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Back to Nature

August 04, 1994|ROSE-MARIE TURK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the Woods in Brentwood, a $400 floral arrangement looks the way Mother Nature and the designer intended: exquisite, but less than perfect. The 60 color-assorted roses and four blue-violet hydrangeas--spilling from a silver keepsake box--are garden-grown, open and blissfully blemished.

Gone are the flawless, furled long-stem roses and stark tropical arrangements of the '80s, tributes to black-and-white rooms with chrome-and-leather furniture. Instead, today's fashionable bouquets speak of antiques, rumpled slipcovers, a renewed interest in gardening and a desire to escape a world with too many harsh edges.

"Savvy people want something that looks like they did it themselves," says floral designer Wayne Woods, owner of the Woods and another shop in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel. "Oftentimes, if we're doing a party, I will cut things from their gardens. They want to go back a step."

The trendiest bouquets also whisper of cottage industries and environmental correctness. Around Los Angeles, the leading floral designers avoid throwaway materials as much as they do outmoded hothouse carnations, uptight roses and baby's breath. Their back-to-nature flowers arrive, sometimes minus a petal or two, in collectibles--anything from silver chests and etched lead-crystal vases to galvanized buckets, vine-filled glass bowls and customized terra-cotta pots.

"We're seeing a lot more fun, adventuresome arrangements than there were two or three years ago," says Robert C. Smith, the owner of Laurels in West Hollywood, whose floral designs appeared in the recent remake of "Father of the Bride."

The reason? "I would like to think that with all the nesting and cocooning, people looked inside magazines and became much more sophisticated."

Some customers weren't exactly thrilled when designers began experimenting with more natural, more romantic-looking arrangements several years ago. "If I sent floppy viburnums and open roses, I would get calls that the flowers were dead," recalls David Williams Yeh, owner of Secret Garden in Beverly Hills. "I felt I had to educate people. Now, I get very few complaints."

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Clients who study Elle Decor magazine and deal in flower currencies--sending and receiving at the mere mention of a birth, death, invitation or restaurant reservation--have no trouble spotting each artist's signature work.

Woods, a former clothing designer, is known for garden-inspired, comfortable creations that start at $50. To mimic nature, he and his artistic team mix hard and soft textures, placing Australian baby protea, for example, next to a California garden rose. An arrangement might contain rosemary, oregano, mint, chamomile, grapes, cut oranges, whole limes, Casablanca lilies or sunflowers of every variety.

"A lot of inspiration comes from local landscapes or a drive along the coast to see the mustard flowers in bloom," Woods says. Cottage-industry growers provide him with furry brown grasses, pretty weeds, potato vines and passion flowers.

"I want people to see a texture they haven't seen before that delights them. It's really to open them up to the beauty of nature, to remind them we're part of nature. We're the same as a tree or a cow. We're not an automobile or a computer."

Walter Hubert, painter, stylist, lecturer and owner of Silver Birches in Pasadena and in the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, incorporates Dumpster finds in his work. Inspired by fashion (he is a floral consultant for Ralph Lauren, among others), fine art, jewelry and even food, he lives in what he calls "an enchanted world."

And he shares it with established clients. One of them recently entertained 40 guests in the picturesque, Mission-style patio of Hubert's Pasadena shop. She provided the lunch. He donated the delicate, rose-cluster table decorations and the demonstration.

Hubert, who uses only local materials for arrangements starting at $75, quickly turned a discarded palm frond, roses from his garden, Mexican bamboo, wisteria runners, oregano, loquat, blooming rosemary, dusty miller pods, agapanthus and belladonna delphiniums into a spectacular, $350 signature centerpiece.

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Retraining floral designers to think in more natural terms takes some discipline. At Laurels, an appointment-only design studio with a $55 minimum, owner Smith has a rule against using what he calls "filler flowers" and insists that new employees work without cutting stems. "It's a way to deprogram them and stop them from making anything too stylized."

An example of Smith's unexpected combinations appeared earlier this year at the New Yorker's Academy Awards party in the Hotel Bel-Air. On the tables were brightly hued floating flowers in glass bowls, surrounded by thistles, grasses and orchids in sake cups resting on rice paper.

Some designers are harvesting flowers from the lavish gardens of their own clients. The staff at TFS, a West Hollywood floral boutique nestled behind an interior design studio, makes $50 per-hour house calls.

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