How did you and when did you get started in the floral industry?
I was teaching History and Sociology in a secondary school in Romford on the outskirts of London. It was a difficult environment to work, the school had a tough reputation and the school has now been closed. Although there were aspects that I enjoyed, I knew that I did not want to spend the rest of my working life in that kind of environment. As a young inexperienced teacher in a large unruly comprehensive each day was challenging and I found it quite exhausting. Initially I felt like each day I was swimming against a tide. My first half term, I was so shell-shocked I’d spend the week weeping! By my third year I was starting to feel more confident and I had my own classroom which I decorated in a sunny yellow with the help of my form, bought some lockable filing cabinets with my earnings and of course filled with the rooms with some living plants. However my enthusiasm was not to last for long as one day I came into work to discover that some pupils had burnt down my classroom after being reprimanded by the Deputy Head. My record books and the pupil’s GSCE course work were destroyed in this attack and the walls were daubed in offensive graffiti and the excrement of the boys involved! I remember being quite shocked by the matter-of-fact response of the Fire Brigade who attended the scene and realised that this was not so uncommon! The school did not qualify for a temporary classroom, and so I spent the rest of the term teaching in corridors and gyms without any books or resources! If a child comes to school with out any books or pens and you have no resources – it is a desperate situation.
First I went on four-week course in my school vacation at the famous Constance Spry Flower School in Berkshire. I adored these four weeks and I felt that I had found my new vocation! One spring day in the half-term holiday I was delivering a friend to Heathrow airport and I drove from east London to West London. Everywhere we went we could see people with bouquets of roses as it was Valentine’s Day. It was before Valentine’s Day became the big commercial marketing experience that it is now and I think this was my ‘Road to Damascus’ day! From that point on I immersed myself in teaching myself floristry and flower arranging, Wanting to know everything and anything about the industry. Then I looked for a part time job in floristry as I already had a mortgage and floristry apprenticeships were not and still are not well paid! I found a part time teaching job for three days a week as the Head of the History at the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in Goswell Road, while spending the other two days and every Saturday as a junior in a flower shop off Tottenham Court Road. Being a teacher now in a private school I also had long holidays to pursue my dream and learn all I could about the flower industry. However the Italia Conti was a lovely school and my pupils were very inspiring and so for a while I whether teaching might still be my vocation. Then I found a suitable derelict shop in Islington to start my new venture. At that time I think I was naïve enough to think I might have a stab at both simultaneously. I might also say at this point I was naive about how little I would make from a flower shop venture.
As a child I loved to wander around the water meadows that surrounded my parents small poultry farm and pick flowers. I remember there was also a disused railway line which had once been tended and along this line, one could find flowers that had endured and wild strawberries. In the summer it was a mass of ox-eye daisies and I remember being annoyed when a friend who had come for a sleepover was more interested in baking cakes than picking flowers! However being brought up in the country, I was never really exposed to the flower business. Nurseries had floristry departments and people often grew their own flowers for personal use. Even at a very young age I realised that the fun bit of housework was when it was all over and you did a flower arrangement. I soon got to realise that a quick whizz round with a vacuum cleaner followed by a spring arrangement got a very good response! Flowers and plants always appealed! Even when I was a history major in Leeds I had a collection of around 30 house plants that moved around with me. It is a tremendous pleasure to work with nature and to I think all top florists are beguiled by the raw materials. I adore colour and so I am motivated by the seasonal changes in palette and with all the new varieties of flowers, the endless changes of palette that is on offer. I love working with people and it is privilege to arrange flowers for my customers. It could be a simple thank you bouquet or a more poignant sympathy tribute. Flowers mark all our most important events from the cradle to the grave and so your customers often become your friends. The transient nature of the flowers we work with is also a poignant reminder of our own short lives.
It also means that you have to work on short deadlines as the stock is perishable so it means that you have to be a bit of an ‘adrenalin
junkie’ which is sometimes fun and occasionally stressful
What were your greatest fears at leaving one career in and starting another?
