A Dutch Touch, Minus the Tulips

The simple, striking display of 'Green Goddess' callas in the library of the Dutch ambassador's home.
The simple, striking display of 'Green Goddess' callas in the library of the Dutch ambassador's home. (Photos By Rene Clement)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005

Gaze at a composition by Dutch floral designer Rene Hofstede and you might get a feeling you are being watched. By the flowers, that is.

As an established New York-based floral designer, Hofstede often assembles arrangements for shelter magazine photographs or to be seen on television. By designing with the camera lens in mind, he says, you can end up with better designs.

If the flower type cooperates, Hofstede likes to set the stems so that each bloom is facing the viewer. He likens it to entering a crowded room and seeing everyone look at you -- the experience is more exciting. "I think of flowers as little faces," he said, "and the more faces that turn toward the camera, then it's much more of an effect."

Hofstede, of Mille Fiori Floral Design in Manhattan ( http://www.millefioriflowers.com/ ), came to Washington last week to assemble more than 20,000 flowers and related ornaments into fleeting works of art at the residence of the Dutch ambassador and at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Both venues were staging events to mark the 25-year reign of the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix, with displays of antique and modern Dutch silver and the floral designs of Hofstede.

The 42-year-old designer has been in the United States for 18 years, the past 14 as a floral artist. Flowers and flower trading are entwined with Dutch life. In college, Hofstede started out studying horticulture but moved to philosophy. Once he was ensconced in the United States (his wife is American), the power of flowers took over again, though philosophical insight probably is an asset in designing with flowers for important events and for demanding people. "There are no ugly flowers," he said. "It depends how you use them. Carnations in the last couple of years are on the brink of making a comeback."

In virtually every first-and-second floor room of the ambassador's mansion (and the front garden on S and 24th streets NW) Hofstede's fantasies had taken shape. With the delayed spring, it is still tulip time in Washington, but Hofstede, remarkably, used very few of Holland's signature flowers for the occasion. The residence was the setting of a number of private cultural events marking the queen's silver jubilee, as well as the public exhibition of royal silver at the Corcoran through July 4.

At the residence, the front plant beds were decorated with yellow twig dogwood branches painted orange and blue. Inside, visitors ascended a grand staircase to find a pair of wall-mounted rectangles, frames made from grape vines, sparsely planted with the quintessential orange Dutch tulip, 'Ad Rem.' Orange is the Dutch royal color, but in the main reception room, the hue became part of a much different ensemble.

Here, displays were on a gargantuan scale, with sprays of sherbet-orange cymbidium orchids and carmine moth orchids spilling from great, green shields of monstera leaves. Hofstede had picked up the hot, tropical theme by turning the three crystal chandeliers into jellyfish of sorts, trailing from them great gauzy garlands of pink and orange silk.

More than 20,000 flowers had been shipped to Hofstede's makeshift studio in Ambassador Boudewijn J. van Eenennaam's garage from the Dutch flower auctions, and although few of us have the budget or skills of Hofstede, the soft-spoken, tall (6-foot-4) Dutchman spoke freely of underlying principles of flower designing that shape his work.

Before selecting his flowers, he will survey a room to get a sense of its dimensions and colors. In the drawing room, he found a place that is akin to an art museum in its dark red wall and high ceilings, as well as its pictures. The hot pink played off the crimson walls. "You work with what's there. Typically reds are conservative, but I wanted to push that with hot colors," he said. "That way, you make it much more fun. It creates a new sensibility for that room."

It helps, of course, to have access to material that is as robust and overgrown as it is unusual. His brother is a flower broker in Holland, and can go to one of the two massive daily auctions near Amsterdam to bid on material for Mille Fiori.

The dining room, with its soft yellow walls, dictated a quieter series of arrangements, and a color scheme of blues and greens, which in the right hands seem quite happy together whatever the color gods may say. Here, Hofstede used delphiniums in different shades of blue, the acid-green annual Bells of Ireland and chartreuse cymbidiums. If nothing else, Hofstede's work demonstrates that green is not only a color for blooms, it's one of the most chic.

In another room, the library, he put together a simple but striking arrangement of a variegated green-and-white flowering calla called 'Green Goddess.' Hofstede is not afraid of using bold and saturated colors; in fact, he prefers them to pastels. But the knack, he says, is to restrict the variety of hues. This is difficult because floral design in the United States is about abundance, but he favors limiting a composition to no more than three colors or flower varieties.

"If you mix too many flowers and colors, it gets muddled up," he said. Even -- especially -- in the world of high floral design, "it's very important to know when to stop."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company