Ahead of her Autumn residency with Glasshouse, Emily talks to us from her Tottenham floristry studio, Design by Nature, about what being a creator looks like in the modern world; how she adapts within an ever-changing landscape and incorporates essential values of sustainability into her practice.
Having trained in Fine Art, working with painting and sculpture, what led you to floristry and how does working with flowers compare to your previous sculptural mediums?
After graduating from university I worked in some amazing design and art studios which furthered my love of sculpture and colour. My job involved lots of organisation and artist / client liaison through which I was exposed to incredible avant garde artworks. The immersive nature of these studios allowed me to delve in talking about art, and gain confidence in my understanding of its materialities and wider concepts.
I’ve had the idea of working in floristry for such a long time and knew it would be something I’d naturally pick up. The women in my family have always been intuitively green fingered, but I think I was drawn to the endless exploration of flowers and different botanicals available, most of which people never get the opportunity to see.
After an amazing 10 years in artist and studio management I found that I really missed making my own artworks and this burgeoning floristry idea started to become a reality.
I see flowers very much as building blocks of colour, shape and texture; no different to clay or paint. In any kind of design your materials must work either in cohesion with or contrast against each other. Flowers are a ready made paintbrush and you can piece together your designs stem by stem.
I never thought I would start my own business but one thing led to another and 4 years later I’m loving it more than ever.
Your photographic series with Sara Hibbert felt reminiscent of Still-Life of Flowers by Ambrosius Bosschaert, with the dark backgrounds and rich purple based palette. Where do you draw inspiration from for your work?
Sara and I studied together at art school and so have a longstanding connection with each other’s work and style. For us, this particular project was about evoking depth, mixing modern and traditional styles.
Inspiration for my arrangements tend to start with colour references I’ve found or collected. This could be from an abstract painting I love, or from my own gathered references. I’m forever photographing distressed painted walls or doors I’ve walked past on the street, these often have such great painterly layering.
I love to colour block with my creations to form interesting combinations, it allows me to explore unusual styles.
You’ve mentioned being interested in playing with the negative space around your sculptures and wanting to capture the process of decay in your work. Are you able to explore these more art-based concepts within your wedding and event floristry, or is that something which you incorporate into other projects?
I think you naturally apply your style to most of the work you create, even the more commercially led works. I tend to only work on projects that will compliment my style of floristry or where the client will be happy with me adding these touches - which can be something as simple as a branch reaching out from a bouquet in a certain direction to create that negative space. I have a brilliant team who collaborate with me on these large commercial works and they understand the style I’m looking to create.
I get to play with abstraction and ideas of decay in my more wabi sabi influenced works; the dried flower bouquets, arrangements and sculptures. These are already imperfect or dead and I can keep pushing these designs more into something a little unique. I feel they reflect most about myself and my interests.
Ultimately my favourite brief is when a wedding client tells me they hate wedding flowers. I couldn’t think of a more exciting start-point for collaboration.
You’ve touched on Wabi Sabi and Ikebana being core parts of your practice. What got you interested in these ideas and techniques and what do they mean to you/ how do you incorporate them into your work?
The concept of Wabi Sabi is about appreciating the beauty of the imperfect.I was first exposed to this in my previous work in the art industry and it’s just something I adore. I think this was something I was always drawn to even before I knew or had read into the concept.
I don’t believe in straight lines, I could never be a graphic designer, and I always feel art is informed intuitively by taking in surrounding factors like the light of day or your immediate environment.
Flowers, by their very nature, are transient objects and every part of their beauty, from bud to seed, is an amazing process. I think this is why I love to explore the decay and shapes they form. We’re taught floral beauty is the “open rose” but what about the wilting rose or wonky rose or dried petals. We should admire all of nature’s intended processes.
I try to apply the concept of wabi sabi to my arrangements in various ways; from a strangely formed twig, a curled up dried flower or using broken pottery. All of these elements challenge the final piece. Photographing my work is really important, the documentation to capture something before it’s completely gone forever.