Not being good enough! Fulfilling deadlines! Knowing enough about the industry.Everything! At least when you start a florist business, when you wake up at 2 in the morning – you can start work! I did worry about being successful although once I had made the move, the business consumed me and the fear goes in the day-to-day running of affairs. This is particularly so in a flower shop, where the stock dies if you have not sold it and you have to go out a buy more! You soon have to be optimistic! It requires the ‘Keep calm and carry on!’ policy for a while. I don’t think at this point I realised that i had chosen a vocation and not a business or a job. I am sure florists have the DNA of plant material coursing through their veins.
Originally, it came about from being less experienced, being prepared to take risks and moving into floristry from a slightly maturer position. I was so attracted to having a flower shop and being florist that I immersed myself in the subject, Read every book, attended lectures, looked at other related disciplines. The advantage of having already studied at degree level , gives you the skills to study another discipline easily and quickly. I took an academic approach to the subject and then the practical experience allowed me to experiment. Starting my own business meant that I was free to do things my way and I never followed the industry guidelines for an FTD order etc, If it did not look good – I was not going to make it . Intuition really, I did not realise at the time that I may be talented. I was trying to get a business of the ground and doing what I thought was instinctively right. I have to say that my clients in London have stretched me and in the last 25 years, there has been a team of London florists who are very talented and we have all been competing for work in the same city so that has raised the bar for all of us. Designing, writing and creating the flower arrangements for 15 books has given me the opportunity to produce work without a client or a brief and the inevitably has led to me forming a distinct signature style.
To date, what has been your career highlight?
That is always a difficult question to answer because there have been so many great opportunities. I have met and worked with some really talented people and that is an honour. I have been asked to do some really lovely events and one large show in the US for Target and Marshall Fields, now Macy’s was a highlight. I designed the windows for the Chicago store and also the spring show. It had a very English theme and used Mary Cecily Barkers Flower Fairies which had been one of the illustrated books I had adored as a child. More recently, I was able to do a retail and banqueting project in Korea with the Samsung Company which was very interesting. I love working as part of a big team and also understanding the flower business in a different culture and country was fascinating. At the moment I am working for Crystal Cruises as a Consultant and working on their Enrichment programmes. They are a wonderful company to work for and also the best 6 star luxury cruise company so it is a pleasure to be part of their team. It is a challenge to arrange flowers that are seasonal and also reflect the are of the world in which the guests are traveling. It has made me respect enormously the Dutch flower market and the logistics that have resulted from their huge flower and fresh produce business. If you asked me what 2012’s highlights were I would have to say going to judge the Rose Tournament in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. A real treat for the eyes and the senses and publishing my 15th flower design book.
Have you always wanted to be an author, how many books have you written?
After I had owned my own flower shop for about three years, I suddenly realised that we had attracted some very interesting customers. We were working for great people! Fashion Designers such as Katherine Hamnett, Georigi Amrmani, top Architects such as Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and David Chipperfield. We were working for Banks, styling for Magazine and News Editors, Supplying government leaders, Rock stars such as George Harrison would send their chauffeur to collect flowers. Lots of Comedians such as Stephen Fry would call up the shop. Actors and Actresses would drop by the shop or phone and order flowers. At that time Cate Blanchet and Kate Winslet lived up the road and they would just call in and pick blooms for thier homes and friends. Artists, Photographers and lots of local people raved about the shop. One day I got a call from Terence Conran’s office saying he was going to call into see me. Ilse Crawford who was then Editor of Elle Decoration recommended me to Terence. He came into my original shop in Islington and complimented me on having “The nicest flower shop outside of Paris!” That spurned a huge London contract flower business as Terence began his restaurant empire. About the same time I was asked to publish my first flower book. I have just published my 14th book, ‘Everyday Flowers’. These books have been translated into over 15 languages including Hebrew, Russian and Japanese so my work began to reach a wider audience than London. I realised once my first book had been published and was well received that I was a successful floral designer. I was still building my flower business at the time so it was only later that I came to realise that I had been responsible for a new and fresh floristry style. The success of the books worldwide raised the profile of floristry in the world and I my work became international.
When & why did you decide to start your school?
