Meet the floral designer who brought beautiful blooms (and weeds!) into the White House
his past winter was unusually long and brutal, but for New York–based floral designer Emily Thompson, it only made spring’s arrival sweeter. Then again, the beginnings of all seasons are exciting for her and her team of florists. “There’s always something I’ve forgotten about that seems to appear again,” she says.
Known in the interior design industry for her eclectic (and eccentric) aesthetic, Thompson shares that her foray into working with flowers was serendiptious. A sculptor by trade who says she has “long been interested in decorative arts, spectacle and party giving,” she accidentally fell into her new career after helping a few friends arrange flowers for their weddings. Word that she was available for hire spread like wildfire. “[My designs] brought in people who were willing to explore,” Thompson says. Those people soon included President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who commissioned Thompson to lead the holiday floral design team for the White House in 2011.
What would soon become the company Emily Thompson Flowers outgrew its tiny studio under the Manhattan Bridge—Thompson’s former sculpture studio in Brooklyn—and, in 2014, it landed a home on a sun-drenched corner across the East River in Lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. “I love this space,” Thompson says. “The light is incredible, and the history of the area and what it’s gone through after Hurricane Sandy is amazing. It’s nice to come in and try to change the trajectory and take it toward this small design business. It’s sort of what New York is built on.”
“There’s a luxury in bringing in a weed in a city like New York. Sometimes a weed feels much more luxurious than a hothouse flower.”
As the company continues to bloom, it’s apparent that the designer’s interest in art, architecture and history has influenced each one of her flower arrangements. “I get to make architectural objects with the most vast array of delicate materials that are constantly changing,” says Thompson, who uses natural elements in a way that seamlessly integrates the outside into the inside. She also draws on her Vermont roots to showcase her appreciation of native foliage and landscapes.
Thompson also finds beauty in the more unloved parts of nature, like weeds and other invasive plants, which are often removed and discarded before there’s an opportunity to appreciate their unconventional charm. “I think there’s a luxury in bringing in a weed in a city like this,” she says. “Sometimes a weed feels much more luxurious compared to a hothouse flower. Vines, such as akebia, autumn clematis and even trumpet vines, can also be wonderful in arrangements. They are so plentiful, they never give you pangs when you cut them.”
CREATING THE PERFECT CENTERPIECE
The right floral arrangement can be the ultimate centerpiece in any room, and with spring in full flower, the local and seasonal floras that Thompson works with are becoming readily available to us all. We asked her for tips on how to create a one-of-a-kind centerpiece. Here’s what she had to say.
A rustic urn contrasts handsomely with delicate greenery and pink buds
How can a centerpiece change a room?
That’s just it: It can transform a space that is the same day in and day out into something with flair or something poetic. Most of all, it breathes life into a space, no matter what the design of the room or the flowers.
What’s the easiest way for someone to create a beautiful piece for his or her home?
Start with a favorite piece, whether it’s fine china or a favorite glass jar. Personally, I like to start with some foliage or branches from a backyard or a branch supplier, such as US Evergreens in New York City. This will allow the design to have a far less commercial, store-bought feel and adds distinctive texture to any hothouse materials you might add. Then work in something with contrast, whether it’s zinnias or foxgloves from the farmers’ market or something more exotic. Add your most delicate and tiny blossoms at the end. These details make a truly dynamic piece that doesn’t feel fussy or overwrought.
What are the easiest flowers or branches for people to work with at home?
In the summer and fall, there is so much to choose from. I love the texture of oak leaves, pear and sweet gum—really anything that might need some pruning! For flowers, I love them all, but the roses from a rambling rosebush are plentiful, romantic and, again, need pruning. These are not easy exactly and might require some hefty leather gloves, but they are so very rewarding.
Should stems always be cut when you bring them home?
Always! Flower stems that have traveled out of water tend to dry out and seal themselves off when exposed to air. In order for them to drink water, they need a fresh cut.
What’s the best way to make your flowers last?
Water, water, water! Always top off the vessel as needed. If you are able to change the water frequently, this will help, as well, as bacteria will develop in the vase that will shorten the lifespan of the flowers. I also recommend keeping flowers away from direct sunlight and heaters.
EMILY THOMPSON TAKES ON BLUE LABEL
We asked the floral designer to compose three arrangements inspired by Blue Label’s deliveries for late Spring and Summer 2014. These are the otherworldly results.
“My first arrangement accompanies Blue Label’s second spring delivery, which was influenced by Argentina. Icelandic poppies, Easter lilies and fritillaria imperialis are all bold, large-scale blooms that reflect the strong contrasts in color and texture in this collection’s textiles.”
“The second arrangement is composed of blackberries, blue viburnum berries and lotus flowers and waterlilies. The design is one of strong contrast and a graphic sensibility yet it’s intended to feel effortless and look toward summer, as in Blue Label’s last spring delivery, which was inspired by an artist’s studio.”
“For Blue Label’s summer collection, I designed my last arrangement to evoke a summer meadow. The ferns and sweetpeas are slightly humble but delicate and patternlike. Thistle and painterly Japanese ranunculi bring richer hues to the piece, and dark field-grown scabiosa and tiny chocolate cosmos offer movement. The sensibility is of the garden, the forest and the meadow.”
- Photographs by Weston Wells; Courtesy of Ralph Lauren Corporation