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EMC Conscious Creative Community

Roundtables in the Circle Community

emc alumni emc community floral design floral education inspiration Apr 04, 2023

Where do you start?

Sharing thoughts on material or idea as starting point of a design with EMC Coaches

An idea or a material are both good as a starting point of inspiration for designing with flowers. The EMC Conscious Creative Community on Circle offers a space for conversations to enfold and things to be cleared out. This is a blog inspired by the round-table featuring EMC Coaches Dalia Bortolotti, Sherene S. Tan and Keith Stanley, written by Sara Marie Andrews, EMC.

Dalia started by showing one of her material inspired designs. It started by finding, in her stash, a vintage wooden frame that had a very seventies inspired poster in it, which she removed. She loved the wooden frame, she loved the colour of it, and originally thought that she would do something vertical that she could then hang on a wall. However, as it sat on her bench, and she had her sketchbook and pencil in her hand; she felt that she ought to create something very simple with it. It was time-consuming, of course, to drill the wood; before adding the bamboo sticks all around the frame, tying water tubes to the sticks with embroidery threads and then adding the flowers. For her, it was the wooden frame that inspired everything. It inspired the design, it inspired the colour palette, it inspired the use of the embroidery threads. Sherene loved it immediately when she saw the photo, thinking it was a brilliant idea to use the frame, and that the design was super clever. Keith complimented her on changing her mind on using the frame in a vertical position, as we are sometimes too rigid in our ideas and cannot picture it being used in any other way.

Possibly seeing it laying down on the workbench, she had felt that it looked interesting and considered that it might work better that way.  Sherene said that most people would just think of it sitting on a wall, and would place it vertically, rather than the way in which Dalia had placed it as the base to the design. She felt that what Dalia had done was really smart and beautiful. She loved the colours which were truly delicious, and Keith agreed that they were beautiful, along with the combinations of the botanicals.  Dalia said that some of them came from the garden, but a lot had come from plants, as she couldn’t find the colours of cut materials at the wholesalers, but she was able to source some from plants.  Keith agreed that he was also using materials from plants more and that, maybe, we should recognise that they are a fantastic source, especially when you do not need much in the way of flower to complete a colour palette. In some cases, you can also use the leaves, and, as Dalia pointed out, you are gaining another plant. Sherene said that she is also doing it more and more, especially if she only needs one calla lily, and will go to the store to buy a plant. This is much better a lot of the time because if she buys the cut flowers, she may only want one or two flowers, the rest may not be used and die, whilst the plant will continue to grow and produce more flowers for when they are required.  Dalia reminded the others that it had been the beautiful wood of the frame which had almost dictated the colour palette and acted as the total inspiration for the design. 

Moving on to her second design, she said again that it was the foliage that had been the inspiration. They had been clearing out a wooded area that had been overrun by this invasive species, but the foliage was too beautiful to discard without giving it one last chance to show off its best side. Keith wondered what the foliage was, and Dalia was able to say that it was Populus alba, which has a shiny emerald-green colour on the upper side of the leaves and a wonderful, white, felt-like finish to the reverse, which is the way that she had used it.  Keith had also experienced how invasive they are as the local forest service team had planted them two or three years ago and they had grown and spread rapidly, becoming very invasive there too.  Both Dalia and Keith love the foliage and enjoy working with it, but Sherene did not appear as familiar with it, asking if it changed colours during the seasons as well, which it doesn’t.

The base for the design was styrofoam insulation, which Dalia also had in her stash.  She pierced pieces together using a 14-gauge wire to go through, to which she could attach the water tubes at an angle; and she still has this base for use in the future. The foliage is still good although a little brittle, but it looks just as it did on the day she first made it.  The tubes don’t move as each one is fixed to two of the wires, so very stable, and she wanted to place them on the angle, rather than vertical, so that they would not be seen as they would be hidden by the botanicals.  Sherene enquired about what was making the white lines on the sides of the design and Dalia explained that was cut sections of the stem of the Populus, which she pierced onto the ends of the wires, making the wired disappear into the design. Keith loved the lightness achieved by not covering the water tubes and that she had not had to use much in the way of botanicals to achieve the desired outcome. 

