amy azzarito by 30

past & present: constance spry + floral diy


Image above: Illustration by Julia Rothman

Happy March! Living in New York this winter has felt a bit like being caught inside a snow globe held by some angry child who just won’t stop shaking the darn thing. But now it’s March, and I’m feeling spring breathing down winter’s neck. I’m ready to eat outside, ride bikes and be surrounded by flowers. I was introduced to the work of British floral designer Constance Spry this winter by Amy Merrick — my go-to girl for all things floral (and the other Amy Elizabeth living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn). I immediately proposed that she do a Constance Spry-inspired project and I’d write the history part. I think Amy literally jumped up and down when I asked her, and she did such an amazing job explaining how to recreate Constance’s work that I think even I might be able to tackle it! — Amy A.


Image above: Spry’s London flower shop in 1947 from The Surprising Life of Constance Spry

I hadn’t heard of Constance Spry until Amy mentioned her, but apparently she’s a favorite of all floral girls. Constance was a British floral designer in the 1920s, and she arguably did more to change florals that anyone since. She rejected the stiff, wired arrangements that were popular at the time in favor of loose, fluid arrangements in solid blocks of color. She used materials that were usually discarded, like grasses and berries. She embraced vegetables in arrangements and preferred non-traditional containers. She would frequently raid her clients’ cupboards, pulling out serving pieces to use as unorthodox (for the time) vases.


Image above: Constance Spry arrangement from the Design Museum

While Constance’s arrangements may not sound unconventional today, they were certainly show-stopping at the time. Literally. In the ’30s, Constance created a scarlet-roses-and-red-kale-leaf window display for a Bond Street perfumery that attracted crowds so enormous, the police had to be called to help with the traffic flow. In addition to creating floral displays for many other London businesses, such as the Elizabeth Arden salon and the dining rooms at Hatchet’s Restaurant, she had wealthy and important private clients. She created the flowers for Wallis Simson’s wedding to the Duke of Windsor and even designed flowers for the processional route for Elizabeth II’s coronation.


Image above: A Constance arrangement recreated by Amy Merrick

CLICK HERE for more Constance Spry + Amy’s amazing DIY floral project!


Image above: Spry’s flower school from the Design Museum

But Constance didn’t believe beautiful flowers should be limited to those with a large budget. She felt that everyone’s life could be enriched by flowers — that all you needed was imagination and not a huge wallet and that if you made the arrangement yourself, it was that much more satisfying. She opened a flower school in her shop and published twelve books on flowers (and one on food).


Image above: David Austin rose named for Constance Spry from Moosey’s Country Garden

Lately I’ve become obsessed with antique roses — for which I have Spry to thank. She spent years cultivating particular varieties of antique roses, and the amazing British rose breeder David Austin named his first rose after Constance, which he introduced in 1963.


Image above: Constance Spry from The Surprising Life of Constance Spry

And although no one today would blink to see a pussy willow in an arrangement or flowers displayed in a teacup, Constance’s work is still controversial. In 2004, after mounting a Constance Spry exhibition at the Design Museum of London, the museum’s co-founders, James Dyson and Sir Terence Conran, threatened to resign. They claimed that flower arranging was merely shallow styling and not true design. I think anyone who can turn a vegetable patch into a traffic-stopping display has a pretty good handle on true design.

Books to Read

  • The Surprising Life of Constance Spry — I’ve barely touched on the life of Constance Spry here. She had an entire other career as a healthcare provider, even working as a secretary for the Dublin Red Cross. This is a great read, whether or not you’re into flowers.


Hi all! Your loving and devoted Amy Merrick from Living In here. I’m thrilled to contribute a how-to project to go along with Amy Azzarito’s homage to Constance Spry, the first lady of floral design.


Us flower girls can’t overstate the importance of Constance Spry’s work in paving the way for the wild, natural look we all love so much. Armed with just a few different types of greens and a penchant for the unexpected, she was able to turn even the most overlooked materials into a cheeky display for pennies. Using a variety of clippings from my houseplants and a thrift-store drinking glass for a vase, I’m going to show you just how easy it is to make your own homage to Spry.



Constance was, like most of us ladies here at Design*Sponge, a voracious frequenter of antique and junk shops. Her hunts for interesting vases — from rusted cans to upside-down hats — are the stuff of legend. Moving beyond the clear-glass cylinder is crucial when it comes to a Spry arrangement — I found some pretty but forgettable glasses at the thrift store that do the trick nicely.


A few light coats of spray primer suitable for glass (I’m partial to the Krylon indoor/outdoor variety) allow you to paint your newly found vases any color you choose.


After applying a few coats of paint to the glass, you can ball up and insert a small piece of chicken wire that will act as a form to hold your stems. Add water and get your clippers ready.


Snipping from whatever greens you have on-hand (or find growing outside), place the largest leaves in first. They’ll act as your focal point, much as a large-faced flower would.


