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Floral Diplomacy: life as a White House floral designer

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Laura Dowling's new photo book, “Floral Diplomacy at the White House” (Stichtung Kunstboek), gives a behind-the-scenes look at White House flower decorations, including the traditions, design concepts and logistics that go into them.

“Flowers are so universal ... that the messages they communicate track back to all kinds of cultures,” says Dowling, who was chief floral designer at the White House from 2009 to 2015. “Flowers should create excitement and energy, lifting the spirits of people in the room.”

It was first lady Jackie Kennedy who established the Office of the White House Florist, designating a professional to work with her to plan and create arrangements. Kennedy viewed floral design as an art form capable of telegraphing both image and meaning. She broke from a White House tradition of mostly stiff, formal arrangements in favor of natural-looking displays with an airy, informal look.

Dowling was hired by first lady Michelle Obama, beating out two other finalists in a high-pressure competition: Each was given four hours to create three major floral arrangements: an Oval Office display, a Blue Room display, and a State Dinner display complete with linens, china and table arrangements.

Her predecessor had held the post for more than 30 years. Her successor continues to design floral arrangements under the Trump administration.

Dowling says her technique is to build a bouquet in levels, with a base of swirling greens to create a sense of movement. That's followed by layers of overlapping greens and flowers “with trailing vines and dancing branches.”

She oversaw about 2,000 events, from state dinners to holiday celebrations. Some of her favorite displays: A state dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, and his wife, featured vivid fuchsias, purples and apple greens, inspired by the Indian peacock. A state dinner for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband featured a scientific motif to honor Dr. Merkel's academic achievements, as well as her favorite colors and a nod to her passion for cooking and baking.

“Flowers can represent special themes,” Dowling writes: An environmental display, for instance, might feature natural containers and organic elements to promote conservation and sustainability.

“Flowers also convey a symbolic message, exemplifying the essence of American style — friendly, accessible, warm, unexpected and fresh,” she writes.

Some highlights from an interview Dowling gave to The Associated Press:

AP: What was it like working with the first lady?

Dowling: She seemed to know that flowers could be a powerful tool for making people feel welcome, and at that point she really wanted to open up the White House to all Americans. We talked about that ... and the ability to work with these high-end flowers combined with more common, seasonally available ones, and how that tied to the way she was working with fashion. She was wearing J. Crew in addition to designer clothes at the time.

AP: Did she have any favorite flowers or colors?

Dowling: Mrs. Obama always favored the brighter, more vivid shades. She would gravitate toward displays that made a bolder statement. And she really liked garden flowers like roses and hydrangeas, the pretty flowers that grow together in the garden.

AP: Do the floral displays change a lot from one administration to the next?

Dowling: Yes. What's so interesting about the White House is that there really are no rules or guidelines, and each administration sets its own tone. It's a little like the White House chef, who caters to the unique tastes and preferences of each First Family.

There was a dinner with the Governor of Washington, the state I'm from, when President Obama was asked what he would miss most about the White House, and he said it was the flowers. I realized that while the furniture and art at the White House stay about the same, the flowers change a couple times a week. Even the president notices.

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