Former White House florist Laura Dowling on garden show, time with Obamas

"Working with the beauty of nature, it's something that never gets old," florist Laura Dowling says.

Laura Dowling has a whole new meaning to the term "flower power." 

The former head florist at the White House said she believes the colorful plants have the potential to communicate meaningful messages. And she used this concept while working from 2009 to 2015 with first lady Michelle Obama on flower decor at the White House. Drawing inspiration from the French style, Dowling has made floral design her art form. 

And the artist will give demonstrations at the Maryland Home and Garden Show on Saturday and Sunday, providing a behind-the-scenes peek at the decor she used at the White House. She'll also explain how you can achieve that look at home. But before the largest home and garden show in the state, Dowling discussed with The Baltimore Sun her experience working at the White House, her first book "Floral Diplomacy at The White House" and some imperative floral arranging lessons.  

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: I read that you had a career in strategic communications and then you made the career switch to become a florist. Why did you decide to make that change?

“It’s a big part of my story, and I had such a typical Washington job working in government relations, strategic communications for about 25 years. And it was a job I really enjoyed. I worked at the Nature Conservancy at the Smithsonian. But when I went to Paris in about 2000, I was so inspired by the flowers I saw there. The bouquets were so unusual, so beautiful, and it literally just kind of stopped me in my tracks and just inspired me to start learning more about how to do floral arranging, specifically in the French style. While I was working full time, I would go back to Paris once or twice a year on vacation and study flowers with French designers. ...

"I kept working with my full-time job, and I opened a part-time flower business on the side and started doing work for the embassies in the area, small weddings and parties. And it was from there that I sent a resume into the White House once the [chief floral designer] position became open in 2009.”

Q: What was it like working with the former first lady?

“The first lady is really the person who creates the style and tone for the flowers and decorations at the White House. And what’s so interesting is it changes with each administration. Mrs. Obama brought in her unique style. And from the time that I interviewed for the job through the duration, the emphasis was always on making the flowers give the White House a sense of warmth and a welcoming atmosphere for all of the guests. It was her priority that everyone feel that the White House was their house — no matter if it was a visitor from middle America or a visiting dignitary. And the flowers could really help set that tone. …

"[Michelle Obama's] vision was sort of this loose and airy, unstructured look of casual elegance, which is exactly what I felt like I brought to the table. … She typically favored strong colors and bold color choice, and so I would always interpret that in my color choice as well.”

Q: Could you explain the concept of floral diplomacy, which is also the title of your book.

“The book is really this concept that flowers are more than decoration, that, especially on the White House stage, they convey meaning. I think they do all the time, but on the White House stage, there was just this enhanced sense that the flowers could convey a diplomatic message to honor dignitaries. You know, if you used flowers that had special meaning for different countries, it could really go deep into a personal connection on a diplomatic scale. …

"I found working there flowers could also support policy themes of the administration. Like I mentioned 'Let’s Move' [Michelle Obama's healthy eating initiative]. If you used apples or vegetables in the designs, they would kind of support in a subtle way — that’s still unmistakable — what the first lady’s priorities were.”

Q: Could you describe in depth an example of floral diplomacy?

"[In Nov. 2009], my first state dinner was for India. It was also the Obamas' first state dinner. Part of my competition to get the job was to come up with a whole tablescape and design scheme for the India state dinner. So I researched what was important in Indian culture, and I was inspired by the Indian peacock, which is a symbol of grace and dignity and beauty — plus the colors were really beautiful. The apple green, the fuchsia purple I thought would translate into really beautiful table decor. So I used the Indian peacock as the inspiration for the table settings and then I also introduced this environmental theme by using locally grown ivy. ... I thought those were really great messages to create a story, if you will, about the Obamas' first major event."

Q: Could people use floral diplomacy in their everyday lives?

“For people at home to use this concept, just really think of the purpose of the event and who is there, and what kind of special touches and meanings and symbolism that you can incorporate to make an event or the gift of a flower bouquet even more special. ...

"I think it really just comes down to a thoughtfulness and understanding and thinking of flowers as a medium, as a communications tool and deciding what you want to express.”

Q: What are some lessons or tips in floral design that people should know?

“Just not to be afraid of experimenting. There’s really no wrong or right way. I think the more that you study design, and not even just floral design, but look at paintings for composition and color and look at architecture — even fashion can give you ideas for putting combinations together. And then like with anything, it’s just practice.”

Q: Why do you love what you do?

"When you find passion and working with the beauty of nature, it's something that never gets old. There's always new ideas and new interpretations. Each season brings something inspiring to think about and design with. I think it's that idea that it's just always so inspiring and it's something that makes you happy when you're working with the materials. And then when you give them away, it makes other people happy, too."

mpryce@baltsun.com

twitter.com/megpryce

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Correction

A previous version of this article misstated when Laura Dowling will be giving demonstrations at the Maryland Home and Garden Show. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error. 

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