flowerssarah from blossom and branch

sound garden: songs in the key of life

by SarahB

Above: Cover art for Stevie Wonder’s 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life

Hello, Flower Fans! It’s great to be back in action here at Design*Sponge. I am thrilled to present the first installment of my new column: Sound Garden. For each post, I will create a floral design inspired by a different album cover. Combining my love of music and passion for flowers should make for some really special posts! As always, I will include flower fundamentals and a how-to so you can get familiar with the basic principles of floral design.

I am privileged to collaborate on this series with the amazing photographer Karen Wise. Karen is an expert photojournalist with a background in commercial food and still life photography, as well as fine arts. Her work is so thoughtful and creative — just stunning, as you will see.

To get us into the swing of things, I have selected the cover of Stevie Wonder’s opus (my personal favorite album), Songs in the Key of Life. Released in September 1976, it is widely considered by musicians and critics to be one of the greatest albums of all time. The music on this double album is rich and layered, as are the rings (petals?) on the cover. The lyrics throughout the album include bold, fiery messages about love and social justice, and the strong “burning” palette on the cover carries that through.

So follow along with me as I demonstrate an abundant arrangement to welcome in the fall, inspired by Songs in the Key of Life. Join me after the jump for the full how-to! — Sarah

I started with an array of fall blooms in the glowing colors of the cover art for Songs in the Key of Life. The flowers I used ranged from fluffy to spiky textures and included rust roses, variegated dahlia, gomphrena, ranunculus, astilbe, scabiosa, weigela florida and bush ivy. The spiral shape of both the rose and ranunculus heads mirror the swirling feel of the cover art.


1. Use a sharp knife or clippers and clean off any foliage that will fall below the water line. You can also choose to remove any foliage that is dry, brown, slimy or just too unwieldy for your design. Using a knife is ideal if you can safely master good technique. A knife is less likely to crush the stem of the flower so the bloom can absorb more water and stay alive longer, but sharp clippers are an excellent choice for beginning flower lovers. As always, BE CAREFUL and HAVE FUN with whatever tool you choose.

2. Always cut flowers at a 45 degree angle, increasing the surface area of the stem so the bloom can “drink” as much water as possible.

3. If using a knife, use your hand like a vice — your hand and fingers wrap around and grip the knife but they don’t move. Your arm and elbow move. Hold the stem out, away from your body. Hold your knife to the stem at the desired spot and pull your arm and elbow back toward your body, through the stem. DO NOT move your fingers or hand as you do this; they remain stable in the grip. With a sharp knife, the stem should slice cleanly.

Gorgeous angle = happy flower.

4. Establish a structure for your arrangement with greens. The greens should be cleaned of any foliage that will fall below the water line. They should form a “nest” with leaves sitting just above the neck of the vase.

Looking down into the “nest,” you can see how the stems of the greens create a grid into which you will place individual blooms. This grid will make it easy to hold each flower exactly where you want it. In a perfect world, you establish enough structure with greens that you can put a bloom anywhere in the vase, and it is well supported.

Spectacular rust roses will open beautifully (as will most roses) if you treat them with care. Roses need lots of water, and the water needs to be changed at least every other day (the bacteria in the water grows quickly). The air around them should be cool with a nice balance of humidity. The water should be warm, if you are looking to open them up in short order. You can also remove the outer petals (called guard petals — simply pluck them off!) to facilitate opening.

5. Think in terms of color, texture and shape when designing an arrangement. For this arrangement, I chose a monochromatic orange-y/red palette with pops of butter yellow and deep burgundy for a literal interpretation of the cover art. I chose to incorporate plenty of texture (soft/open and rough/spiky). I also chose to mix shapes — round blooms, or “face” flowers (dahlia, roses), paired with slim, or “tubular,” flowers (astilbe).

For a surefire look of sophistication, aim for a flower-on-flower look, called pavé. In this style, all flowers are placed on a similar plane so there are very few, if any, flowers popping up from the arrangement. There are also limited filler flowers and greens — the vase is primarily filled with blooms. Flowers in this style should sit just above the neck of the vase (so the vase itself determines the height and size of the arrangement more than how you place the flowers in it), and you almost never want to see stems sticking up. You achieve dimension with the texture and shape of the blooms instead of by placing them at different heights or angles.

Feel free to experiment with clustering flowers and colors into vignettes, or you might distribute colors and textures evenly throughout the arrangement. In this arrangement, I did both. I clustered some of the smaller elements (like the black scabiosa) but used the larger blooms (like dahlia) in single pops.

The mercury glass vase is a great choice for fall/winter. As the flower colors dull through the seasons, let your container shine!

Join me back here every other week for a fresh batch of floral fun. You will hear more about my philosophy of design — it should be accessible to all and thoroughly pleasurable! — and you will also be introduced to (or reminded of) fantastic music. The genre of cover art is a bit of a relic, but I know that for me, it was one of my first exposures to amazing design. I expect that my interpretations will range from very literal to quite interpretive, so stay tuned!

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  • This is killer, an absolute eye punch. And dahlias! I had no idea how amazing they are until I moved to WA state, and they’re everywhere, in all their vivid, pom-pom-headed, aesthetically and mathematically pleasing awesomeness. They’re very Seussian and they can be the size of a dinner plate, up to like 10 inches across. And yet here they are in a bouquet, blending quietly in with roses, not stealing the show.

  • Hi there! @Alison, I am not sure about the greens. My wholesaler had them categorized as a kind of bush ivy, but I think that is incorrect – they have a stem that feel more like a myrtle to me. Also, pittisporum would have a similarly variegated look and work well in this arrangement.

  • @Emily and @Alison – YES! I even listed it above…it is weigela florida. I had researched the name to include on the flower list and then promptly forgot about the whole incident :)

  • I just love this whole concept. Such a natural fit, such a fun and inspiring idea and it is so beautifully executed. Posts like this are one of the many reasons I always look forward to Design Sponge. Can’t wait to see the different album art/floral arrangement collaborations to come. There are some striking jazz LP covers from the 40’s and 50’s that would suggest hauntingly evocative floral arrangements, too.

  • I have grown Dahlias from seed several times, enjoying their blooms in the first year. They are the mainstay of my fall garden here in eastern PA. Love their versatility and drama. Big, fuzzy bumblebees and mason bees sleep in them at night, seeming to be drunk on the nectar.

    Lifting Dahlia tubers each year for winter storage is a small price to pay for such vivid colors and long lasting bouquets. They get replanted “free” each spring.

    If you are seeking heirloom Dahlias with an historical tale behind them, try Old House Gardens.

    Thanks for this timely, instructive piece.

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