A star in the floral design world, Emily Thompson has been called the “floral designer du jour” by The New York Times and lavishly heralded as the living end in haute floral design in the pages of Vogue and Elle.
An artist-turned-florist with an MFA in sculpture from UCLA, Thompson is renowned for her outside-the-box approach to design and for clients including the Obamas and a kiss-but-don’t-tell roster of celebs. Her art school origins are clear when she describes certain arrangements as “gestural” and also in the wildly explosive flower arrangements themselves which can combine edibles, insects, fallen leaves, foraged branches, clumps of deer moss and tree stumps. Her work has the decadent abundance-bordering-on-decay aura of Renaissance oil painting.
Far from the precious and expensive masses of flowers that define the work of many high-end florists, Thompson’s more Wes Anderson-meets-Victorian cabinet of curiosities approach often incorporates foraged flowers culled from the wilds outside Manhattan and unexpectedly rustic elements. “I love to foreground the wildness of the materials,” says Thompson, speaking from her Brooklyn shop. “I love to work with foraged materials and I like to create what I think of as very magnificent pieces with somewhat humble or uncultivated materials.”
That inspired, imaginative approach is illustrated in a recent design class Thompson taught at New York’s Japan Society where she instructed her students on Asian floral design inspired by the explosive period of creativity during Japan’s Edo period—a kind of Renaissance of the East.
Her inspiration for the class were the dramatic, intense woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) by masters like Katsushika Hokusai featured in the Japan Society show “EDO POP: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints” (through June 9) in which contemporary artists mash up with these Edo masters. HGTVGardens picked Thompson’s brain about how to create an Asian-style arrangement at home filled with the humor and levity that defines these artworks.
Choose the Right Vessel
To give an Asian feel Thompson often likes to work with simple black or white ceramic vessels. For her Edo arrangements at the Japan Society, Thompson used crackle-glazed low pots to give an Orientalist feel.
Create a Strong Foundation
Preferring not to work with foam (“I believe it makes really stiff arrangements”), Thompson will often anchor her arrangements with chicken wire or a bramble “nest” created from branches (especially dramatic in a glass vessel) which allow branches and flowers to project from, and then return to their nest anchor.
Play with Proportion
Think of the vessel as the torso and the arrangement as the arms that emerge from the vessel, says Thompson. For her Asian arrangement pictured above Thompson kept the focal point of bright blossoms near the base of the arrangement, and allowed branches of forsythia and dogwood to explode away from the base, using the branches for height. She prefers airy, floating arrangements instead of the usual densely flower-packed ones. Thompson finds that exaggerated proportions bring an element of humor to design.
Merge High and Low
Thompson suggests gardeners look in their own garden or yard for the elements of their arrangement, even using a recently pruned bush for the foundation of their arrangement. “I’d rather people go and cut from whatever is plentiful in their own yard instead of going to the deli," says Thompson. In her Edo arrangement, Thompson brought a punctuation of color and exoticism with several poppies to balance the more ordinary forsythia or daffodils. Use the majority of elements from your own yard but fill with a showstopper: a poppy or an orchid “almost as a corsage on the arrangement," says Thompson.
"It’s pretty near impossible to cut off the stems, so run under water to try and flush out any bacteria and don’t keep it in a too-warm location," advises Thompson.