By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; C01
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.
She never thought about a career in flower design until a trip to Paris 10 years ago, when she spotted a bouquet by well-known French florist Christian Tortu made of sweet peas, rose hips and lady's mantle. "I saw the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen," recalls Dowling, who then perfected her style on a series of trips to Paris to take classes at L'Ecole des Fleurs with Tortu and other floral designers to learn cutting-edge techniques and trends. Dowling, a devoted Francophile, eventually built her own reputation doing flowers for special events and weddings and lecturing at the Philadelphia Flower Show and at Pierre Deux. She is constantly looking for new ideas and recently attended a five-day class in Germany by designer Gregor Lersch, where she worked on natural compositions in a woodland setting overlooking the Rhine River valley.
About 15,000 visitors come through the White House weekly on public tours, according to Semonti Stephens, deputy press secretary to Michelle Obama. Dowling's fresh flower arrangements, focal points in the stately historical rooms, draw a lot of attention. "The flowers in the White House are one of the things that visitors always commented on," said Betty Monkman, former White House curator.
A few weeks ago, Dowling, wearing ballet flats topped by rosettes, gave us a tour through the visitors' route. In the Library, dried lemon leaves and knotted ribbons decorated a container that supported a cascading bouquet. In the East Room, traditional ferns were on display. The Green Room's bouquet was in a vermeil bamboo-motif container acquired by Jackie Kennedy. The Grand Foyer had caladiums recycled from a recent dinner. Yes, even the White House reuses flowers as long as they still look fresh.
Style watchers are taking note of the changes. "The flowers are just beautiful. They really stick out in my mind," said philanthropist Buffy Cafritz, who has been attending White House functions since Gerald Ford's administration. "I noticed they were looser and less formal."
Flowers from previous administrations can look dated in years to come, just as first ladies' dresses often do. An Eisenhower-era state-dinner photo shows rows of stiff pyramids of that 1950s favorite, the pink carnation. Jackie Kennedy brought more relaxed arrangements in a decidedly French style. The Nixons are pictured at an informal family dinner (ties for the men, headband for Tricia) with a big ball of daisies and yellow mums in the center; it looks like an old FTD special.
Dowling heard about the job opening when her husband, Robert Weinhagen, senior legislative counsel for the House of Representatives, read about Clarke's departure and urged his wife to apply. Dowling sent in an application and made it through four rounds of cuts to become one of the three finalists. In a sort of "Project Runway"/"Top Chef" reality-show twist ("Top Florist"?), the final three designers were brought in and asked to create arrangements for the Blue Room, the Oval Office and a state dinner. "Only in America," said Dowling, who beat out the pack.
Today, Dowling's intense workweeks are often seven days long. The last entry in her personal blog, L'art du Bouquet, was made in September. But she says the job is "an honor, a privilege and a fairy tale."
Recently, Michelle Obama asked her to create a parting gift for France's Carla Bruni-Sarkozy after a private White House dinner. Obama presented the former Chanel supermodel with a small all-white bouquet of roses and orchids with camellia foliage.
"It was a gift of friendship," said Dowling, who tied the gray satin ribbons in a French braid on the bouquet herself. "It feels like each of the flower arrangements we do here has its own story."