Every flower tells a story
Words by Suzanna Knight
Photos by Bob van der Vlist
There’s so much more to flowers than meets the eye, from what it takes to guide a flower from seed to blossom to the historical significance of a rose. Artist and floral designer Denise Collignon and her landscape historian partner-in-crime Mariette Kamphuis hope to re-establish that connection by revitalising floral tradition through experimentation and interaction on their organic flower farm.
Just outside of Rotterdam, the skyline still visible in the distance, lies Mariette’s urban flower farm. It’s nothing like the famous Dutch flower farms we’re used to passing on the train or seeing from a plane – those fields of uniform colours planted neatly in parallel blocks and rows. Mariette’s urban oasis is a carefully cultivated but wild garden, a romantic and dream-like tribute to the incredible work that goes into growing your own flowers. It’s early fall, but the dahlias are still in bloom. Denise has already cut some to be used in art project later that afternoon. “I get most of my flowers from the farm these days- it’s a completely different way of thinking. I have to work with what’s there, instead of deciding on a concept and finding flowers that fit,” Denise explained.
The photographer turned floral designer started her career in 2011, after studying photography at the St. Joost Art Academy and floral design at the Stoas University of Applied Sciences. “As a photographer, I was interested in the relationship between humans and nature. But a photograph is just a still image- it hangs there, and that’s it. It wasn’t the right medium for my message,” Denise explains. Being an artist in the floral world was, and still is, a novelty and a challenge. “I went from complete artistic freedom to being part of a long-standing tradition. At school, I was arranging bouquets according to strict rules. But over the years I learned to combine the two backgrounds, to translate that floral tradition into visually stimulating art pieces with a story to tell.”
Denise has since worked for big fashion brands as well as museums, like H&M, Marie Claire and the Museum of the Image, always trying to tell a story, adding different layers of historical significance and conceptual thinking to every piece. For an art show about the fragility of life at Galerie Hommes last year, she created a stunning bouquet of flowers covered in paint and liquid rubber. The flowers withered and died, but through the layers of paint and rubber, their colours were preserved, providing interesting commentary on our tendency to hold on to our youth and fear old age. “I want to make people aware of the meaning behind different flowers and plants, the kinds of stories they can help us tell. There’s always a narrative, a history. There’s a reason why we all bring a tree into our homes every Christmas, or why lilies are present at funerals. Flowers can express a whole concept, just by being flowers.”
I want to make people aware of the meaning behind different flowers and plants, the kinds of stories they can help us tell.
With Veld & Vaas, a collaborative floral workshop and design studio, Denise and Mariette take those concepts and let their homegrown flowers do the talking. The studio is based on the farm, where the gap between city folk and the flowers they buy instantly disappears. “When you can see where a flower comes – from-a tiny little seed, growing into bright and beautiful marigolds- you immediately form an appreciation for your natural surroundings. Nature can grow something that beautiful, all on its own!”
The Veld & Vaas concept is based around slow flowers, or organically grown, season-bound flowers cultivated right there in the field. “We grow our own flowers, and always work from a specific concept or historical context. If you want 40 bouquets with specific flowers delivered on one day, we might not be the best floral designers to call,” explains Denise. But for those willing to take the time to go through the process, get acquainted with the flowers, find an appreciation for nature’s own incredible skills, the Veld & Vaas farm is the perfect place to do so. “Once people meet us, see the place, they understand immediately what they’re dealing with, and are willing to learn about their flowers and put a little more effort into where they get their flowers from. We want to give people more than just a lovely bouquet- we want to trigger an appreciation for the flowers, give in-depth workshops during which participants can cut their own flowers from the field. That’s what creates a bond.”
Once the last flowers have bloomed this year, the farm will move to its new location at Op Hodenpijl- a lush green, old estate between Rotterdam and Delft. But before any of that happens, Denise will bring those last few flowers to a worn-down sculpture garden just outside of the city, to an old statue of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and the season of spring. Her nose is missing, but Denise’s freshly picked dahlias form a fitting and stately crown around the ancient stone head. “We honour Flora every season – it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek but we’re also serious. She deserves a little attention every now and then, as does the rest of the floral world she represents.”