It has taken me a week to acclimatise and settle into the rhythm of life in Red Hook. I have spent a few days with the girls at the Saipua studio and had some invaluable flowery lessons, been to a meeting at a 3D printers in Long Island City, sat in on a production meeting. I've scoped the outposts of some other designers, become acquainted with the flower market and some of the suppliers there.
I have been uptown, midtown, downtown, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Queens. I've cracked the subway and buses, which freaked me out to being with. I don't know why; you can always go one stop too far and turn back, and I have. Sometimes two stops.
On Tuesday I was 'loaned' to Nicolette Camille - loaned gladly, because Nicolette is one of the other New York designers whose work I love. Nicolette is the author of one of my favourite books on floral arrangement, Bringing Nature Home. If you are a flower enthusiast, or even just interested in interior design and/or hauntingly beautiful photography, you ought to check this book out. She is also co founder of the Little Flower School, Brooklyn, with Sarah.
We met at the market early in the morning; Nicolette was on a mission for a very particular shade of ranunculus that turned out to be determinedly elusive and we hoisted flowers wrapped in parcels of brown paper and boxes of footed glass bowls in the back of her car on 28th street. I spent the rest of the day at her beautiful studio in Greenpoint, surrounded by flowers destined for an elegant uptown luncheon at the Colony Club (Solomon's Seal, Hellebores, Fritillaria, Parrot Tulips, Roses, Ranunculus, Colombine, Sweet Peas, Narcissi), conditioning and making chicken wire balls and arranging in a quiet daze because I was trying to take it all in. At one point, Nicolette was showing me how to 'loosen' the particular arrangement I was working on, and she said "this is probably going against everything you have been taught", which was true. It was an enlightening moment, because, once I forced myself to stop being tight about what I was doing, I felt so different; so much less uptight about myself. Changing it, backtracking and starting over, felt like cracking some frustrating yoga position that, once perfected, releases all the tension in your body and the brain takes over, hones in on one clear thought. Everything becomes glassy. That's how it felt to me, anyway.
I realised that what I have been taught, to some extent, I need to 'unlearn'; my formal training has drastically altered the way I would naturally prefer to approach arranging flowers, and I need to go back to that. At that moment in Nicolette's studio, I decided not to continue onto the next stage of formal floristry training. Many of the designers I admire were self taught; they learned by trial and error, by experience, by assisting their role models, being mentored, freelancing. One of the greatest advocates of going with your gut was Constance Spry who did more for the world of floral design during the last century than any other.
In The Art of Arranging Flowers, published in the 1950s, Spry wrote:
I would like, in modern parlance, to debunk the idea that there are certain set rules of right and wrong for the arrangement of flowers. Such rules and opinions sometimes go to ridiculous lengths. Perhaps it is just plain obstinacy, but when I hear or read that certain colours should never be put together, or this class of flower be arranged with that, or gypsophila should always accompany sweet peas, I feel the prison walls begin to close in, threatening the freedom of ideas, freedom of ideas, that is the important point.
Formal training, while it has its benefits in that I can now wire a buttonhole fairly rapidly, and know the Latin name and genus of quite a few flowers, has also palpably asserted boundaries that limit my experience and stifle the magic of working with flowers. Nicolette recognised this; or at least she made me recognise it, because after a while, she looked across and asked "does it feel better now?" - and it did.
I've spent a lot of time on my own lately. Here, except when I've been working (and I've been lucky in that respect, to be working with people who are so welcoming and warm and helpful) I am very alone. Alone despite being surrounded - strangers in the street, strangers on the subway, their faces a pale sheen under strip lighting as if they were standing in moonlight. At home I don't spend much time alone. I am always surrounded by people I know - at work, at home. I cohabit, my family live a few streets away. In New York I have found myself in conversation more than I would if I were travelling accompanied, with strangers, eating $1 pizza slices off Broadway, with my Egyptian taxi driver, with the large chauffeur on Park Avenue who hollers at me as I schlep a bucket of flowers across the pavement and under a ladder - "Hey! Hey! That's bad luck!", in that thick, nasal New York drawl , "now your flowers are gonna die!"
But mostly I find I am quite content with my own company. I go to work in the studio; I come home to this creaky old apartment on the top floor of a red brick building in Brooklyn, with the lilac Volvo 240 parked outside, and the beautiful light in the mornings.
Yesterday I checked out Ariella Chezar's shop in Tudor City, and trawled the rows of exquisite Japanese ribbon in the Garment District, at a store called Mokuba. I bought a couple of yards of a beautiful embroidered silk in black with a peach and brown floral pattern. I faced down a nail-bitingly difficult dilemma in Bloomingdales (to clog or not to clog?) that I guess every girl faces at least once in her lifetime. To clog or not to clog. (I didn't, and I think I'm done.)
I saw a view that took my breath away.
New York City from Queensboro Bridge in the warm, shortbread-pink morning light, heading for Park Avenue with a boot-load of parrot tulips the colour of spring.