The axiom that nature’s beauty can’t be improved upon stands true in the face of most art. Even art history’s glories struggle to better the perfection of a rose or divinity of a sunset. Daniël Ost, however, has designs on nature. During his 40-year career, the Belgian floral artist has taken its most fragrantly seductive creations and drawn them towards the world of contemporary art – his installations share more in aesthetics and attitude with sculpture or performance art than they do with traditional floristry. Now, a generation of artists working with flowers is blooming – and floral designers are being pushed into new realms of creativity, blurring the line between art and floristry from both sides.
While artists such as Jeff Koons have dabbled with flowers as a material (his 1992 flower-clad sculpture Puppy used mini test tubes to hold flowers – a 16th-century technique revived by Ost), Ost remains committed to his medium. His flower and plant installations, with their modern blend of luxurious European decoration and restrained Asian minimalism, take the form of alluring large-scale sculptures and require a construction team akin to the art “factories” of Damien Hirst or Antony Gormley. His creations possess a mystique because, despite their size and intense construction, their beauty is fleeting, impermanent. This time-trapped aspect lends Ost’s pieces a tragic romance. “The instant I finish a work, I say goodbye to it,” he explains. Typical costs are $1,000 for a site visit from a member of his studio, and between $1,000 and $50,000 each for design sketches and technical plans, while installation costs vary widely, as the team could be anything from three to 300 people strong.
“We’ve done table sculptures for a small dinner for $1,000, but also elaborate installations for weddings for over $1m,” says Ost’s general manager and son-in-law Yann Callaert. Works have appeared in palaces, wastelands, temples and private homes and include an abstract sculpture made from coral skeletons set in a landfill site, and a river of lavender leading to bark panels and sunflowers, in reference to Van Gogh. Whether creating a 6m-high column of gypsophila and decorative asparagus for a wedding in Brussels, test tubes of orchids for another in Bangkok, or waves of willow catkins at his local Salons for Fine Arts in Sint-Niklaas, Ost ensures that his creations remain outstandingly poetic. At times he works in the baroque strains of his homeland, while at others, his signature feels more akin to haiku. Many of his most compelling sculptures are captured in a new book, Daniel Ost: Floral Art and the Beauty of Impermanence (£59.95, from www.phaidon.com).
Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned of Qatar enlisted Ost to integrate red roses in abstract shapes with the geometric architecture for the launch of the Museum of Islamic Art, François Pinault invited him to decorate Palazzo Grassi with 100 cypress trees when it opened in Venice, and he marked King Baudouin of Belgium’s 60th birthday by rendering a canopy of orchids, which he slept beside throughout the month-long construction process. For one wedding in Abu Dhabi, he had a support staff of 376 florists. “We worked night and day for a week,” he recalls. “The flowers were only installed for three hours and even that was difficult, as it was 55°C. I disappeared before they destroyed the flowers,” he recalls.
Australian Lisa Cooper is at the vanguard of the emerging new wave of floral artists. She gained a PhD in fine art, specialising in video art, and now uses the company name Doctor Cooper Studio, both to honour her studies and to set her work with flowers outside the usual realms of floristry. (“My work with flowers has always been conducted in a studio environment – the flowers being my primary artistic medium,” she stated recently.) It was only late in Cooper’s studies that flowers came to dominate her attention. Commissions from The Australian Ballet and Sydney Theatre Company followed (she created crowns for actors, including Cate Blanchett, and consulted on floral landscape mises en scène), as well as from fashion designer Toni Maticevski, for whom she created carnation handbags for his catwalk show in Sydney in 2013.
On the other side of the fashion globe, Antwerp-based florist Mark Colle (prices on request) has been commissioned to construct epic installations by designers including Raf Simons, for whom he covered the walls of five Paris salons with peonies, goldenrods, dahlias, carnations, delphiniums and roses for Simons’ opening show for Dior in 2012. Colle, unlike Cooper, does not set himself in a contemporary art context, but such collaborations have pushed him towards new art-world territory, his creations conveying meaning through beauty. For Simons’ 2012 show for Jil Sander, flowers in glass cases on pedestals symbolised “a day in the life of a woman”, Colle has said. This January, he was invited by Brafa, the Brussels art fair, to create a series of conceptual installations, further drawing the two worlds together.
