photography Nicole Franzen / words Chandara K. Phanachone
Take a moment to appreciate the sensuous anatomy of a Lady’s Slipper orchid or inhale the fragrance of a budding plumeria, and you can surely understand the Dutch and their infatuation with flowers. Aside from being prized for their healing powers, flowers have long been coveted for their beauty and fragrance; often symbolic of the transient nature of life as we know it. But it was in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century, a period more commonly referred to as the Dutch Golden Age, when floral fascination soared to new heights with the great tulip speculation. During this time, the most desirable tulip bulbs commanded exorbitant market prices that exceeded the value of even the most extravagant homes in Amsterdam.
While tulip prices are no longer in a bubble and the Golden Age is long gone, the legacy of this period still lives on in the form of floral designs. Step inside the Nicolette Camille Floral Design studio of Nicollete Owen in Brooklyn, New York, and you will find living remnants of floral artistry that bear a striking resemblance to the great works of the most prolific Dutch master painters.
Artists during the Dutch Golden Age began to shift their focus to still-lifes, or works of art that depicted inanimate subjects such as plants, animals, and man-made objects just as scientists and natural philosophers introduced a new paradigm for examining the world from investigative introspection over religious theory. These still-lifes bore a testament to the economic and political prosperity of the Dutch empire, fueled largely by the fruits of global commerce and colonial expansion.
Compare the subtle romance of Dutch floral still lifes with some of Owen’s table-top arrangements and you will understand why Golden Age artists such as Rachel Ruysch and Simon Pietersz continue to inform and inspire her work.
The proliferation of floral still-life paintings by prominent artists such as Jan van Huysum, Rachel Ruysch, and Willem Van Aelst reflected the aspirations of a growing population of middle class patrons. Similarly to the European nobility, these patrons realized that paintings were a symbol of wealth and power, objects to be collected avidly by the most influential in society. The timelessness of these paintings, much like the floral designs of Owen, owes much to their balanced composition, sinuous asymmetry, and remarkable realism.
Owen grew up in the sun-dappled Hudson Valley area of upstate New York where she spent many hours in her grandmother’s flower garden, picking lilacs in the spring and bringing them into the house, allowing their sweet aroma to perfume the air. These early memories eventually led Owen to follow her artistic passions where she initially chose photography as her medium of expression.
After she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, one of the oldest and most respected liberal arts institutions in the United States, Owen spent two years as a commercial photographer in New York. While her time spent behind the lens allowed her to embrace her creativity, she still longed for something more; she simply couldn’t pinpoint it at the time. On a whim, Owen found herself packing her bags for California upon answering an ad placed by a small floral shop. Little did she realize that this move would later lead her straight to her true calling in life. It was here in this charming flower shop that Owen became enamored with the art of floral design; the thrill of this multi-dimensional medium of nature captured her young heart. From the freckles upon richly streaked petals of ranunculus to bell-shaped blooms of fritillaria, she didn’t want to simply capture their likeness; she longed to share their living beauty. Stems, leaves and petals became Owen’s instruments of creativity.
After two years working in the small flower shop, Owen finally returned to her home state of New York to open her own namesake floral design studio in 2006. To this day, she still credits the instruction and encouragement she received from her mentors in California as a source of gratitude that has enabled her to develop her own style as an artist. Owen’s floral designs have a whimsical, romantic feel; you almost have a sense that the flowers have been gathered by woodland fairies with wings as delicate as the petals themselves.
Compare the subtle romance of Dutch floral still lifes with some of Owen’s table-top arrangements and you will understand why Golden Age artists such as Rachel Ruysch and Simon Pietersz continue to inform and inspire her work. Summer garden roses and ranunculus are two of Owen’s favorite choices as they primary faces in her bouquets. She surrounds them with combinations of broad leaves and wispy, delicate accents to amplify their singular beauty.
As a floral designer, Owen is involved in nearly every aspect of the wedding design. She especially enjoys working one-on-one with the bride to make her dreams a reality. When it comes to bridal bouquets and boutonnieres for the groom’s party, Owen prefers to leave the stems revealed below the gathered posies and greens; it offers a natural look that reminds you of their transient connection with the earth.
“I see the temporary nature of fresh cut flowers as symbolic of the fleeting, yet most beautiful and significant moments in life,” Owen offers. “Moments that are unique and special, that will be forever treasured in our memories, but never repeated. Brides often hang their bouquets to dry as a way to preserve them, but Owen encourages brides to select a few blooms or petals to press into their favorite books or to preserve them behind glass in a frame. These smaller tokens still preserve the essence of the memory and are more likely to capture a nostalgic glance over the years.
About six years ago, Owen co-founded Brooklyn’s Little Flower School with a friend where she loves to share her passion for flowers, plants, and floral design. Students range from the do-it-yourselfer to floral designers that want to broaden their skillsets. She has also worked with lifestyle photographer Ngoc Minh Ngo to publish a book, Bringing Nature Home, which focuses on capturing the seasonal beauty of nature. On the occasion when she is not surrounded by poppies, narcissus, and muscari, you can probably catch Owen at home tending to her own small garden or cooking up some of nature’s seasonal bounty in her kitchen.