Dalia admitted that she had started to cover the tubes with the Populus leaves too, but it made it look too heavy.  She has found that with covering tubes in foliage or yarns, they sometimes become a focal point and she wanted this design to be very light and airy, which Sherene felt that she had succeeded with very well, it showed off the textures in a delightful way; and once again showed how materials were Dalia’s inspiration.  Dalia wanted a long, low base as a table design, for which this worked very well, and the covering with the foliage she had used for this sort of design before. Sherene loved the idea that Dalia had left some of the leaf stems loose, so that they gave an even lighter feel to the top of the design and Keith complimented her on leaving the the top of the design clear, so that people could view all her hard work in pinning the leaves to the insulation, where many people would have covered it up with the other botanicals.  Dalia said that it had been a fun piece to design and create during the pandemic, especially as the botanicals were all from her garden.

Moving on to Keith’s designs, Dalia remembered that Keith had said that his inspiration came from ideas that came to him, and she asked him where he got his ideas from. Keith said that sometimes they were just there but otherwise he might have to go and look at something in his sketchbook or just think about it for a while and eventually the ideas will come.  Once an idea comes into his head, then he knows that he must get it down on paper quickly. The rough idea is there to be worked on then, or at a later date. Sometimes he does a sketch, and then keeps re-sketching to work ideas through. As each one becomes more achievable and the ideas become clearer, he eventually completes the sketched idea with which he can work. He thinks about materials that he has, thinks what the design is for, why he is making it, what botanicals can be used, and is it going to work.  Dalia reminisced over the stories she had been told of creatives, such as writers and songwriters, who go to bed with a notebook beside them, as the words or the music or the lyrics may come to them during the night, and they can record it in their notebook.  She now has a notebook and a pencil in the drawer beside the bed which she has used sometimes, and then has to try and work out in the morning what she was actually thinking about.  It appeared that Sherene fully understood what Dalia meant; and it reminded Keith of a poet who said that the words and ideas are always floating around her and that she has to go and grab them, because, if she doesn’t, another poet will grab them instead.  This can also happen with ideas for floral designs which you can discuss with others; you do not bother to do anything with that design, but others will.  Sherene felt that this happens all the time! 

Keith’s first design already had a purpose and had somewhat of an idea.  He completed it for Hitomi Gilliam and Gregor Lersch’s Freesia Sympathy Design challenge.  The purpose was to make something that was sustainable, compostable, and biodegradable so there were many considerations to be thought of; and for that reason, it became material led. He had to consider each material that was going to be involved.  Every time he thought of something, he realised that it was not going to be biodegradable or did not meet the criteria in some other way. Eventually he settled for using a bamboo ring, Japanese washi paper, compostable bamboo straws for the water sources, bamboo skewers, and even the glue was an organic almond glue, which he really like.  It all came together and worked together to meet this particular challenge.   Sherene mentioned that in the picture of the undecorated wreath, the washi paper actually looked like feathers. Keith uses this paper a lot and loves the effect when you tear it, and it becomes almost feathery in look and texture. He has it in many colours, and loves using it. To complete the design, he attached the bamboo straws to the bamboo ring, and then wanted to soften the look by using the paper, which he felt worked, just adding a lightness to it. Sherene felt that it was a very good material for that purpose, as it added the required lightness, some people might be allergic to feathers; and she also felt that the design conveyed the right emotion.  It is so soothing, it is so comforting, it is perfect for the purpose.  Keith said that he had really enjoyed making it, the thought processes involved in working it through; and once he had the idea, the materials just came to him.

Once he started on the ideas for the design, everything just flowed, it was really nice, and he didn’t have to struggle a lot. He was able to follow it easily, knowing what would come next and how it would work. The bamboo ring was bought pre-made and he just used the bamboo skewers to lift the ring slightly, and this was covered by the washi paper.  He secured the skewers to the ring, using beeswax-covered hemp twine, that is organic. Some of the materials are in water. The Craspedia are just slotted in, and the bamboo straws hold just enough water for the materials being added. When he actually put the materials in, he did not need to seal the ends of the stems as he knew that the materials he was using would last well for at least two days, and the stems fit into the straws well. He had been careful to put in a lot of straws so that he could try different placements of the flowers. 

