17.02.22 Plant People

How do you divide your time between LA and Hawaii? What does each place offer that the other cannot? What kind of energy do you pull from the two locales?

The time I split between Hawaii and LA is mostly dictated by projects needing my attention in both states and how much I start missing my family. When I miss my Grammie I know it's time to go back to Hawaii. ​Usually, I go back and forth one to two times a month. With two grandmothers still alive, I know this time is precious so I try to take advantage of having my business in both places for that reason. I feel so lucky that when I'm overwhelmed by LA, I can escape to Hawaii, and when I'm rested and inspired, I can come back LA and hustle. Los Angeles offers a wonderful amount of opportunities for me to grow my business, and a place where roses grow on the sidewalk ... so many friends are out here grinding and I feel like I'm in a constant electrifying hum of creativity and go-getters. Hawaii offers an immediate decompression; even in stressful moments, you can just look at the mountains or the ocean, or be within either of them in a 10 minute drive and nothing else matters. It really puts nature on a pedestal for me, and I can lay in the grass and hug a heliconia and remember why it is I am here.

Do you have early plant memories or encounters that have shaped your sensibility?

I grew up in the jungles of the Hawaiian rainforest and was always outside picking plants, ripping them apart, picking fruit and spending much of my time as an only child alone with the natural world as my friend. I feel a safety, comfort, and mutual understanding from plants, which I think is why I constantly need to be around them.

Ren on a job in Hawaii ▪

Do you live with plants? Do you bring work home with you?

I live with a beautiful black olive tree that is very finicky and requires all my attention. It has a lopsided lean to it that nobody liked at the nursery I got it from and I got a discount because of it. I think it should have cost more because of its sway!​ It's so emotional. I also have an ikebana rock fig whose roots are like tentacles suffocating a giant lava rock that it sits upon. It is also a big finicky baby and I have to water it with an eye dropper and wipe its leaves down every week. For that reason, I only have two plants in my home. Everything else I have outdoors is left over from jobs, and I barely pay attention to them and they are happily unbothered. Four years ago I (perhaps a bit wine-drunkenly) pulled a nasturtium out of the ground, roots intact, on my husband and my one year wedding anniversary in Santa Barbara. Somehow it survived the trek home and I planted it. Now all my outside plants have these nasturtiums all over them too and I love seeing them as an unwavering symbol of messy, untamed, obnoxious, infinite love.

In terms of work, I try not to bring it home with me for the most part. I used to and it made work inescapable and it started to lose its joy. I made it a point to get a studio and now I have a space to be creative and work and hustle, a space to rest and decompress ... and can separate those two aspects of my life.

What's the balance between foraging and buying wholesale flowers in your work?

It varies, but I love to forage as much as I can, always. It depends on the season: some months are more forage-friendly than others but I truly feel that foraged materials lend an expressive sense of emotion that can't be paralleled. There's no blemishes, bugs, holes or variation to most wholesale flowers. They are bred for perfection, which I understand is an art in its own right, but so much of the time I'm working to remove those aspects in my work. I want to celebrate the guttural, animalistic reality of nature in its purest form, not the pristine robot version that everyone has been taught to think is right. New ways of seeing. Perfect is boring. Obviously, I'm not able to forage sweet peas (I wish) or orchids, so I supplement those wholesale flowers into my work, but I always try to buy them on the plant or the branch if I can, or find the one bunch with the squiggly stem — a hint at their ancestral roots growing in the wild somewhere.

What surprised you about the floral industry when you started working in it?

How wasteful it is. How it is regarded as a business and a service and not an art form to most people. Shocking!

How do you think about decay in your practice?

It's all beautiful. Sometimes decay is even more beautiful ... a strelitzia flower is a great example of this. As it dies, the orange seeds pop out and then they turn this electrifying blue color that doesn't seem to be of this world, and especially not of an otherwise brown and dried-up old flower. I wish more people thought that way. As a florist you are surrounded by death every day—either by cutting it from the life force yourself or by buying already (when you thinking about it) dying materials,​ hundreds of miles away in most cases from their energy source and existence. Cut flowers are dead and people buy them ogling their beauty and how alive they are ... It makes you really think about what death looks like or doesn’t look like necessarily, and how different it actually can be from what you thought it was. It's not all sad and ugly, but maybe sad and beautiful and part of our lives whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

How do you think about sustainability in the world of floral design?

