Human Flower Project


Saturday, October 16, 2004

Before There Was Martha Stewart…

Museum retrospective of florist Constance Spry sends England’s designers topsy-turvy.

Long before Martha Stewart taught Americans to twist holly into seasonal napkin rings, there was Constance Spry.

Spry (1886-1960) turned from Red Cross worker to school headmistress to free-lance florist in her native England. She caught public attention in 1928 by using wildflowers in a big arrangement for a Bond Street business and was off like a rocket. Spry set up a hugely successful florist shop in London, opened a design school, and authored 13 books on home decorating. She landed the most hot-shot floral commission of her generation in 1952: “to arrange the flowers at Westminster Abbey and along the processional route from Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.”

So we’re told by the Design Museum (London) which has mounted a retrospective exhibition of Spry’s career. The show runs through November 28.

Today’s Guardian reports that the museum’s director has resigned in protest over the Spry show, complaining that it represents “lack of content.” and strays too far from the museum’s mission “to explore the industrial design of quantity-produced products.” The Guardian’s James Fenton defends Spry. Perhaps it’s overreaching to call her a “social reformer,” as the Museum does, but Spry certainly did encourage a wider and less rule-bound use of flowers, showing thousands of Brits what imaginative design looks like, pointing out that hedgerow flowers and wild roses can be as beautiful as exotics, and then urging everybody to give it a go.

The museum catalogue explains that when Spry began teaching floral design, in the 1920s, “flowers were the preserve of the wealthy, who could afford to buy cut flowers, and middle class families with large gardens. Constance taught her students that everyone’s lives could be enlivened by flowers, even in the poorest homes, and that all you needed was imagination, not money, to create a flower arrangement, which would be all the more satisfying if you made it yourself.”

The disgust that the museum director and others have expressed for Spry seems to me an echo of the resentment that locked-up Martha Stewart here in the U.S. The artistic avant-garde and arbiters of high culture hold in grandest disdain those taste-makers who manage to embolden the general public.


Decorative Kale, 1937

Photo: Constance Spry Ltd.

Anyway, how could any self-respecting conceptual artist or cutting-edge designer not love a woman who designed kale?

Posted by Julie on 10/16 at 05:25 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyFloristsPermalink

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

From Safe-Cracking to Rose-Feathering

A new Brit television show “Going Straight” sets up a group of ex-cons under the tutelage of a premiere floral designer.

Can flowers rehabilitate a criminal? “Going Straight,” a reality television show new this season in England, will test that question, or maybe it’s just a good excuse to snicker. Let’s watch a thug wire a rosebud.

Producers of the show say no. An article in the Guardian quotes the program’s executive producer, Hilary Rosen. “We wanted to look at why unemployment and reoffending are such a problem for people who have left prison,” she says. “But we wanted to do something positive - to offer people a chance to help themselves with advice and training.”

Six ex-offenders will work with floral designer Paula Pryke and a business consultant to set up a working shop by Mother’s Day, THE big day for florists in England. The show will track the difficulties ex-convicts face buckling down to an honest living and building public trust, as well as, presumably, keeping iris fresh longer than three days.

For Brits, the show can’t help but allude to “Buster” Edwards. Edwards participated in “The Great Train Robbery,” a notorious 1963 heist, when the Royal Mail Train was relieved of 2.5 million pounds. After his release from the penitentiary, Edwards quietly opened a flower shop outside the Waterloo station. As England’s “Bird Man of Alcatraz,” Edwards and his story intrigued the nation, a surreal combination of ruthless crime and delicate sensibility.

Good luck to the budding florists. Surely they know how Buster’s business ended. He was discovered hanging in his potting shed in 1994. Associates claimed that he’d been in on another string of train robberies, had come under suspicion, and couldn’t bear the idea of being locked up again.



Posted by Julie on 09/22 at 09:53 AM
Art & MediaFloristsPermalink

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

In Lieu of Flowers—Democracy

The florists’ bete noir—“in lieu of flowers”—takes a political twist in Michigan.

Flowers, especially in predominantly Protestant cultures like the U.S., have always been tinged with negativity. For their association with earlier pantheistic religions, they were considered supect—the emblems of licentious nature gods. Thought of as luxury items, flowers implied decadence—Puritan church appointments were spare and plain; put the Bible on the altar, but God forbid an urn of striped peonies!

In our time, this prudish attitude toward flowers takes many forms, most bluntly the prescription added to funeral notices: “in lieu of flowers donations may be made to Such and Such Charity.” The Society of American Florists has been battling this trend since the turn of the twentieth century. Its campaigns to encourage funeral flowers won national PR awards in the 1950s and again in the late ‘80s for putting money and muscle into the effort. Even so, the trend toward “in lieu of” requests keeps increasing.

To turn from the floral expression of mourning to fund-raising in the name of the deceased signals a major discord in our society’s attitudes toward death and remembrance.  A heart shaped wreath of roses, as perishable as the beloved, is a tribute that publically mimicks personal loss. A donation to the Heart Association or the American Cancer Society is something altogether different—a memorial to progress that would seem to say, “We’re working on this death thing. A few more scientific breakthroughs, and we can dispense with it altogether!”

Flowers bespeak our vulnerability and transience, memorial donations our largesse and power.

As for today’s twist. Pete Petoskey of Peshawbestown, Michigan, died September 2 at age 89. A retired Army mapmaker, lifelong Democrat, and sports buff, Petoskey had donated money to many Indian tribes through the years. In his father’s waning days, Petoskey’s son asked if, at his death, he’d like donations to go to Guatemalan Indians, in lieu of flowers.

Susan Ager of the Detroit Free Press interviewed Petoskey’s son.

“I remember saying, ‘Dad, do you want people to send money to the Guatemalan Indians in your memory?’ He said: ‘That’s expensive. Many of the Indians that we know are families who don’t have that kind of money.’ He said, ‘Better for them to do something more tangible, like vote for John Kerry.’ “

Posted by Julie on 09/14 at 10:58 AM
Culture & SocietyFloristsPoliticsReligious RitualsPermalink
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