I am thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with my inspirational flower friend Christin Geall, whose new book, Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style is hitting bookshelves soon. I met Christin when she attended an on-farm workshop in 2016. She has since gone on to teach floral design all over the globe and continues to inspire readers with her beautiful words on flowers.
Erin: Christin, thanks so much for taking time to share your story with Floret readers. For those not familiar with your work, can you share an overview of your story, as well as an overview of your new book, Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style?
Christin: I’ve been working with words and plants for 30 years. I love ideas and so Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style is really a series of short—sometimes personal—essays, paired with images. When people flip through the book they gush over the pictures (which I took, so that’s nice), but I want to say: “Don’t you just love that sentence?” I suppose I’m a writer first and foremost.
I like to use the word “essays” to describe the writing because it comes from the French essayer, meaning “to try.” In the book, I explore, in philosophical terms, and explain, in practical terms, what I have learned about floral design without any step-by-step instructions. I cover creativity, photography, rhythm, restraint, style, gesture, form, and color among other things. To build the narratives, I dove into history, art history, color theory, garden design, botany, psychology, and music. I have to say, it was a joy to research.
Erin: Your training as an academic, and references to historical texts, give your work depth that you don’t often find in other flower-focused books. I really appreciate your writing on gardeners from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how they helped you expand your range of foliage plants. What other big takeaways did you discover during your research? Are there parallels to the floral renaissance we’re seeing today?
Christin: In 1907, Gertrude Jeykll advocated the use of “poultry wire” in her book Floral Decoration in the House. She was a remarkable woman: a painter, garden designer, floral designer, and writer. She worked with William Robinson, author of The Wild Garden  and The English Flower Garden , and both railed against the Victorian fashion of hothouse-grown flowers bedded out in patterned gardens. Instead, they designed mixed borders with shrubs, bulbs, and herbaceous plants and also celebrated native flora. One could argue that Jekyll’s and Robinson’s reaction to the horticultural fashions of their time is similar to our “grown-not-flown’” aversion to carbon-intensive flowers. Aesthetics are again informed by ecology.
Erin: You obviously drew upon many historical texts while writing this book. Which of these texts were most influential to you? For readers interested in this rich history, which books do you recommend?
Christin: Constance Spry’s books are very good, and Jekyll was a prolific writer. She worked in the time of the Impressionist painters. To me, that’s interesting—how ideas about nature, color, and light played out across various fields of artistic endeavor. So perhaps my favorite books weren’t about flowers at all, but rather about art and design—subjects where I still have so much to learn. A clear favorite from that category is Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art, by Stella Paul.
Erin: Floral arrangements today are often described as “Dutch Masters” in style, but as you point out in the book, the paintings are stylistically different depending on their period. I also appreciate your description of what is described as Dutch Masters-style floral arranging, as it is often misinterpreted. Your own definition of it as “a work of art inspired by art” is spot-on. How does that thinking influence your own design work?
Christin: I had tremendous fun researching the Dutch Golden Age and can’t help but think that the same passion for plant collection that led to the creation of Dutch floral still life is alive and well at Floret today! You’ll laugh, but when I first started flower farming—I have a small urban farm—and Floret offered a new flower, I had to have it, even though I barely had room to grow it, lived in Canada, and had no idea how to import it—be that an Italian poppy or a new dahlia. Such acquisitiveness led to the collapse of the Dutch economy during the tulipomania of the 17th century, of course, but I’m thankful that my pursuit of fashionable flowers hasn’t bankrupted me yet!
With regard to the stylistic changes Dutch floral still life went through over 200 years, I included a list of things to learn from the paintings in the book, and one of them that speaks to your point is that asymmetry is a choice, not an obligation. We are in a romantic floral age, and while my work, and that of many others at this time, leans late baroque, there is an elegance to the early Dutch floral paintings from the 17th century that we can learn from. Abundance has been one of the great privileges of the modern age; I sense that restraint might become more fashionable going forward.
Erin: As you say, “training and practice help one to develop artistically.” What advice do you have for others who want to cultivate creativity?
Christin: I unpacked the idea of creativity in the book because I don’t believe it’s a gift bestowed on some and withheld from others. As Constance Spry said, “an eye can be trained more readily than a character changed.” What she’s implying, I believe, is that the art of floristry is skills-based. It’s about using your hands, sometimes working quickly, innovating on the fly, and solving problems. There is no art in that—there is practice, craft, intention, and yes, creativity, but the art, the seeing, comes later.
So to cultivate creativity, I say: Acquire the skills, the materials, and the time to explore your creativity. I have taken workshops, hired a photographer to help me learn how to photograph flowers, and every year grow a virtual paint box of flowers to work with. I’ve also intentionally constructed a life that gives me the space to be creative. There are sacrifices one makes to live artistically of course, but I’m delighted by the choices I have most days.
Erin: What are you currently working on, dreaming of, excited about in your life and work?
Christin: There’s an old adage that you should “write what you know,” but I find it more interesting to write as I am learning. I like to take the reader along with me as I discover things and make connections. If I reach an epiphany, great, but truly it’s acquiring and assembling knowledge that gives me and my writing the most energy.
Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style is largely built from Western ideas and flowers, with a touch of wabi-sabi and ikebana thrown in, and while I’m incredibly proud of what I managed to do with the book in terms of its depth, I’m also aware of its limits. I’m doing a number of book events in England this year and hope to be at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where I interned in my 20s. Returning decades later sets up a nice narrative arc for the new book I have in mind.
Erin: Anything else you’d like to share?
Christin: You kindly helped me on the path to this book, and I want to say here how grateful I am, Erin. I’d like to pay that kindness forward and let people know that I’m always happy to answer questions if they get in touch, and to those who pre-order the book and send me a screenshot of their address, through Instagram or email, I’ll send a handwritten postcard with a little note in the hope of inspiring others.
Erin: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Christin. You live your life with such intention, and I know our readers will find your story and new book inspiring.
I’m so excited to give away 8 copies of Christin’s stunning new book, Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style. 2 winners will receive the book along with a set of beautiful postcards and envelopes. For a chance to win, simply post a comment below. In your comment, please share something you’re grateful for. Winners will be announced on Friday, March 27th.
UPDATE: A big congratulations to our winners: Kristina Skinner, Michelle Ortiz, Becky Pope, Heather Dillon, Courtney Mezgar, Stephanie Aubert, Catrin Seidel and Liana Nichols!
Learn more and connect with Christin Geall
Book: Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style (Princeton Architectural Press, March 24, 2020)
Photographs by Christin Geall.