Sometimes the wheel does need to be reinvented, which is why Laura Dowling wrote “Wreaths,” a gorgeous new book with how-do tutorials due out next month, in time for us to put a fresh twist on an old holiday standby.
“Commercial wreaths often seem bland, derivative, unimaginative and tacky,” said Dowling, whose book seeks to put an end to that, and to “take this decorative and symbolic element, and make it striking again, elevate it from blasé.”
An advance copy of “Wreaths,” from Belgium-based publisher Stichting Kunstboek, landed on my desk last week, and, as so often happens when I look at a book from a talented designer, it made me feel very dull.
Here was page after page of gorgeous wreaths made from the most unlikely materials: lemons, brown grocery bags, bell peppers, turnips, berries, Brussels sprouts, coffee beans, apricots, and salad greens.
“Of all the floral art forms,” Dowling said over the phone last week, “the wreath is arguably the most powerfully symbolic.” Since ancient times, cultures worldwide have used wreaths to represent eternity and immortality, and to mark joy, success and celebration.
For Dowling, former chief florist for the White House, the challenge was to create a new twist on a circular form as old as, well, the Earth.
Whoa, wait, slow down and back up. “You were the florist for the White House?” Our conversation digresses from wreaths, so she could tell me more.
Twenty years ago, Dowling had a going career in public policy and communications strategy. In 2000, she went to Paris for the first time, and fell in love with the flower shops. “I was so inspired, I began studying French floral design,” she said.
Naturellement. Who isn’t changed forever after going to Paris?
She began doing floral design on the side, and her little business blossomed. When the White House job opened in 2009, she applied along with hundreds of others. Eventually, the search narrowed to three finalists.
Even though I knew how this ended, I was on the edge of my seat.
The last step was a four-hour timed competition. Gulp. “They put the three finalists in separate rooms, so we couldn’t see each other,” she said, “and asked us to create floral arrangements for a state dinner, for the blue room, and for the Oval Office.” Next, Michelle Obama came around to see the arrangements and interview the designers.
Dowling’s fresh-from-the-garden, French-flower style won the day. “It’s what Jackie Kennedy would have done,” said Dowling of the former first lady who created the role of White House Chief Florist in 1961.
And so began a dream job, which she held from 2009 to 2015. Since then, she’s written, “Floral Diplomacy,” a word combination I have not stopped thinking about; “A White House Christmas,” about one of the nation’s biggest and most visible floral design jobs; and, now, “Wreaths.”
For those who don’t know their alstroemeria from their aspidistra, Dowling’s 128-page book lays out everything you need to know to make 78 inventive, unexpected wreaths. Each recipe includes the tools you’ll need, materials, skill level (1, 2 or 3), approximate duration (so you’re not crestfallen when the wreath you spent 10 hours making needs replacing in three days) and eye-candy photos.
Among my favorites: Swan Lake, which incorporates large marshmallows, silver wrapping paper, and white branches; the Purple Potatoes and Cherry Blossoms wreath; and the oranges and orchids wreath, which graces the book’s cover.
Dowling and I could have talked all day.
Q. What do you wish more people knew about wreath making?
A. Anyone can go out and buy a wreath. But so many are flat and typical. I would love for people to know they can create one that is so much better. I also want them to go beyond the Christmas wreath, and create wreaths year-round out of what’s seasonal and accessible.
Q. What’s the secret to a great wreath?
A. It’s all in the layers. Start with a simple elegant layer, like a plain green wreath, a ring of rambling branches, or a circle of floral foam so fresh flowers have a water source. Then add layers and levels of fruit, flowers or vegetables. (Fruits and vegetables tend to be heartier than flowers.) I like unexpected combinations (limes and chile peppers) in surprising color combinations. Finally, wrap and tuck in smaller elements, like berries, small flowers, leaves and vines in and around the wreath to create texture, dimension and interest.
Q. What’s the most common mistake DIY wreath makers make?
A. I notice when I’m out shopping or walking through neighborhoods, so many wreaths seem skimpy or predictable. Those are the biggest mistakes amateurs make. Here, more is more.
Q. I have disagreed with myself on this topic. How do you feel about real vs. faux materials?
A. I used to be a purist, too, but I also understand the practical consideration. Today the quality of faux greenery and florals is so much higher than before. Now we can draw the best from both worlds. I often use faux as a base for bulk and volume, but I trick the eye to see the real, and natural. I don’t think I would ever do all faux, thought I do make all-natural wreaths.
Q. Some folks, including me, can’t spend all day on a wreath. Can you suggest any shortcuts?
A. Buy a full evergreen faux wreath and reuse the base. Make your freshest, and most perishable layer your last layer, which is what the eye reads first, and just replenish that.
Q. Do you have a favorite?
A. I like best the ones where I use more unusual items, like the purple cabbage and turnips wreath. I also like those that include humble materials, like potatoes.