The Lake Minnetonka Garden Club, a champion of conservation, gardening and horticulture across Minnesota since 1927, recently welcomed former White House Chief Floral Designer Laura Dowling as the keynote speaker of its Spring Inspirations event. Framed by a dazzling rainbow of blooming arrangements crafted by the artist herself, Dowling enchanted an entire ballroom with her extensive knowledge of floristry and charming stories from her time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Her infectious passion for floral art and its rich diplomatic history inspired all in attendance. Here, we chat with Dowling about her fascinating career, distinctive floral style and exciting future endeavors.
What sparked your interest in floral design?
I grew up in beautiful Washington state with my family. My grandparents were avid gardeners and grew roses. I remember loving the beauty of the Northwest spring: the lilac, rhododendrons and roses. So, I’ve always loved flowers, but it wasn’t until I traveled to Paris for the first time in 2000 that I discovered just how beautiful they could be. The French have a couture style of floral arranging and the emotion really came through in a way I hadn’t seen before. It sparked my interest, and I started studying flowers in Paris. For many years, I’d go and study with master designers and learn the French techniques of putting blooms and colors together.
How would you describe your signature style?
One key concept I learned in Paris was that while it’s important to learn techniques from the teachers, they emphasize that the most important thing as a designer is to develop your own style. You do that by studying architecture, art, fashion and nature — anything that inspires you. I’d describe my signature as garden style with a French influence, as my work incorporates their techniques and the language of flowers they use. Elements like the dancing branches or the floating butterflies create a charm and whimsy in the design, and that’s what I strive for.
What most inspires your work?
I believe if you’re a designer, you’re inspired by almost everything around you. For me, having grown up in the Northwest, I’m very inspired by nature and the seasons. And I think color is just fascinating in floristry. It’s what our eye is drawn to, so I like to be experimental with color and not always use traditional or expected combinations. My tip for people who want to get more adept at blending hues is to look toward interior design or watercolor paintings. A lot of the books I collect are actually not so much floristry books anymore, but other artistic pursuits, especially painting.
How does one become the White House chief floral designer?
There have only been five or six chief florists in history. The first was appointed by Jackie Kennedy, who plucked him from the Park Service and trained him to work in the English garden and Dutch masters styles. Others have started as a volunteer in the flower shop then gradually worked up the ranks. For me, it was a very different experience. At the time, I had a typical White House career working in strategy and communications, and flowers were a part-time pursuit. After the previous long-time florist retired in 2009, there was an article in the paper about it and my husband suggested I apply for the position. There was no formal job notice, but I sent in a cover letter and résumé, which caught the attention of the social secretary. A lot of other people had the same idea, resulting in several hundreds of applications, so that led to many rounds of interviews and cuts. For the final evaluation, three of us were invited to do a floral competition at the White House. After creating designs for the Map Room, the Blue Room, the Oval Office and a state dinner, we were each interviewed by Michelle Obama. I ended up winning. Even to this day, I think, “Wow, what a surreal and amazing thing that happened.”
You consider flowers tools of diplomacy. Can you share what that means to you?
With my background, I really see writing and communicating as an art form. I was using words to inspire people to act and when I started working with flora, it was the same thing. I saw how flowers can convey happiness, but they’re also used to convey sympathy, excitement and such a wide range of emotion. Before I went to the White House, I was using my home studio to create bouquets for specific purposes and the momentous occasions in people’s lives. It was a natural progression to blend my policy background with my communications experience to convey diplomatic messages through floral design.
At the highest level — at a state dinner level, for example — flowers were used to welcome and honor esteemed guests from different countries. It’s really about using blossoms, colors, symbols and vessels that are meaningful to a culture and weaving it all together to tell a story that connects with both attendees and those back home in their country reading about it. For instance, at the France state dinner, we’d highlight special blossoms that are familiar to the President of France, ones found in the Tuileries Garden or even his childhood home. This would involve some research (luckily there are a lot of resources for this), then we’d incorporate national emblems like the fleur-de-lis, always aiming to add a lot of depth and a more personal connection that would resonate with the guests.
Do you have a most memorable project or career highlight?
There are so many events and special memories. In general, the holiday season at the White House was just so amazing. A lot of it had to do with, first of all, the traditions of each First Family. The President and First Lady bring their own vision of how they want the American people to see the holidays through the prism of the presidency. And it would be our job to bring that to life. I’d bring in dozens of volunteers during that time because the projects were so big. Decorating 55 trees requires miles of garlands and hundreds of reeds; these projects could take months. The state dinners were also incredible. One that stands out in particular was the Germany state dinner. The former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has a PhD in quantum chemistry, so we created molecule arrangements as an homage to her academic background and scientific achievements. That was a really fun project.
Do you have a favorite flower?
What I’ve come to believe is that flowers are like friends, and you appreciate each one for their unique qualities. I love roses because of their tradition and my personal memories of my grandparents’ rose garden. But then I love orchids because they’re so exotic and the colors are beautiful. The gloriosa lily is another one of my favorites, because it has the most beautiful shape and design. For me, each season has a standout bloom. I’m looking at all the flowering spring trees here in Minnesota, and the lilacs are just amazing. So, the bottom line is that it’s hard to choose. Each blossom has something worth highlighting and that’s the joy of working in floristry — the opportunity to work with everything.
What exciting projects are on the horizon?
One that recently came up on my horizon is that I’ll be going on tour with USA Today‘s Wine & Food Experience this summer. I’ll be doing flower demonstrations in 11 cities across the country from August through early November. And what’s really fun is that when I’m at the venues in the various cities, I’ll be able to give talks about White House entertaining and how the flowers fit in, and even share some inside information on how menus are selected or the role different wines can play. I think it’ll be a really exciting project.