Cooper’s site-specific floral installations are also increasingly attracting attention from the art world. Last March, the National Gallery of Australia commissioned Cooper to install a floral response to its James Turrell retrospective for its annual gala dinner. To do so, she went inside Turrell’s Perceptual Cell, a giant sphere in which visitors lie down for 10 minutes to watch an immersive pulsating coloured-light display. “My eyes took over so my other senses fell away,” says Cooper, “so for the dinner I made a large circular sculpture that dwarfed my body to encompass my entire field of vision.”
Cooper’s style (captured in her new book The Flowers) tends towards deep colours and modern, fluid shapes – her fees can reach A$30,000 (about £15,000), but average between about £2,500 and £4,880 for a large creative piece. Private installation commissions have ranged from crafting giant hanging bowers for a beachside wedding to a dark, rounded foliage composition for a private party. In 2014, photographer Georges Antoni asked her to create an arbour in his studio, which she shaped naturalistically to resemble a shadowy bush in which he could propose to his girlfriend: “It was a total pleasure to make, as flowers embody love,” she says. Cooper is careful to convey that she still takes pleasure in bouquets and arrangements – on condition the brief stays open – but such is the demand for her large-scale works that she doesn’t receive as many small commissions (from about £50) as perhaps she’d like.
Ost is also reluctant to distance himself entirely from floristry (as opposed to art); in 1983 he made his first visit to Japan, where the tradition of Ikebana flower arranging is regarded as a revered craft. Ikebana has its origins in 1462, when Senkei Ikenobo (whose name a branch of Ikebana bears) first appeared in records as a “master of flower arranging”. Azuma Makoto is one of the leading Japanese artists modernising this method, recently making contemporary installations for Fendi and Colette that took inspiration from Ikebana’s techniques and aesthetics. The influence of the late Ikebana master Yukio Nakagawa glimmers in the oeuvre of Ost, who found his own teacher in Noburo Kurisaki. “Kurisaki-san told me, ‘One flower can say more than a thousand – you only have to know the right moment and the right place,’” Ost recalls.
The 15th century also marked the start of the golden age of the Old Masters and Ost adds, “I sometimes still find myself making decorations like the Flemish painters.” These still-life works are equally a source of inspiration for British floral artist Rebecca Louise Law, whose training, like Cooper’s, was in fine art. In the centre of Law’s gallery on Columbia Road (where London’s most fashionable flower market happens on Sundays) sits Flora & Fauna (about £12,000), a dense sphere of dried roses, hydrangeas, delphiniums, peonies, gypsophila and rhodanthe worked among pheasants’ wings in tribute to vanitas paintings – still-life works depicting objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly pleasures – made with taxidermist Rose Robson. A recent exhibition, Flora & Fauna, Editions, included a photo series that focused on different aspects of its richness and detail.
Law also makes smaller gothic-romantic installations in glass cases (£3,600, similar to antique taxidermy), and rich postmodern-looking photographs of her still lives (about £1,440, editions of eight). The photographs in the style of the Old Masters but with humorous details such as figurines socialising within the foliage are the most popular, she says. “People respond best when I interject contemporary touches.” She has also exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Art Basel and Sotheby’s. Law’s creations dance with death and touch on the macabre. Even her recognisable sculptures that feature thousands of flowers hanging upside down (a much-copied technique currently in vogue for weddings) hint at the gallows, as she sets up every stem for its drawn-out dehydration. One recent installation, at The House of St Barnabas in Soho Square, was called Drying and comprising 5,000 flowers suspended in a naturalistic cascade from the neogothic chapel rafters.
In contrast to Ost, who connects with the impermanence of his medium by treating it like performance art, Law plays with the idea of transience by integrating the process of bloom to decay. At the London home of one private client, she installed a wall of peonies, leaving the first layer for a year, before going back to weave in a second wave. This year she’s adding a third. “Making personal pieces means a lot to me,” she says. “Peonies are the client’s favourite flower and the mix of dried and fresh flowers looks unusual.” Roses were the subject of another wall installation at the home of Sam Robinson, owner of The Cross lifestyle boutique in Holland Park, and Robinson’s husband Jan Woroniecki commissioned a further two for his Polish restaurants Ognisko and Baltic. Now architects (such as Universal Design Studio) and property developers (including Argent) have started calling Law in early, so that her works can be permanently integrated into property designs.
Law is first and foremost a conceptual artist, installing commissions at the behest of curators and architects, and emphasises that she has never made decorative arrangements. “If it isn’t site-specific, or it doesn’t challenge me creatively, or someone just wants a repeat, I refer clients to one of the talented florists I know.”