Moving on to his second design, he had started with a down lamp from Ikea. He was going to create a design for a magazine and started by covering it in wool. However, he felt that he was trying too hard and forcing the idea.  He left it, putting it away in a box, thinking there was potential in it, but not the way he was using it at that time. Last year, he pulled it out of the box, took off all the wool and started to glue on leaves. After a few minutes, he decided that was not working either. He still had in the back of his mind to use flat cane but didn’t really want to.  He uses flat cane for a lot of things and pictured working with it vertically but wanted more than that. Finally, he cut it into pieces, some square and some rectangular, and just started applying them, finally deciding that this was working as he wanted.  He followed it through as it worked with his idea, and he was able to complete the design. Dalia asked if there were water tubes in the centre. Keith explained that there had just been holes in the plastic lamp fixture, but he had covered tubes with raffia to make a tight fit wedging them into place to act as the water source. Everything glued onto the plastic well and it was very light. 

Keith feels that Ikea has so many things in which he can see potential, and when he saw this originally, he could see how he could incorporate water tubes and cover the surface easily. Sherene loved this design, as it was so neat and the outcome is perfect, with the mechanics that he used.  Dalia asked Keith if he really knows when he has found the perfect material to convey his idea, that he knows it inside and is happy with the outcome, and he fully agreed with her.  He also said that he knows that the more he works with materials, sometimes thinking that he may be overworking it, but there is something about getting to know a material and pushing the limits of it to find how he can work with it when he uses it again.  He feels that sometimes people use something and then don’t want to use it again.  He understands that, but thinks it takes time to understand and find the full potential, so that you can use the material in many ways when you need something different. If It is a material that you can trust, you learn how to use it in multiple ways. If you have an idea, then you know which material will be right for it. You shouldn’t fight against that feeling.  He thinks that it happens too often that people get material that they want to use so badly, but they do not consider first if it is the right material for the piece that they are doing; as Keith had found with the wool that had used on this container originally, where it just didn’t work. Sherene commented on the flat cane, as it comes on a roll, and she felt that it was a very brave of Keith to cut it up into the small squares and rectangles to cover the container.  If people are not experienced in the material that they are using they may not use it to the best advantage. Keith agreed, saying that if he had just used it vertically, it wouldn’t have been as interesting as using it in different patterns, which added texture too.  Dalia also liked the fact that you couldn’t tell where Keith had started or ended, as the pattern is all integrated, so that there is no obvious beginning or end. Sherene likes it when she looks at a finished product and cannot tell from what it is derived.  She also likes to learn from people as to what their successes are, and what are their mistakes. Keith feels that there will always be failures, and sometimes that is unavoidable, especially when you are using a material and you are not fully aware of how it works.  Sherene felt that perhaps they should come up with a better word than ‘failure’ but Keith felt that it is just part of an experiment, some of which work, and some that don’t. There is nothing wrong with failure, it just teaches you a lesson.  If something doesn’t work for him, then he knows not to use it in that way again. He has learnt over the years that if he is using something and it isn’t working in the way that he wants, he needs to stop and think things through, maybe using a different material, or using it in a different way. Sherene said that it was all down to experience and a lot of practice. 