Sustainability is always on my mind and there is always so much guilt associated with these thoughts because the bottom line is that floristry as a business is incredibly wasteful and unsustainable under the facade of being an extension of "nature" in a vase. The reality is that floristry as a business is a luxury product with wasteful luxury demands. Even if you are composting, using flower frogs, buying from a local farm ... all these efforts are commendable but it doesn't stop the fact that in most cases, the highly profitable projects for most florists come from events that require specific designs, lots of materials that have traveled hundreds of miles only to be enjoyed for a few hours, and then the dreaded trashing of it all. You could make the argument against this in so many ways, but I've seen too many flowers go inevitably into the trash and it is gut-wrenching. Many florists are making waves to do better (Garbage Goddess is a big hero), and it’s inspiring, but the majority of the world — especially the older and bigger production florists — don't have sustainability in mind because it compromises profit. In a perfect world I would grow all my own material and forage it in the woods and make vessels out of compostable grains and flower frogs out of mushrooms and bring it all back to my land to be composted ... but the reality is that’s pretty impossible. So in the tiny ways that I can, I buy local whenever possible, I forage always, I use and re-use chickenwire and flower frogs, I never use foam, I rent out my vessels for events so that I can re-use them for years, I recycle all my packaging and most importantly I share this information with other florists, especially new ones. But truthfully, I don't think its enough and sometimes it makes me wonder: If I feel so strongly about these things, maybe I need to take a less wasteful path? It’s just ironic because most florists get into flowers because they love nature, not realizing that soon they will be tied up in a huge carbon footprint and wastefulness however careful they are, through unavoidable actions as result of of the flower industry and event industry that are the absolute antithesis of what they loved so much in the first place.

Are there standards or norms in the floral world that you resist or buck?

A lot of people will send me images of other people's work for me to use as inspiration or they ask me to flat out copy it. I also know from other florists that they receive images of my work and are asked the same thing. I always politely decline to replicate, tell them who the florist is if I recognize the image, and offer an alternative like using similar colors or a semblance of the same emotion evoked from the piece in the image. I think because my work is soo different and unique to my voice, when this happens it makes me feel like a service and not an artist. It can be infuriating. Would you give a painter some other artist's painting or sculpture and ask for something "like this"? I understand people need visuals and can't always verbalize what they're envisioning and it’s definitely easier, but it’s honestly the most offensive thing to me and sadly it’s pretty standard in the floral world. Send me songs, send me poems, send me your astrological sign ... but please for the love of god stop sending me pictures of other people’s work and florists stop accepting it and copying other peoples work!!!

Could you describe a moment, interacting with plants, when you have felt astonished? Horrified? Delighted?

When I saw a GIANT tomato hornworm eat a pristine cafe au lait dahlia. Amazing. When I saw Golden Lotus Banana flowering for the first time. Tears of joy.

At my first flower job ever, when I helped strike the event at midnight and was instructed to dump all the (perfect) flowers in garbage bags ... I dragged two garbage bags a full fifteen blocks to my apartment alone in Brooklyn at two in the morning to rescue them ... gut-wrenching guilt and sadness was taken over by awe as I stayed up till 4 AM to carefully take each one out and revive it in water. My shitty apartment was full of hundreds of dollars of Juliet roses.

When I saw my work directly replicated for the first time ... anger and hurt, feeling violated ... then acceptance of things I cannot change and comfort in the fact that there is only one me, which was a big turning point for me and gave me the ability to create without anything in my way like worry or jealousy or doubt or control from outside sources.

Springtime bales and bales of flowering dogwood, azalea, and quince all lining 28th Street in New York my first year working for Emily Thompson, absolute awe and fascination for the real flower world with the real OG florist I was just beginning my journey with.

What are the different flowers speaking to you especially lately? And the perennial classics?

Since I'm a seasons girl and we are in the peak of camellia season they are at the top of my list. There are so many different varieties with colors ranging from blood red to baby pink. Their conventional "flower" identity makes me feel like I’m indulging in something pretty that I shouldn't be and this makes me even more excited about them because it feels like I'm breaking a rule. I like so many weird materials — one might even say "ugly" materials — that it feels extra satisfying and amusing to obsess over something that's been so stereotypically pretty since the dawn of time. Year-round classics: I'm a sucker for the old school: a really smelly tuberose or gardenia —  I can't say no.