Turning as you go, add your other greens. I used begonia leaves, scented geranium and rabbit-foot fern. To keep your arrangement feeling natural, it’s helpful to establish a singular high point and a few low points to balance out the shape.


True confession — it can be hard for a florist to avoid adding flowers to a foliage arrangement if you just happen to have some pretty ones on-hand. (Doubly true if those flowers happen to be spring-green hellebores cut from a freshly purchased garden-store plant.) Go ahead, I won’t tell — if there was one thing Constance believed, it was that rules were made to be broken.

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amy azzarito / flowers / past & present

30 Comments

cherade9

Her cook book was also pretty amazing. I’m slowly teaching myself the basics of french cookery from my copy.. from 1952!

Lou Ann Brown

I am 50, and my floral design mentor traveled from Nashville, TN to take classes from Spry in the UK. I learned many Spry-isms from her over the years, and am glad that a new generation is learning of Spry’s enormous contribution to design. Dyson and Conran should be ASHAMED for denying her role in the transformation of how the world sees flowers.

Joy

I have to agree with the winter comment! Anyway I think I prefer the Japanese zen aesthetic more, but I do think Constance’s work is still very pretty.

Cheryl Martin

Here’s to the mavericks like Constance who went “against the grain” of floral design. Very interesting and informative post.

Kate (Southern Belle Simple)

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of her! What gorgeous images. I don’t fancy myself a floral designer, but I can still dream. Thanks for giving us such do-able projects…Amy, you’re fabulous! xoxo

Mandy Doubt

I do not wish to be a pedant but the original arrangement features Hosta leaves & what appears to be Alchemilla mollis but the recreation uses Bergonia – a very different look!
Check out this beautiful plant nursery in Norfolk UK, plant lovers:
http://www.woottensplants.co.uk/index.html

c

Did you ever get the chance to see some of Karen Blixen’s (author)flower arrangments? They are really quite beautiful too :-)

Making Happy

This is WONDERFUL! I have a neighbor I have long-admired, because, even in the dead of winter, she can gather things from around the yard and make an amazing arrangement. Thanks to you, now I feel like I can, too! I have a lot of these plants in my yard! THANKS!

Bridget

I absolutely love this post. I had heard of her name years ago,but had forgotten it. Being a floral designer myself I am amazed at the creativity of Constance Spry, She was ahead of her time for sure. I can’t believe anyone would say her Floral Design is not a true art form! Like any form of art , sure anyone can do it, but to do it amazingly well that is the difference. I plan on reading her book now, thanks for this post!!

Catherine

I absolutely love your blog! I just found it randomly and am so glad I did.
I’m a clay floral artist myself and this post was so helpful. I had never heard of Constance Spry, but I’ll definitely research more about her. Thanks!

Lauren

Hi – Is Julia Rothman possibly thinking of selling her illustration of Constance’s quote?? I just love it. Thanks :-)

Lois

Thank you for introducing everyone to the great beauty that exists in so many mediums! I love your posts and would be interested in purchasing the illustration as well.
Many thanks!!!

Cathy Heck

I love this post and will put it to work instantly … I had been searching for the perfect container for some flowers for a photo shoot for some of my products and it needed to be a color that would blend but not detract … It never occurred to me to paint one I had on hand. I’m off to the paint store. Thank you.

Debi Sementelli

Love this post! Very inspiring. I am working with doing some floral illustrations for some note cards so the timing is perfect.

Very Merry Vintage Style

Love to walk away with one idea from a post but two, well, that’s special! The tip on spraying the thrift store glasses to make vases is great, and then the idea of making an arrangement from just greenery is excellent too. I have so many perennials in my yard, but often I don’t want to trim the blooms as they’re only appearing here and there for a short while. I have been picking new perennials up purely for their foliage the last few years because of that, and now I’m going to use the pretty leaves to bring the beauty inside!

Modern Country Lady

I am lucky enough to live in England where there are loads of antiquarian bookshops and charity shops, and I managed to get 4 original books by Constance Fry, for a few pounds , as I got quite interested in her through reading books by Beverly Nicholls,where he mentioned her frequently. The picures are sometimes coloured-in black and white photographs, so a very vintage feel, but the ideas are really ahead of it’s time.So great you have covered her.Would love to see stuff about Rex Whistler as well- and about Beverly Nicholls!!!

Denise

Goodness how could I have missed this. Wonderful post! I adore that arrangement Amy!

Rachael

Thank you for opening my eyes and teaching me something as well. Love that all green arrangement. Stunning. ~Rachael

Andrea Deal

Beautiful! Thank you for introducing me to Constance Spry. I love that illustration and quote.
Although I’ve always loved flowers, I’ve only recently given myself permission to buy fresh flowers each week. Having a little floral arrangement on the table each day is such a treat!

Sarah

Dear Julia,
Would you please make this glorious illustration for sale?! I would absolutely love to have it in my studio.
xoxo
A little florist in South Carolina

Paiko Hawaii

Great blog! I really enjoy that style of arranging, & am definately going to pick up the book. Nice tutorial as well!

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