It is Monday morning as I write this and after this weekend’s storm the cottage is full of scattered leaves; in the hall and up the stairs, under the bed, caught in cobwebs in corners of rooms. For two days the wind not only blew but roared, lying in bed at night it was as if we might have been in a house beside the ocean. Somehow, despite the noise of the swirling weather and the leafy chaos left in its wake, I found it oddly calming, and slept better than I have for weeks.
A few weeks ago we were asked to design and create wreath installations for ten TOAST stores dotted around the country as the focal point of their Christmas window displays. TOAST asked us for wild, natural wreaths constructed from fragrant materials that would dry as they hang over the weeks until Christmas. The brief was perfect for us; we love creating unusual wreaths and are firm advocates that floral designs should never look too neat or contrived, that they should be evocative of a landscape, season, weather. We are also long-standing customers of TOAST so know the brand aesthetics and the interiors of their shops well, the story of the company, the kind of colours and textures that they use. It was a dream come true for us to collaborate with them.
In our work at AESME, we are more creatively inspired by inhospitable landscapes than pastoral scenery; craggy, jagged coastlines, bleak and misty mountains, gorse moors, overgrown ruins, places that are stark and lonely and uncomfortable. We are far more interested in replicating this than purely creating beauty, which is so easy to achieve with flowers. We want to provoke emotion, surprise, nostalgia, which is why we forage so many of our materials, because in a bouquet or an arrangement you want people to be caught off guard a little, not just to reel off a list of the usual suspects. A tangled vine or spiky dried grasses can elevate a bowl of roses beyond the purely decorative to something more sculptural. And this is what we wanted to create for TOAST. We love scratchy ingredients; somehow we always seem to be drawn to the thorniest roses and the coursest plants, and we decided that our wreaths for TOAST would be evocative of a windblown coastline and moorlands of wild heather. And involve lots of juniper, which our hands are still not thanking us for. Design complete and approved, we set about sourcing our ingredients.
This project did not start well. Driving to Hampshire to forage wild grasses and Old Man’s Beard, Jesse’s Land Rover broke down on the A34 and my pretty little van had to tow the clanking brute twenty-five miles on narrow country lanes to safety (just). That week was heavy with fog and our various forays out to stockpile materials involved lurching around under 10 miles per hour because nothing beyond two metres of the windscreen was remotely visible. We told ourselves this was atmospheric rather than just a pain in the arse. It was Guy Fawkes weather and our little studio slowly filled with bales of this and stacks of that until we could barely move and had to work with the doors open, spilling out onto the street. We only have two cats but they excitedly entered the fray and some days it seemed there were twenty – cats everywhere, in boxes, under dustsheets, scattering the contents of our tool-bags. From the studio came whoops and songs and screams, most likely the fault of the juniper. People coo’ed and enquired and some coughed and turned away and walked very fast in the other direction.
We had nineteen wreaths to make up in less than a week, the majority being between 1 and 2 metres in diameter, and we started by creating bases of soaked buff willow from a farm in Somerset. The next five days is still a blur of birch branches and magnolia and wild thyme, early mornings, late nights, takeout pizza and 80s power ballads on Jack FM. Jesse and I would accumulate the strangest outfits by the end of the day, beginning with a respectable landgirl suit or Breton-dungaree combo, we would add and subtract according to task and temperature – basketball boots to Wellingtons, old cardigans and scarves and aprons and gilets, the end result, (for my part) being varying shades of murky, yet distinctly different greens. By the end of every day I’d reach home in the dark looking crazed, with lichen in my hair and dirt under my fingernails and resembling some kind of pond-dwelling troll. Tellingly, this is a guise at which my ever-patient husband does not even roll his eyes anymore.
In the few hours of sleep I did get that week, I dreamed in circles. But slowly in those feverish hours of weaving and wiring, the wreaths started to take shape. We layered twigs and gnarled branches with thyme and decorated with sprays of heather and sprigs of rosemary and juniper berries. Later we scattered through seed-heads and pheasant feathers and threaded in tiny lights on copper strings.
Jesse and I spent the weekend installing first in Oxford and then the four London stores; Islington, Marylebone, King’s Rd and Westbourne Grove, and sent a courier with our other creations to Cheltenham, Brighton, Bath and Harrogate, the latter two receiving the largest two metre displays. Installing was the really enjoyable, rewarding part of the week; meeting the store teams and visual merchandisers (without exception lovely), hanging the wreaths in the windows. Jesse mastered the art of balancing on a wonky ladder and tying a bolin knot with slippery 50lb fishing line remarkably well and we only got one parking ticket, which I think should be counted as an achievement. In Oxford and London we partially constructed on site and it remains true that it is always most rewarding to work in situ whenever possible – reworking and tweaking is something you rarely have the chance to take time over, and it was lovely to meet the customers coming in and out of the shops and chat to them about the designs. We finished on Sunday afternoon at the Westbourne Grove store, which I think must be the most beautiful – light and cavernous and filled with covetable things. The afternoon light dimmed into early evening and we stood on the pavement in the cool air and looked at our largest wreath glittering in the window. And then we went back inside and tried on jumpers. In the short history of AESME, it seemed a small but nevertheless very great moment for us.
Also, this month we were delighted to finally see the December issue of Homes & Gardens which features a story on ‘the festive home’ (p.55-63), and includes the work we did for a photoshoot in Spitalfields back in August – a doorway garland of eucalyptus and golden wheat and a stairway laced with olive branches, beech, larch and stephanotis vines, among other decorations. Do look out for it, or see the digital edition here.
Back in the country, wreath-making commissions continue to keep us busy and we have a studio full of gleaming magnolia leaves and tinkling bells and daily deliveries of various scratchy, weird and wonderful ingredients that we are working with. If you would like to order a bespoke wreath for your home or discuss styling for a festive event, please email us at email@example.com or sign up to join us at our foraging and wreath-making workshop at Asthall Manor on December 19th. Tickets are now on sale here. We look forward to meeting some of you there!