Friday, March 20, 2009

The Bigger Picture:
Zen and the art of tulipomania

I have pictures of the finished arrangements for the Government House ladies and gents washrooms, and I admit I'm very tempted to show them to you. And while I think most people who know me know that I am not the most patient person, and that I have trouble keeping surprises a surprise and not giving away presents or talking about presents before Christmas or birthdays, I will wait until after the weekend, when I plan to drop by and take pictures of the arrangements in situ (I'm brushing up on my language skills). For once (maybe twice) in my life I will muster up some resolve and keep my mouth shut and my fingers on other topics.

Like tulipieres!
A tulipiere is an ornate flower-holder that is usually made of hand-crafted pottery. They are typically constructed to accommodate one single flower stem per spout with a larger water reservoir base.
Tulipiere, Wikipedia

I carry a certain prejudice against these things…tulipieres—perhaps because I've yet to see many compelling arrangements in them. Perhaps because the idea of flower stems poking out of pre-ordained vase holes takes much of the arranging out of flower arrangement (and, by extension, the Joy), running counter to my personal ideas of floral design and creativity.

As fate would have it, an ebullient customer happened to be gesticulating in the vicinity of a tulipiere (of course, the biggest and most expensive one) and accidentally knocked the top off of it. I found the wreckage strewn across a countertop. Oh, the tulipomanity.

I stuck the surviving tiers of the tulipiere on my workbench and forgot about it for the rest of the day. As with many things, changing one’s mind takes time, and if I was to make an arrangement in it, perhaps I should give myself a day to get around how unattractive I (used to) think tulipieres are. (Where is this malice coming from?) That was Wednesday.

Yesterday (Thursday), after a very satisfying morning tidying up floral, I had some time and decided I would make an arrangement in that tulipiere. Most of our tulips are in the whites and greens, so I went with that as the basis for my colour scheme and threw in some purples as an accent. Let me rephrase that a bit more accurately: most of my florals tend to be very painterly -– a lot of analagous colour schemes and variation in tones, as opposed to complementary contrasts. With this project, I wanted something different, so I started with the whites and greens and then told myself, “Let’s pick something ugly,” and picked the clashiest tulip we had, which happened to be a really deep, vibrant purple. The tulip itself is quite beautiful. Let’s see if I can find a picture...

Sometimes deciding to make something ugly at the outset of a project can be enormously freeing creatively, because it gets you to re-examine your personal creative tastes and tendencies. At the same time, there’s no getting away from oneself, because I then introduced some painterly and chose a spray of tulips with blooms in pale lavender, cream and, to keep it ugly, a colour between pastel bile and chartreuse.

While I was working on the arrangement, it occurred to me that the design of a tulipiere would lend itself perfectly to showing off a flower collection, should I ever want one, and I smiled. Neat! And then I realised what it was – the source of my prejudice!
While fairly uncommon in modernity, during the Renaissance tulipieres were common pieces of decorative art that could often be found in the houses of European elite. After the advent of large-scale global trade in the 1600s, numerous flowers from Asia such as the tulip, crocus, and hyacinth became luxury items in Europe and these cut flowers remained an exotic novelty until the end of the 17th century. Large pyramid-shaped tulipieres were particularly ornate and were used as a status symbol to indicate the owner's wealth.
Tulipiere, Wikipedia

As a young entrepreneur, growing an event design business, I’ve been struggling with questions of success lately. How do I build my business? How big do I want it to grow? What kind of income do I hope to earn? How do I balance the long hours and hard work of starting a new business with a desire to relax and have fun with the people I love?

I think this tulipiere prejudice has something to do with wanting success. If I want success, then there must be some measure of envy of those who I perceive successful, as quantified by their ownership of or ready-and-willingness-to-acquire fast cars, big houses, hot women…and tulipieres. And if I want success, then I must also want the trappings of success, i.e. fast cars, big houses, hot women and tulipieres. But, and here’s the rub, to want something is akin to either not having it, perceiving oneself as separate from it, or both. And sometimes, when something is seen as not part of you, it’s also seen as bad -– if I can’t have it, it musn’t be good. Hence, the prejudice.

I was pricing the arrangement, when a customer walked up to inquire about it. We got to talking about tulipieres, and I showed her the selection we had in stock, commenting that we’ve had such an interest in tulipieres this Spring, and she mentioned that the Edmonton Journal had just run a piece on tulipieres (read Fast forward to Spring).

I suspect this current fascination with tulipieres and other luxury goods has something to do with the Recession. All the trade mags talk about how recession-minded consumers are looking for products with either a clear actual value (i.e. needs, bargains, and discount/thrift retailers like Value Village) or a strong perceived value (i.e. wants, luxury goods and boutique retailers like Louis Vuitton), whittling out middle road merch (explaining the closure of so many big box retailers). This might also explain the current trend for all things purple. In my inbox today, I received an email from MAC for the Viva Glam IV campaign, with lavender-lovely Fergie entreating prospective customers “to enter a new kind of dreamscape, to feel the ‘Yes, we can!’ of tomorrow...” It looks like purple is the new orange, in terms of colours symbolic of optimism.

Here is the arrangement in the tulipiere. I worked a little mojo in a photo editor so you can see it more clearly.

And here James, enjoying a pretend cup of tea at table with the tulipiere. He's so sweet. I'm working with him as my model for an upcoming series of paintings based on the work of John Singer Sargent.

I have to smile at recognising the evolution of my thinking over the course of this project. I’d started with a vase I hated and picked colours I didn’t like together, but because my objective was to create something beautiful and appealing, I had no choice but to change my mind about the vase and colour relationships. And in changing my mind, I learned something about myself and the way I see the world.

Never stop. Tulips.

Further reading:

Click here to find out how to handle a blossom worth 12 sheep and here for the other Dutch phenomenon (hint: it isn’t windmills).

Click here for an excerpt on tulipomania from Charles Mackay’s book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.


  1. "some colour between pastel bile and chartreuse."

    I love it! :)

  2. Actually, it wasn't snails, it was silkworms, smiling down from silkworm heaven ;-)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Related Posts with Thumbnails