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.
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).
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.
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.
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.