President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump held their first official black-tie event at the White House in late February. They used gold-rimmed china commissioned by the former first lady Laura Bush, and centerpieces of white flowers and grapes.
“I thought it was refined and elegant,” said Laura Dowling, who until her tenure ended abruptly in 2015 was the White House chief floral designer. “I was surprised to see such a pared-back aesthetic from them.”
Dowling, 57, was walking around the flower district in New York on the first day of spring, discussing her new book, “Floral Diplomacy at the White House,” which contains a number of juicy details about decorating drama at her former place of employment, along with anecdotes about flower arrangements and craft projects.
Like the time the juxtaposition of cotton-candy machines and burlap linen tablecloths at a South Lawn picnic for members of Congress and their families led to the guests getting shocked. (Dowling got a roll of dryer sheets from the housekeeping staff and used them to cut through the static electricity.)
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Or when the White House honeybees broke free at President Barack Obama’s 50th birthday barbecue in the Rose Garden.
“My image of it is the bees chasing the guests back and forth while the butlers removed the arrangements,” Dowling said.
She won the job through a competition in the fall of 2009 not unlike those on “The Apprentice” (little did they know).
After an eight-month process of applications and interviews, three florist-finalists were sequestered separately on the ground floor of the Executive Mansion for four hours. During that time, they had to fully deck out a table for a State Department dinner, and create an arrangement for the Blue Room and another for the soon-to-be-beige-ified Oval Office for which, Dowling said, she used “orange and amber, and a modern cube vase.” She added: “When Mrs. Obama came in and talked about this piece, I noted that if I added blue it would be a Chicago Bears theme. She said, ‘The president would like that.’”
Dowling was hired. For six years, she oversaw the large number of floral arrangements in the private and public spaces of the presidential residence, in addition to the “tablescapes” of private Obama family parties and official galas (including state dinners, for which she was sometimes allotted a $7,000 budget for flowers alone).
She was first attracted to the trade in 2000, while working for the Nature Conservancy in Washington, after being wowed by the displays in a flower market in Paris. She eventually enrolled in L'École des Fleurs there and began moonlighting as a florist.
She began to think of flowers as tools of diplomacy after she accepted an assignment from the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
“They gave me a list of requirements, dos and don’ts, colors that should be used and shouldn’t,” she said.
For one event, Dowling needed to fill a space on a table so large that she used a children’s wading pool, covered it with moss and leaves, and filled it with several hundred flowers. The table still looked bare, so she made seven satellite arrangements to surround the pool. An official told her after she assembled it that seven Chinese moons circling the sun had symbolic meaning (thankfully positive).
“It was something of an accident,” she said.
In her years working at the White House, Dowling tried to tailor flowers to occasions. When the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who holds a doctoral degree in chemistry, visited, Dowling made topiaries resembling molecules. She generally avoided white blooms, which are considered funereal in many cultures.
She did not avoid all the pitfalls though. In 2015, under somewhat unexplained circumstances, Dowling’s employment at the White House ended.
“I brought in a change of aesthetic and a change of system, and if you look at the level of changes, you can see it would be disruptive to a lot of people,” she said.
Floral Diplomacy at the White House
- By Laura Dowling
- Stichting Kunstboak, $45