Sherene thanked Keith for sharing his ideas, and he responded by asking her where her ideas come from. She said that she loves nature, and she loves to look at things, especially the trees in winter, because they are ‘naked’. She can see the branches, she sees the bark without the foliage, and sometimes she sees the wonderful shape. She will take a photo of the part that she likes, and she will try to recreate it in some way. This how she gets her inspiration from nature. However, she also gets ideas when she goes food shopping. She uses a lot of products such as snow fungus, mushrooms, and generally all the dried materials, even dried lychee, which she actually has a bag of but has not used it yet and doesn’t know when she is going to. She loves architecture and articles of furniture like chairs that have interesting shapes. She doesn’t take a sketchbook with her, but her phone is very important. She can zoom into the techniques by which something is built, and she has a collection of folders and photo albums, including natural materials, ideas, and even a folder full of dance moves. This helps when she does a design as she wants to have the freedom to show the movements that really inspire her. Keith also takes a lot of pictures of all sorts of random stuff and most people would wonder what they are, but another designer would understand; a piece of a tree or something from architecture which is just a shape. Sherene has albums of line, and bamboo of course, which she loves and uses many parts of the plant when she creates.  Her folders are all named, so that she can find things easily.  Dalia was reminiscing over an apartment building which they pass each time they travel from Bruges to Paris, and that she photographs every time she has done the trip. Part of the building is amazing, so one of these days, she is going to find a way of translating that façade into something. The architecture is brilliant, and she loves it. Sherene likes the system that she has built for her inspiration now. She just used to take the pictures and it was hard to retrieve the one that she wanted. Sometimes she would forget that she had already had something available to use for inspiration. Now she knows what folders she has got, and it is easy for her to retrieve what she wants from the folders. Keith thought it was a very good idea because he never puts his into folders. If he did this now, he would be able to go back to them easily.  Sherene admitted that she had lots of folders, but they are all named so that she can locate things easily. Dalia even takes photos of things that she sees in magazines that she likes, but she keeps a lot of hers in private folders on Pinterest. She has many random pictures, which wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, but they are preserved for her use in the folders. Sherene said that she also categorises things by what she might be able to do with it, so pictures of interestingly shaped articles and constructions might be put into her ‘paper’ folder, because she might be able to reconstruct them from paper.  She even has photos of buildings in her ‘branches’ folder, so that she will know where it is and it might be an inspiration for a structure made of branches. Dalia remembered on one of her trips that she went into a hotel and the light fixtures were breathtaking, so she had to take photos of them. When she looked at the person that she had been travelling with, they had done exactly the same thing. They all agreed that you must always look up at the light fixtures in buildings as they can be really beautiful, architectural, and very inspirational. Keith had seen some stunning paper lamps when he was in a museum in Vienna, and he now has a lot of pictures of paper lamps or lampshades! 

The first design that Sherene showed was based on a theme, the ‘Rising of the Phoenix’.  Her design had to be placed outdoors, so she had to consider how she would make it to withstand the wind outside.  She used a good sized piece of copper Physocarpus, as it had to be trimmed regularly, and she always keeps the pieces that have been removed so that she can use them in the future. This became the main structure for her design. She made a base for it by pouring cement into a tray and placed the branch in the centre of it so that it was held firmly. As anyone knows who does designs for outside events, the main thing is the stability. She also had a lot of Cotinus in her garden, so she cut the stems, stripped the leaves and, as it was fresh, was able to wind it through the main branch, securing it with rebar ties.   Using the loops at the end of the ties, she was able to thread the Cotinus through them to secure, as there was a lot of it to control and fix.   She had already completed a sketch which she had sent through to the event organiser, based on this idea.  She had some Aspidistra leaves in different stages of drying, and she was able to use these.   Keith said that he also dries Aspidistra leaves, because they dry to a beautiful yellow, with a range of different colours in between, and remain malleable. 

In Sherene’s design, the darker brown coloured leaves are over ten years old, and the yellow-green ones are drying at the present time in her cooler.  Dalia said that this is where the experience of working with, and really knowing, your botanicals is so important and helpful.   For Sherene herself, this was really enough but she knew that she had to add more colour.  She really wanted to use Gloriosa because of the colour and the shape of the flowers which really resemble flames.  Sadly, they were unavailable, so she attached water tubes to the branches and used the materials that were available to her.   Keith said that he felt that this was happening more, and, because of the pandemic, we had learnt to be more flexible.  Now he had learnt that, if he cannot get what he really wants, he must always have a back-up plan. In this way, he can still produce what is needed, even if it is not exactly as he had wanted it.  Sherene had picked the colours of the flames for her botanicals when she was unable to get the Gloriosa, going from the deep reds up through to the yellows for the top of the flames.  She also decided that she did not wish the cement to show. She covered it in insulating spray foam sealant, which she sprayed black, so that it looked more like stone. With this design, the idea definitely came first. The completed design was at least six feet tall (around two metres) as it was going outside and needed to be seen by all, including people outside walking, possibly even on the street. She loved the way the branches and the rebar ties allowed her to make this construction, and her friend loved it so much that it is now outside in her garden, minus the flowers but with the Aspidistra leaves still in place.

