General

She Created SZA’s Floral Bikini. Could She Help Me With a Centerpiece?

She Created SZA’s Floral Bikini. Could She Help Me With a Centerpiece?

This article is part of our latest Design special section, about spaces inspired by nature.


When I was handed a stem of white orchids at a recent flower-arranging workshop at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, my first impulse was to carefully carry it home, where I could put it in a vase all by itself and appreciate its blossoms for as long as they lasted. Instead, it seemed, we were to drag these precious beauties through paint.

Fourteen of us had shown up for the two-hour class, including a floral designer who had flown in from Nashville and a florist who had driven five hours from New Hampshire. A local art director went to different lengths to secure a spot: After being told the class was sold out, she burst into tears, then anxiously emailed with a member of the museum staff until she was admitted.

There were also folks who were just looking for something fun to do on a spring evening. But a handful of truly gung-ho participants helped give the class the upbeat feeling of a fan club.

The object of attention, and affection, was our instructor, the Los Angeles-based botanical artist Kristen Alpaugh — she of the HBO Max reality show “Full Bloom” and more than 39,000 followers on Instagram. Ms. Alpaugh was the first of six artists the museum, known as MAD, had tapped for its just-opened “Flower Craft” exhibition. The other five would subsequently take their own turns occupying a second-floor gallery for a week and teaching a workshop in an adjacent space, where they could share their own floral points of view.

Ms. Alpaugh’s, it had become clear, sometimes involved putting her own spin on nature.

For her installation, she had conjured up large-scale, eye-popping works with dried lotus leaves, dyed pampas grass and anthuriums radiant with iridescent paint. She had slicked sinuous branches with resin, giving the bark the look of reptilian skin. A piece that puddled on the floor had sunflowers poking up out of tall grass, the flowers rigged with mechanical motors to twitch.

“Nature speaks to me and I speak back,” she had told me the day before by phone. “It’s a conversation.”

My fellow classmates and I sat at tables covered in butcher paper. Each of us had a teal-glazed ceramic vessel fitted with green rubber-coated chicken wire to hold flowers in place and a bucket of Gerbera daisies, shimmer roses, sweet peas and phlox in a palette that ranged from grapefruit to lavender.

As everyone began fashioning their arrangements, snipping stems with the florist scissors provided to us, Ms. Alpaugh, 33, wearing olive-colored overalls and leopard-patterned sneakers, shared tips for the benefit of those of us who were not in the trade. They included:

  • Always cut stems on a 45-degree angle.

  • Place larger flowers at the center of an arrangement and smaller ones on the periphery.

  • Change the water in your vase daily.

  • No leaves below the water line!

Each of us also had in our flower bucket a single anthurium painted by Ms. Alpaugh. Anthuriums — striking tropical plants — are also known as flamingo flowers, pigtail plants and, er, peckers on a platter. Ms. Alpaugh likes them in part because their flat surfaces are good to paint on.

“I feel like they were kind of a bullied flower,” said Ms. Alpaugh, who sells revved-up versions via her company, Haus of Stems, at up to $40 a pop. “This thing is just being who it is — why are we making fun of it? If they had a publicist, this is rebranding for them.”

Ms. Alpaugh keeps her technique for painting anthuriums close to the chest, but she was eager to show us how to have our way with orchids. She squeezed drops of acrylic paint from small plastic bottles into a trough filled with distilled water thickened with carrageenan so the paint, which formed expanding circles as it hit the solution, would float on the surface rather than immediately dissolving. Using a plastic stirrer, she gently swirled her circles.

Then she dipped in a branch of orchids, after which she quickly swished the flowers in plain water and held them up so we could see the marbleized petals.

Woo, went the class.

To my right, a floral designer from Massachusetts, who sported a tattoo of peonies and jasmine vines on an arm, dived into dying her orchids. The New Hampshire florist said she planned to use the technique for an upcoming photo shoot for a bridal magazine.

To me — someone thoroughly happy with a simple bouquet of tulips in a single color from the corner bodega — the orchids seemed perfect in and of themselves. Did they really need embellishment?

But in preparation for the workshop, I’d clicked on a couple of flower-arranging how-to videos online and found it surprisingly engrossing to watch a pro quickly create a well-balanced composition before my eyes. And I was intrigued by Ms. Alpaugh’s work — were those carrots in one of her Instagram shots?

Other museums have organized flower events, sometimes bringing in artists to create arrangements inspired by paintings on their walls. But with “Flower Craft,” MAD is aiming the spotlight squarely on contemporary floral designers and their evolving vocation.

It’s one that hasn’t gotten its due, said Elissa Auther, MAD’s deputy director of curatorial affairs and a curator of the show.

This may be because of flower arranging’s association with the traditionally devalued household sphere and the female gender — sure enough, with one exception, all the workshop attendees were women. Its practitioners also tend to run businesses, Ms. Auther pointed out, adding what some might regard as the taint of commercialism to their artistry. Botanical artists have long pushed the envelope in the field — back in 1930s England, Constance Spry was using Swiss chard, kale and weeds in her arrangements — but the profession has tended to operate under the radar.

Social media — Instagram, in particular, with its focus on visual content — appears to be changing that. Ms. Auther said she found all the artists for the museum show by scrolling through the Instagram feed of her “Flower Craft” co-curator, Sarah Bedford, who is the founder and creative director of a flower studio in Manhattan.

Instagram has been crucial to Ms. Alpaugh’s success. Her posts for her custom botanical business, FLWR PSTL, caught the eye of the singer Katy Perry, who began ordering arrangements for friends. Then Ms. Perry commissioned a cascading gown made of flowers for her “Never Worn White” music video, in which she revealed that she was pregnant. Ms. Alpaugh went on to create a floral bikini for SZA to wear in her “Kiss Me More” video with Doja Cat. And she made Doja Cat’s Venus flytrap earrings for last year’s Billboard Music Awards.

Rebecca DePasquale, who had driven in from Norristown, Pa., for the workshop, was one of the floral designers there cheering Ms. Alpaugh on.

“Not everyone looks at florists this way,” said Mrs. DePasquale. “She’s helping show florals as an artistic medium.”

So, really, who was I to question Ms. Alpaugh’s methods when it came to my orchids? After all, I wasn’t the one starring in a museum show. Besides, I had paid $250 for the workshop, and I figured I might as well get my money’s worth.

The class was winding down when I grabbed a couple bottles of yellow and orange paint and tentatively squeezed a few tiny drops into my trough. The results, while not as dramatic as Ms. Alpaugh’s, weren’t bad, either.

I cut my branch down to size, threaded it into my arrangement and carried my flowers out of the museum, feeling as triumphant as if I had gone to a wedding and was told I could take home the centerpiece from my table.

When I got up the next morning and saw my arrangement on the kitchen counter, it looked fantastic. The peony had opened overnight. The anthurium was gleaming in the sun. The sweet peas smelled amazing.

Had I liked the orchids better in their natural state? Yes. But they definitely would not have gone with my colorful composition as well as the paint-daubed ones did.