of Martha Stewart that dominated in the 1990s. Now, airy and elaborate mixed compositions spring from low-footed urns and nearly exhausted flowers sprawl in all directions alongside stray tendrils and vines. This distinct style, which appears over and over again, is reminiscent of 16th-century Dutch and Flemish botanical paintings, which may seem like an unlikely source of inspiration to modern hipster florists – until you start digging.

In the 16th century, flower bulbs were so rare and expensive that it was more economical to order a painting of an arrangement than to own fresh flowers. At the time, the fashion for flowing arrangements like those depicted in paintings by Jan Brueghel and Jan van Huysen was part of the new “taste for nature” and “glorious irregularity” championed by the English gardener Batty Langley, as Mary Rose Blacker writes in Domestic flora, its social history of flower arrangement. In its heyday, the Dutch style deliberately combined disharmonious colors and, unlike later tall and steep Victorian styles, had no symmetry or focal point. “Wildflowers and herbs from the field were also included,” notes Blacker. “Some flowers were intentionally placed backwards and to the side … they weren’t crowded into the vase – the goal was to make each flower clearly visible.”

Back then, Dutch merchants collected exotic specimens on their distant journeys, says pollination botanist Stephen Buchmann in his captivating new cultural story. The reason for the flowers (to be published in July by Scribner). The images in these paintings were idealized and not literal – not only because the artists exaggerated details like the length of the rod, but also because they had been painted over months and years and combined the favorite varieties of different flowering seasons. “They didn’t have greenhouses or FedEx,” Buchmann explains by phone from his home in Tucson, Ariz., “So they created these fantasies of blooming flowers that, in reality, could never have been brought together in the same vase. “

So and now

Flower Arrangement by Jan Brueghel the Younger (left), c. 1620, celebrated the “glorious irregularity” of nature (The Norton Simon Foundation). The revival of this look can be attributed, in part, to Brooklyn’s Little Flower School, where leagues of stylish young guys sell the popular Dutch Masters (Jennifer Causey) flower arrangement course.

The resurrection of this look today can be attributed to Ryhanen and Owen, whose “Dutch Masters” class, which lasts five hours and costs $ 650, consistently sells out. But there are several theories as to why the aesthetic resonates so widely with a younger generation of florists. Horticulturist and landscape gardener Tina Riddell, owner of Living Fresh Flower Studio & School in Kitchener – and who was recently named to Canadian Florist Magazine’s influential 40-under-40 list – credits renewed interest in sustainability as a driver of the trend. Riddell, a follower of the style for several years (and who, by coincidence, recently took the Dutch Masters course at Little Flower School), explains that, especially in the United States but also in Canada, avant-garde florists have an interest active in their supply chain. “They pay more for [plants] that have not come in contact with pesticides and fungicides banned in the United States but authorized for spraying in South America, ”said Riddell. “We want things to be – and see – more organic. Sometimes I’ll leave a leaf on it [a stem] even though it has a chewing mark, because it adds this naturalistic truth. An insect has come in contact with the leaf – why not share this part of the leaf’s story? “

“I don’t even want to call it a trend,” BC florist Clare Day says of the artistically flawed style of the Dutch masters, “because I really feel like it’s a whole lot. new direction in design ”. Day owns and operates the Red Damsel Flower Farm near Victoria and gives workshops on arrangements made from forage plants such as wild dogwood and lilac. She focuses on growing more delicate and less easily traded varieties such as Café au Lait dahlias and hellebores. Call it the farm-to-centerpiece movement, with small-scale growers investing in their own cutting gardens for interesting varieties of peony and buttercup, or unusual tulip varieties that larger commercial suppliers don’t offer. not because they don’t deliver well or aren’t “pretty” in a traditional way.

When it comes to organizing, she takes what could easily be described as a Renaissance approach: “It’s not just about bringing together materials from nature, but actually observing how they are put together. plants grow naturally, the way nature organizes itself naturally, ”explains Day. “If you look at a garden and let it go for a year, there will be all these places where you have little focal points, places where your eye is naturally drawn and travels through the garden. It is an attractive indiscipline that she tries to convey in her arrangements.

The same random effect, as historian Blacker notes of the original infatuation in his book, may seem rushed or wild, but it isn’t. The day is okay. When she creates these arrangements, she says, “it’s actually very calculated, where the flowers are placed, their size and the angles of the asymmetry. There’s actually a lot of intentionality going into something that feels a bit unruly. “

When Day got into floral design four years ago, she started with Ikebana, the Japanese approach. “Part of that still shows in the asymmetry]but also the notion of wabi-sabi,” she says. It is the philosophy of acceptance and the beauty of imperfection. “And that’s nature, what a garden is.” How about a floral arrangement, too.

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Rosalie M. Dehner