Emily Thompson Shares Her Unique Approach to Flower Arrangement
World-renowned florist Emily Thompson grew up in Vermont, surrounded by abundant nature and life. She studied fine arts and taught herself flower arranging, gleaning wisdom from the Japanese art of ikebana. Her illustrious career includes floral arrangements for the White House.
“Administrations come and go, but the White House remains a symbol of our ideals. It’s a living museum,” Thompson says. As she often does, Thompson brought a rustic, raw quality to those arrangements, showing the beauty of life in its most natural, respectful state.
How has your training in fine arts helped you as a florist?
I’ve been studying the human figure—drawing, painting, and sculpting it for years. Once I encountered flowers, it dawned on me that I could become a sculptor of the living world. There was this infinite array of living forms I could work with.
When did you first come across ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement?
I started flower arranging in the pre-Internet era. Many of the available images were from ikebana, and this art form strongly influenced me.
One major difference between ikebana and Western floral design is that the former uses more negative spaces. I think there’s poetry in those spaces. This approach also has greater respect for the plants, giving them room to breathe.
Something that first drew me to working with flowers was a repulsion to what I saw as the norms in the Western flower arranging styles of New York. They were so crowded that it seemed the flowers were used interchangeably. The work was done without respect to individual species, seasons, and growing patterns. It’s quite the opposite with ikebana.
Tell us more about the lessons you drew from this art form.
Ikebana pays attention to the flow of the water in the plant. In Western flower arrangements, the water is invisible. Nobody wants to see stems. Instead, people cover them up with floral foam and other similar devices.
Ikebana shows the mechanics of life. It believes its creations have integrity, so it shows the flow of water up to the stems.
This art form also has an incredible sense of seasonality, which rings true to me. If flowers don’t reflect what’s happening in the landscape, there’s no sense of place and time. I love when the flowers reflect the season outside my window. That’s meaningful to me.
How would you describe your style of floristry?
There’s an understanding between my team and me that our work is a process. We’re exploring new forms, movements, or gestures and following where they lead us. Flowers are always dying, and there are always new ones emerging.
Any good florist is attuned to that kind of life cycle. Every flower is transforming as you touch it, and it’s changing daily. We must be in tune with that experience.
I don’t know if that speaks to a more Eastern point of view but I think there’s a continuity between my experience with flux and change and the depictions I see in Asian art. There’s a certain discipline to that art, a respect for nature and patience in a quick and impatient medium.
There’s often a search for the divine in both Eastern and Western fine art. What do you seek with your artistry?
I’m trying to find the sublime. It’s something that goes beyond beauty, and it’s impossible to attain.
I differ from most commercial florists in that I don’t focus on creating a product. I hope people respect the flower arrangements and appreciate them as living entities that don’t exist solely for our viewing pleasure.
Artistic depictions of flowers throughout history have also informed how I perceive my own flower arrangements. When I see a Chinese scroll painting, especially when it depicts the spring branches that I love so much, it offers an incredible array of imagery to absorb.
Looking at real-life plants that are handled and presented respectfully, I remember those paintings and feel a timeless connection to them. These dying flowers suddenly feel ancient. There’s a continuum between the millennia-old paintings and this temporary flower arrangement.
Your aesthetic reminds me of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which talks about appreciating the beauty that’s imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Do you relate to that?
In floristry, people insist on perfection. They’re looking for repetition and consistency, and I’m the opposite.
While I respect and enjoy the quality of the flowers, I’m also looking for their flaws. To me, this reveals they’re living entities.
When I had my flower shop, many people came in and asked if the flowers were real. They didn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to work with fake flowers. Yet what speaks to me is the fact that the plant is alive. The wind has twisted it, revealing a burl or a crack in its bark. That’s what I seek out in my plants, but it’s difficult to come by in my industry because everyone is trained to look for perfection.
This is like the symbolism of the lotus flower that says strength and beauty come from hardship.
Yes, indeed. Without the struggle, where’s the achievement? I make my work more difficult because it’s more satisfactory. If it isn’t challenging enough, why should I do it?