For a floral designer, Australia’s geographic isolation is a complicated legacy. The country’s native plants, like its fauna, are unique in their often outlandish beauty but, traditionally, arrangements here have tended toward the staid and vasebound, reflecting European cultures that shaped the continent’s contemporary 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 Sydney’s Mayflower restaurant, the pastel pink ceiling is adorned with the work of Amy Thai, 29, the owner of a three-year-old studio called Don de L’Amour. Here, more than 3,000 electric blue handcrafted paper butterflies nestle and swoop among clouds of tawny dried hydrangeas. Like many Australian floral artists, Thai gained inspiration from going abroad, moving to Paris for 18 months and training there.
“Remnants,” a 2022 installation by the Sydney-based floral artist Amy Thai, incorporates a variety of mosses and mushrooms with white and pink hellebores, ivy and trailing vines, jasmine, maidenhair ferns, Oncidium orchids, pierises and viburnums, as well as a television from the 1960s.Credit…Photograph by Victoria Zschommler. Set design by Mariska Lowri
Myra Perez, 44, who opened her company, My Violet, in Sydney in 2011, believes that Australia has until recently been hampered by local 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 vegetables and fruit in her arrangements and foraging “by the side of the road” for flora: cherry blossom boughs; lichen-covered branches; strands of nubby, berrylike rosehips; wild cosmos; and fragrant mock orange. She also got to know her growers, convincing them over time that what they’d overlooked or dismissed as too unremarkable — passion fruit vines, frilly gerberas and begonia leaves — might actually be salable.
Curiously, however, native plants 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 Swainsona formosa — also known as Strut’s desert pea, which resembles a multieyed visitor from another galaxy — but local designers were raised to regard native species as mundane and overly rustic. These days, they’re giving those familiar flowers another look: Melbourne’s Hattie Molloy, 30, 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, the national flower, cascading over tiny orange squashes 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?”
Color is among the defining aspects of floral art, but it is Benjamin Avery’s colorblindness 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, 31, gathered hydrangea and South African phylica into thick, twisted cords that meandered from wall to wall like alien coral. During the country’s rigid 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 individual bouquets that he sent to people locked down throughout the city, a reminder that floristry at its most sublime and imaginative 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.”
Set design by Mariska Lowri. Photo assistant: Hamish McIntosh. Set designer’s assistant: Annabelle Wass