For a floral designer, Australia’s geographic isolation is a complicated legacy. Our native plants, like our fauna, are unique in their often outlandish beauty but, traditionally, arrangements here have tended towards the staid and vasebound, reflecting European cultures that have shaped our identity. Floristry has been largely influenced by old-school British style, with roses, carnations and tulips flown in from Holland.
Only recently have Australian designers come to embrace modernity and sculptural creativity in their arrangements, rediscovering native flora and making connections between installation art and floristry. At The Mayflower restaurant in Sydney’s north, the pink ceiling is adorned with the work of Amy Thai, of Don de L’Amour studio. Here, more than 3,000 blue handcrafted paper butterflies nestle and swoop among clouds of dried hydrangeas. Like many floral artists, Thai gained inspiration from going abroad, moving to Paris for 18 months and training there.
Myra Perez, who opened My Violet in Sydney in 2011, believes that Australia has been hampered by growers’ reluctance to bring less common offerings to market. Their reticence in turn created a generation of clients who were never exposed to avant-garde possibilities. So Perez decided to explore the potential of the unexpected, using fruit and vegetables, and foraging “by the side of the road” for flora: cherry blossom boughs; lichen-covered branches; nubby, berrylike rosehips; wild cosmos; and fragrant mock orange. She also got to know her growers, convincing them that what they’d dismissed as unremarkable — frilly gerberas, passion fruit vines and begonia leaves — might be saleable.
Curiously, however, natives remain less valued in Australia than they are abroad, these florists say. Innovative New York City floral artists such as Emily Thompson have long valued Australian plants, including spiky banksia, spidery Grevillea and Sturt’s desert pea, but local designers were raised to regard natives as mundane and overly rustic. These days, they’re giving them another look: Melbourne’s Hattie Molloy often strips local flora of its foliage to make impressionistic, sculptural arrangements that highlight the plants’ otherworldliness, including a cluster of scarlet umbels from the firewheel tree that evoke spirographic renderings, and a spray of golden wattle cascading over tiny pumpkins like a bunch of grapes. “I very much want to transport people, to make it a bit surreal,” she says. “Like, is this even planet Earth?”
Colour is among the defining aspects of floral art, but it is Benjamin Avery’s colourblindness that, paradoxically, makes his work so vibrant and irreverent. His Sydney-based studio, Colourblind, crafts gravity-defying arrangements. In the showroom of a local carpet company, Avery gathered hydrangea and South African phylica into thick, twisted cords that meandered from wall to wall like alien coral. During the Covid-19 restrictions, he crafted a mossy, island-like outcropping for another client, punctuated by volleyball-size globes of alliums, ferns and grasses, which seemed as though it might float away. Before it withered, he disassembled it into 25 bouquets that he sent to people in lockdown, a reminder that floristry at its most sublime is ultimately the art of escape. “No matter if we use natives or exotics or how we entangle them, we want flowers to be transportive,” he says, “creating a fantasy of being somewhere else.