Has the pandemic affected the way that you work and materials that you use?
The pandemic changed everything for me. In March 2020 I was working entirely in wedding and event floristry and when Covid emerged my entire calendar emptied, it was really scary. For those first few months I felt completely lost. I gradually felt able to go to my studio and just started making little sculptures with the dried flowers I had or I would go for walks to forage flowers. I then started to photograph what I created and that new outlet just kept me going.
In the early stages of the pandemic fresh flowers were harder to source and this definitely encouraged me to start thinking of and working with dried flowers in a whole new way. Using dried flowers meant that I could hold stock and could take my time over creations. My work now involves so much more than just fresh flowers, I use fabric, metals and stones. I think this period made me realise that I wanted to expand back into sculpture more.
Working with dried flowers feels like a sustainable solution in a seemingly wasteful industry, but mass produced dried flowers can be prepared using harsh chemicals and processes which are also damaging to the environment. Working as an independent business, how do you ensure that the materials you work with are environmentally sound and do you have any advice for seeking out well sourced dried flowers for the home?
Like all industries, floristry is about finding a balance when it comes to sustainability. As dried flowers have increased in popularity you do see more flowers that have been treated with bleach and paint, you can literally smell the chemicals. I’m not adverse to painted flowers but I tend to choose the most natural dried flowers I can, working with their natural colours and seasonal supplies. Towards mid-summer stems like Strawflower become more abundant and available, I tend to stock up while I can.
In my work I mix flowers that are leftover from event work with those I’ve foraged and dried myself, as well as buying bulk quantities of flowers I know haven’t been chemically treated. Floristry can be a hugely wasteful industry and I think buying British flowers in the summer and working with out of season dried material is a small way I can help to control my own impact.
How have you found the return to wedding season after such a long hiatus? Has there been a change in what your clients expect and are looking for in your work?
Getting back into weddings has been absolutely joyful but also very hard work. I’m definitely a little rusty and I’m overthinking the designs in ways that I wouldn’t usually.
Floristry can be physically draining, with long days and early starts. I think one thing the pandemic taught me is to slow down, a lesson which has been hard to stick to this summer. My wedding clients have been a mixture of the rescheduled from 2020 and new weddings. Some of my clients have kept to styles we agreed on previously, but I’ve had so many requests for curly twigs and wild branches, it’s been really fun to explore a more avant garde approach to wedding floristry.
Sustainably sourced flowers have also become a big part of client requests. To know a flower was grown just up the road is important to people. Clients also want to gift or keep their flowers, so many brides ask me how to dry their bouquets now and it’s amazing to know my work gets to have another life after the big day.
Do you have a particular favourite area within your work, and is there anything you’d like the opportunity to do more with?
My favourite thing is when I have a clear run of days in the studio where I can work to my own brief. I love the dried flower sculptures I’ve created for Glasshouse, they’re special to me and I’m very excited to share them.
I find bringing a client brief to life really inspiring, it’s a challenge but facilitates a structure I wouldn’t otherwise have. It means I get to be creative whilst also focussing on the client’s needs, it’s such a great process from initial ideas through to end product.
I would love to create more very large scale dried flower installations for exhibition or permanent installs. My works have been getting larger and larger and I just want to go super sized, like filling an entire room.
We’re really looking forward to hosting your residency here at Glasshouse in September. What can we expect to see you doing with the space?
For the residency with Glasshouse I’m looking to focus on dried flower sculptures. These will include a bespoke hanging installation created entirely from reused, dried flowers and foliage from my summer of weddings.
I’ll be selling some new one-off designs that are created in vintage ceramics, and I’m working on a set of small dried flower sculptures that have their own metal stands as well as some bespoke bouquets.
I want this residency to be all about shape and colour. I’m exploring textures of wild grasses and branches and colour from naturally sun-bleached flowers whilst always being mindful of reducing the floristry waste circle. I want to show that botanical art can be beautiful, sustainable and long lasting. Appreciating the process of decay and celebrating it.
Header Image: Billy Bolton