Fun with Flowers
Deconstructing celebrity floral designer JEFF LEATHAM’s master class at the DMA.

Attendees in Leatham’s master class brought vases from home for him to fill.
Jeff Leatham’s avant-garde flower arrangements first appeared at Paris’ Hotel George V in 1999, after the august hotel was bought by the Four Seasons hotel chain. Vases in the lobby were stuffed with upside-down blossoms, which he tags as flowers underwater (but which his detractors call drowned). Although Leatham is American, hes just now gaining fame in the United States. A second book, Flowers By Design, came out this spring, and White Barn Candle Company is selling his new line of scented candles, clear vases, and silk flowers. ("Remove tags and insert the stems upside down in a tall cylindrical vase until completely submerged in water," he says, referring to his unorthodox signature style.) He is also responsible for the latest trend of tilting bare stems of roses into vases so that they jut out at a sharp angle. "It happened by accident," he says. "The flowers kind of fell over and I thought it was nice." A master class in flower arranging led by Leatham at the Dallas Museum of Art attracted about 30 women, open only to underwriters of the DMA’s Floral Symposium who donated $2,500 or more.

 
Leatham’s
Tips of the Trade

Use simple vases that
show off the flowers beauty. Complicating a beautiful Baccarat vase with flowers is like mixing two separate arts.

When planning a party,
pick three different flowers in the same color. If you’re using centerpieces on numerous tables, use two different arrangement styles to create depth.

If you like decorating with fruit, don’t mix flowers and fruit in the same container. Keep them separate.

You don’t have to use real florist tools; use whatever is nearby: scissors, kitchen knife, box cutter.

Allow the shape of the vase, not floral foam or tape, to dictate the style of the arrangement.

Create a pyramid. Use five identical cube vases. Fill or float flowers in each. Place four vases approximately three inches apart in the shape of a large square. Top with the final vase, balancing it on the corners of the
other vases.

The Cook Board Room became Leatham’s workshop for the afternoon, and contained hundreds of fresh flowers and as many vases. An enormous conference table took up most of the room, topped with a massive centerpiece with an array of vases from four inches to four feet tall. Calla lilies were draped over the tops of some, while other containers were crammed with cymbidium orchid blooms, layered about a foot deep.

I arrived 15 minutes early, and was led to the boardroom. When Leatham spotted me, he whispered something to a woman who promptly walked over and escorted me out. Leatham wanted everything perfect before anyone entered, she said. I waited 45 minutes in the hallway before the doors were opened. Champagne, orange juice, and Perrier were poured, and Leatham posed for everyone’s camera. I couldn’t help but notice that nothing in the room had changed during my long exile in the hallway.

Dressed in jeans, a black snap-front western shirt, and cream calfskin blazer, Leatham worked the crowd. "I don’t believe in masters, but let’s have class anyway," he joked. The audience burst out laughing. The women were shy at first, but once the bubbly kicked in, the noise level grew to a roar. "If you don’t have questions, have a glass of champagne and come back," Leatham quipped. It didn’t take long before questions spilled forth and were answered as he created one flower arrangement after another. "What’s your worst floral experience?" Leatham replied: "I was using tall, thin vases and they tipped over on people’s heads. But that’s their own fault. They should have known the hotel was filled with flowers and stayed away."

An iPod, which was set up with speakers to play background music, drowned out most of what he was saying, and the huge centerpiece created a barrier that kept half the table from seeing him. People kept asking "What did he say?" or "Can you see what he’s doing?" I had a corner seat with a clear view of Leatham in action as he accidentally poured water all over his face. He continued working on his creations, without missing a beat or stopping to dry his face and shirt.

"What do you think of the flowers in the hotel where you’re staying in Dallas?" came a question from behind the center piece. Leatham hesitated a second before answering. "I won’t say a name because I know the guy who does it, but the flowers are very traditional. You have to ’push buttons,’ and just because a hotel is traditional doesn’t mean you should do traditional flowers. If I were doing traditional flowers at the George V, I wouldn’t be here with you today."

After feeding the women’s curious minds, Leatham offered up advice on designing with fresh flowers. "The least amount of water the better," he said. "Flowers don’t need water; too much rots the stem."

If that’s the case, why am I constantly refilling the water in my arrangements at home? One student must have read my mind. "Why don’t they need water?" she asked. Leatham’s explanation: Flowers don’t drink, but instead, "live off of the humidity inside the stem." He admitted that he has no science to back this up; it’s just a theory.

Finally, we each were given five vases, and Leatham encouraged experimentation. Excitement and energy grew as people ran back and forth in a frenzied state, selecting just the right tulips, roses, and orchids. But what began as a class on flower arranging slid into the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, with people stuffing armfuls of flowers into paper bags to take home. Meanwhile, our photographer tried coaxing a few shots from Leatham. The former model was suddenly camera-shy. "Come on Jeff," she encouraged. "Just a few more. That’s it. Work it. You know you love being surrounded by women all day." "Yeah, that’s why I’m gay," he replied. Suddenly, there was a loud crash and a few gasps. A woman had dropped her vase of flowers, glass shattering, and water flying. The photo session was abruptly over. Leatham returned his attention to his audience, autographing books for those who made the $38 purchase. Between signings, he drummed up business for his merchandise for sale in the hallway. "Is there still product out there? We need to sell all the product!"

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Leatham suggests stacking cube vases to create a pyramid centerpiece.
On a budget?

Float a single rose or orchid in a short, wide vase.

Use carnations instead of roses, snap off the heads, and fill a vase (water optional).

Buy potted plants, such as tulips or daffodils, rinse away the dirt, tie the bulbs together, and place the flowers"roots and all - in a short vase with minimal water.

Place flowers only in the rooms you frequently use, unless you’re having a party. Then you can put them everywhere.

Use artificial flowers ($8 for a stem of silk orchids versus $65 for a stem of fresh orchids). Insert stems upside-down in a tall cylindrical vase until completely submerged in water. As a final touch, add a bottle of sparkling water. Note: Jeff Leatham’s line of artificial flowers is waterproof, but not all artificial flowers are. Check before placing in water.