The White House's new florist in chief is boldly creating blooms with a view

New White House chief floral designer Laura Dowling (she took over last October) is bringing the first lady's looser style to the formal, antique-filled period rooms. In these photos, see arrangements for the State Dinner in honor of Mexico and for daily life in the White House.
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

M ichelle Obama has Obama-ized the White House with healthful menus, planted bok choy and rhubarb to supply them and ramped up the fashion quotient with metallic strapless dresses and studded belts. Her latest style statement: official flowers in a looser "garden" style by Laura Dowling, the new White House chief floral designer.

Dowling's hot-glue gun has been smoking as she's created hundreds of arrangements, many in custom containers she's wrapped in birch bark, moss and dried apricots. The more relaxed, sometimes unexpected look incorporates armloads of romantic blooms, trailing vines, shaggy ferns and the occasional hot pepper and Brussels sprout. "It's my job to create a new signature style," said Dowling, who took over the job in October. "And sometimes instead of flowers, we can use vegetables for a centerpiece."

The humble cactus is even crashing the party. At the May state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón, prickly pear cactus showed up in vermeil wine coolers, and Dowling also tucked a few among the centerpieces of fuchsia roses and cattleya orchids. The look had the surprise of one of Michelle Obama's Thakoon/J. Crew outfits.

On a daily basis, though, President Obama is said to prefer one simple floral arrange ment in the Oval Office, plus a bowl of red apples.

Fresh flowers create a backdrop for every White House event. "The floral arrangements that Laura and her staff create add to the welcoming experience that I want guests visiting the White House -- whether they be heads of state or families on vacation -- to feel," Michelle Obama said in an e-mail, adding that her own favorite flowers are roses, mums, peonies and hydrangeas.

From a modest workroom, Dowling supervises a staff of three who plan months ahead for protocol-laden ceremonies and holiday extravaganzas such as the month-long marathon of Christmas. And don't think presidents are too busy to notice flowers.

President Ronald Reagan once stopped former White House chief florist Dottie Temple to ask about the then-very-fashionable curly willow branches she'd arranged in the Reagans' bedroom. "About those sticks on the mantel," Reagan said to Temple. "Is anything going to happen to them?" Temple says she got the message. "Yes, sir. I'm going to get rid of them as soon as possible," she said.

Nancy Clarke, who retired as head florist in May 2009 after 30 years on the job, also recalls having to make a quick change. "For the longest time, we used to keep a bowl of peach-colored roses on Bush Two's coffee table in the Oval Office," Clarke said. "We changed them to red and that lasted five minutes. We got a call that the president wants the peach roses back."

Clarke is the one who greeted the Obama family with flowers in the private quarters on Inauguration Day: vases of orchids plus purple anemones and pink tulips for Malia's and Sasha's rooms. She had met with Obama decorator Michael Smith and incoming social secretary Desirée Rogers first. "Part of the presidential transition is the transition of flowers," said Clarke, who is writing a book. "The Obamas wanted contemporary and they wanted bold colors." When she met President Obama, he told her, "My favorite thing about living in the White House is the flowers."

Clarke says she was not asked to leave her post, as intimated in some reports at the time, but months earlier had told her staff she planned to retire. "I don't know where that stuff comes from," said Clarke. "It was devastating, and it was not the case."

Dowling, 50, ran her own flower-designing business in Alexandria, specializing in French-style bouquets, before she got the top flower job in the country. Soft-spoken, she seems calm in the center of high-pressure domestic bustle. Her ground-level command center has a walk-in cooler filled with buckets of roses, arrangements waiting to be delivered to various offices and yogurt and Diet Coke. Six months before Christmas, there is already a stack of straw-wrapped wreaths on the counter.

Dowling traces her love of flowers to her grandmother's rose garden in a small farming and logging town in Washington state, where the climate was perfect for growing rhododendrons and hydrangeas. She pursued a career in government and public policy but was always interested in decorating, antiques and crafts.

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