Public Demand and the widespread translation of my books really. The school simply came form people asking me to take classes and teach them the style of floristry that they could see in my books. At the time we needed a bigger premises from my original shop as we were doing masses of contracts. My husband being an architect found a site to design a purpose built live-work space. This was originally around the corner for my first shop and it is still where we work today. The Flower House in Cynthia Street is a great industrial space in the centre of London and many people have journied to London to learn floristry or to spend time with us, seeing how we work and taking our experience back to their own areas, countries and part of the world. At first people came form the US, Japan, then Korea but now they are from all over the world. We have ‘career’ changers’, experienced florists, flower enthusiasts, designers from other disciplines form gardening to hairdressing and we have met lots of lovely people over the 18 years we have been doing these courses. I take a very hands-on approach and at the moment I am taking a little break but we will be back with a new and exciting programme in the fall. Once a teacher – always a teacher! – as they say. I have an enthusiasm for sharing our knowledge and I hope it some small way I might have elevated floral design as a discipline and in the eyes of the consumer. I hope my passion for flowers has spread! This industry is hard but flowers put a smile on people’s faces and how honoured we are to work in that area. I feel so fortunate to have worked in an area I love!
The price of oil and the fact that it is so labour intenstive effects the whole world industry. The world wide Recession has had an enormous impact. In the UK it is expensive parking, parking wardens, business tax, ridiculous high street rents, the expenses claim, the competition from Supermarkets, the on-line flower sites have all done their bit to put the nail in the coffin of the high street florist. However there are times in our lives when only flowers will do. Retail is very difficult and in 24 years I have opened and closed 9 shops. Many of us have a dream of having a little flower shop but in this market it can easily become a nightmare. In business you always have a new challenge to face and this is constantly changing. There have been no less than three recessions in the twenty four years I have been in my ‘new’ career and the current one is requiring a whole new rule book! The world is changing, new countries are emerging as important markets and the new technology is transforming the way we communicate. At a practical level you may think that selling flowers would be fairly consistent but in business, just when you think everything is going well, something conspires to change the situation. I have been very fortunate and had my plaudits but I have also had share of failures and disappointments. It is a wonderful business but extremely challenging. The people who often make the most money out of the flower business are not usually the talented floral designers. I think there is still a role for a talented hard working florist in most communities but one has to be realistic about this recession and the changes in retail and world trading. Having a flower business is going to be more emotionally rewarding that it is likely to be financial. But then, how many people can say they spent their working life doing something that they love.
Ranunculus – They look their most attractive the day before they expire when their petals take on a translucent quality. I adore the multi-coloured ones that are grown in Cornwall which flower for my birthday in late April. I also adore the ‘Cappucino’ pink varieties grown around the Italian Riviera. There are some flower fields in Carlsbad California where corns originally from England grow to almost the size of peonies and that is my vision of heaven! www.theflowerfields.com.
I have a top 100 flowers but in my option all flowers can be made into a beautiful design. Alstromeria and Liatris and Limonium may be a challenge but all flowers have their own strengths and beauty.
Everywhere? Nature is the best muse for me? I love walks with my chocolate Labradors, Botanical Gardens, Royal Horticultural Shows specially Chelsea. Garden Centres, Art Museums, Books, designers in related or non related fields such as Architecture or Graphic Art, Life and of course my picky clients who always force me to look outside the box!
Do you always have fresh flowers at home and what do you see in the future?
When I lived above the shop or my workshop, I could live without them for six to eight hours in my home. However now my home is not above work, I do bring them home a lot more. I am also a keen gardener and so I have tried to grow the flowers that I like to have in my home. In fact my latest book is called ‘Everyday Flowers’ and that is the theme of the book. How to grow or source inexpensive seasonal blooms to make stylish arrangements at home. Grow your own flowers is an enormous trend in the UK and I think this will be a growth area. Takes me back to when I was growing up in Suffolk. Flowers like fashion have cycles of reinvention!
PAULA PRYKE FLOWERS
THE FLOWER HOUSE
LONDON N1 9JF
0207 837 7336
September 2008 I took the 4 day intensive design class with Paula Pryke, what a wonderful experience! You can see my journal entries here:
Journal entry #1
Journal entry #2
Journal entry #3