Her second design was one made for the Ikebana International Washington DC who have their annual exhibition at the National Arboretum. Sherene was given a double sized exhibition space and had to think of something that would fill that space.  When she committed herself to taking part in the exhibition, she had to decide how she could be flexible in producing to fit the space. One day, she was going out shopping and, next to the grocery store, there was a dollar store.  She decided to go in and have a look around.  The first aisle was the kids’ aisle, with toys, clothes, etc, and she saw the plastic traffic cones. She thought that there was a possibility of using them as her containers for her exhibition. She bought many cones and kept thinking of ways by which could cover them, so they would no longer look like traffic cones. She went shopping again to another store where she found corn husks, really liking the colour and the texture, so bought them.  She glued the husks on layer by layer to create the collar to cover the base of each cone, finding that she could also extend them out.  The corn husks became very hard when they were exposed to the air as they dry out, becoming very difficult to manipulate and are fragile. However, she found if you kept them in the plastic until you needed them, they remained flexible. Now she has learnt that, she keeps them in the cooler. only taking enough out to use as she continues to work with them. It took many days to do this part of the design because each one took a long time to cover. She also had to allow time for them to dry fully, allowing the containers to become very hard and strong because of the glued corn husks, which was wonderful. She tried them out and made her containers, zip-tying them together through the little holes in the base. If she wanted them to be straight, she zip-tied them together in the two corners that touched. Keith asked if they were too top-heavy to stand on their own to which Sherene said yes, especially as each one becomes very heavy with all the layers of corn husks stuck onto them. After that she just began to play with different combinations of how many containers she had to make. There were two that could just stand alone, then there were also three together.  She found that she could make them stand on their own too, by adding a strong wire to the base and taping it, before bending it to form a support leg, and covering it with the corn husk if she felt it was necessary.  She could also make a combination where it became really tall by fixing one on top of others, using the wire again to support and secure, whilst gluing the corn husks of the top one to the collars of the lower ones, so that they stuck together. Keith felt that it was a really good example of a material driven idea, because Sherene had found material that she could use, and then adding on to it to achieve the desired result. Once she had found the cones, she had the shape that she wanted to use, but then she had to find something to cover them with. Then she found the corn husks and found out how they could work.

 Sherene added that once she had found the cones, she could have used wool or many other things, but she is attracted more to using natural materials. She had to make sure that what she was going to use would last, as the exhibition was going to be over four days.  It would need to have an efficient water source. She was also aware that the lights really shine down onto your materials, so you need to pick the materials that are fit for that purpose also. Sherene felt that the cones held enough water to support her materials for the four days at the exhibition. Keith felt that the corn husks added the lightness that Sherene needed and that if she had used wool it would have been too heavy. She had these very light flowers and foliage, lightness not only in material and in the looks but also in the colour. Sherene said that had been her idea when she started to work on the design as the temperature was up in the nineties. She wanted to convey an idea that the breeze had just passed by and that she was feeling good.  Keith felt that it was so delicate with the materials that she had used and the containers that she had made. Sherene admitted that the Craspedia were not fresh.  When she went to the wholesaler to buy the materials, they did not even have any in their cooler.  She went back to her studio and found enough dried ones to use – some short, some long, but that was alright for what she wanted.  They were the only dried materials that she had in the design, everything else was from the garden. The only other thing to consider was the stability, so Sherene filled the bottom of the containers with gravel to give the weight. Actually, because this is ikebana, she could have filled them up to the top with gravel and just added a kenzan, but she really wanted to do a parallel graphic, and needed the exact angle for that. She had some igloo oasis in her studio, tried one for size and it fitted perfectly. She did cut off the rings at the sides, so they fitted exactly on top of the gravel, and that was how she was able to create the parallel.


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