Emily Thompson Flowers
Emily Thompson is the founder of her eponymous floral shop and studio in New York City’s downtown South Seaport District. The shop is a glorious green bubble of foraged wonders and collaborative art works - more than unusual for Manhattan and totally unheard of in the glass and steel jungle of New York’s financial district.
Flowers used in the arrangement
- Smoke bush
- Bull rush
- Allium buds
So Emily why did you choose these flowers?
This is the one period of the year that smoke bush is really good. We get it around the year from different places but it’s a local crop and it just doesn't travel that well. It ends up being this sad shrivelled looking thing.
How do you go about arranging?
One of our big things at the moment is doing the flowers for The Modern, the restaurant at MOMA. We do 20ft arrangements where we pull apart a tree and then put it back together. We don’t do regular florist stuff which would be some crap from Holland, some other crap from Ecuador, and a piece of grass wrapped around it. Ours tend to be monstrously huge and with foraged and wild materials, so it’s really hard to educate people about what it is and why. They have to tolerate certain things they are not used to. The chef can understand it fairly well but he can’t understand that the leaves aren’t all manicured. When he works with foraged materials, he manicures them. But he has a kitchen staff of thousands, we don’t have that, there’s only so much of that kind of work we can do within the very tight time constraints we have. The length of time the arrangements are scrutinised for compared to the food also makes it huge challenge! The whole thing is brutal on the staff. Somebody is there every two days at 5am. We’re not very commercial. We’re almost anti-commercial. But we’ve been able to do a lot there - weeds even. I’m really really proud of it so it’s worth something to me at least.
There must be something fascinating about that though, having a challenging space, reworking it every week, always having it at the back of your mind, wondering ‘what am I going to do next'
Exactly. That’s why I brought this up, there’s only one week (a year) you can use smoke bush in a weekly, so that’s what we’re doing. I literally stalk branches all year round. Every week I’m at the market thinking let’s do this, or that next week, it’s not as easy as it seems. Things also fall through regularly simply because half of it is coming from a forager, the other half was supposed to come from a guy that sold it all to someone else just from under you. The market is crazy, so you have to improvise. The other day one of the wholesalers was on the phone yelling at someone who couldn’t get what he wanted - “I’m dealing with crackheads”, he was screaming, “They go into the woods, smoke too much crack, and don’t answer the phone for two days, these are the people cutting the branches, it’s not your typical commercial enterprise!” That’s how it is, it’s these local dudes, it’s not coming from Holland, it’s not packaged in a box, it’s just some guys who have figured out they can make an easy buck in the city.
How have things changed since you’ve been in the city rather than in Brooklyn?
It’s really hard to say because my business is changing, it changes all the time based on the projects we have - we never, ever know what’s happening next. This spring has been The Modern, it has dominated my work, thinking and energy. I feel we’re more accessible to Manhattan in this space - even if South Street Seaport is really its own entity. Having a beautiful space is an amazing thing and its enabled exciting artists projects to happen. It’s the platform for our ambitions, but I’ve been so eaten alive by our work that I haven’t really had time to push forward, to ask myself, “What is this? What is the fantasy?” And “Why?” Well I know the whys, it’s just in me! But what’s next and how do we take this to the next level? It’s a very gruelling path I’ve taken!
How do you define Emily Thompson Flowers?
I have some ideas as to why it’s aesthetically different - but as a project it’s on the verge of being anti-capitalist... an art project. Obviously it's commercial in all these different ways, even if it’s just in sending and arrangement out for delivery on time, in proper packaging etc. But what I want it to be is an opportunity to whoever views the work to see something differently. Making things that are powerful and have deep contrasts in them, I try to bring more depth to the work as far as context goes whether it's thinking about how theses flowers have appeared through history or how we associate them. Aesthetically I’m orientated towards sculptural and textural thinking than I am towards colour palettes. I like things that break each other, that push up against each other and create some kind of explosion. Then they have teeth. I think that’s probably the easiest catch phrase; our flowers have teeth. Literally too - much of what I make everybody work with here is thorny, thorny miserable brambles! We definitely emphasise the wild and uncultivated flowers we can get our hands on, but we also love exotic weirdness. I just love these two things butting up against each other - things that are a result of centuries of cultivation, and things that are a result of their own ecology. Being from this region, I want our work to have a distinctive local flavour. I want things to feel like the environment we’re surrounded by, the landscape outside of the city. I think that’s so missing and so desperately needed especially in the corporate towers of Manhattan, more than anywhere.
What’s the flower scene like in New York?
For us it’s about forcing the elegance of the untamed weed up into those towers, and hopefully show people the magnificence of those delicate things - pushing aside what people have come to know as flowers for purchase. What is difficult for some people to grasp is it’s far more challenging and difficult to procure those kinds of materials than it is to get a generic import from Ecuador. Those things are much more costly and take way more brainpower and thought, and that’s the kind of work I’m interested in.
Do you think that’s something people are coming round to - quality over quantity in cultivation, ancient varieties, foraging?
Yes I think so, although it’s hard to say, there is definitely a movement. And obviously I’m some part of it at some level. I don’t know that the clientele has really grown or if it’s people that were already orientated towards that - I’m not sure how many converts there are. But there are certainly people out there in very privileged positions that are starting to have a taste for it, a desire. A lot of the girls I work with have said that the crammed style is a very New York thing. It might be a translation of the tight French tied bouquet. But I’m telling you, if I could go back in time and debilitate who ever did that leaf wrap around the vase for the first time! People are addicted to it - that’s what the Tony awards are. That’s what people expect. And florists keep on giving people what they expect, with flower foam - horrible and toxic.
Your work reminds me of a floral equivalent to St Johns in London, opening people’s eyes to very different ingredients, bringing back old english cooking. It’s been around for a while and doesn't feel that strange anymore, but it doesn't take away from the amazingness of what they started.
Agreed and often those first ones have the best brains behind them in the first place. I feel that we’re still very unadulterated - even having had many wonderful teams having passed through our doors including our amazing photographer today Aviva, who is one of my favourite and original people. Maintaining that really hard line is what I live to do, and not to be beaten down, to hold that line, against all the philistines out there. It's like 70% of my job. Being like, no no, it’s ok, you can send it back, maybe you’re just not sophisticated enough for it! We’re very kind about it. There is an inherent generosity to floristry that is also very present here despite all the hard edge we’ve been talking about. Flowers are a gift. The garden in front of the shop is a gift to our neighbours and a gift to the passers-by. Even this store is a gift. Obviously receiving our flowers is a gift! But it’s a gift to all of us that get to work in this context. There is an effort towards some kind of purity in our work, an aesthetic purity more than anything. And there are things that I like to force into people's minds eye as it were. For example, there was a moment when I was working really hard to get the ‘mum back. I don’t have to anymore, it’s back, but there was a moment where mums had been so destroyed by the industry that to see them again in a new form was exciting to me. It’s not about things that have been polished within an inch of their lives, be it fruit or flowers - I remember Aviva actually made something that was sent to a client, who saw the spots of the leaves on the apple branch and thought, “This is something different that I’d never expect to receive”. That’s the kind of reaction that makes us tick.