My journey to Chelsea started back in February at the qualifying heat in Cornwall, the standard was really high with lots of previous Chelsea competitors vying for first and second place to enable them to compete at the prestigious RHS Chelsea flower show in May.
The brief was;
Design and create a floral cake for an Asian themed wedding.
The cake does not have to be edible.
The whole design must not exceed 50cm in diameter.
There are no height restrictions.
At least two thirds of the finished design must be fresh flower and/or plant material.
The fresh flower and/or plant material must be visually dominant
The judges are looking for a high standard in Design and Technique.
Well thank heavens this was a floristry competition and not a baking one was my first thoughts. The second…. Where on earth do I start!
Cue quite a few hours scouring the internet for Asian/oriental inspiration and creating moodboards, in the end I decided to opt for a Japanese theme, with colours inspired by kimono fabric and origami.
The next step in designing my cake was to look at those fabulous chocolate and butter icing cake decorating techniques. There were two types that I thought I could translate into floral design techniques;
Butter iced roses – I recreated these with felt preserved magnolia leaves and fresh cordyline leaves. These were used on the base tier that supports my up turned geisha inspired oriental parasol. Upon the parasol are also nestled cupcakes made with the same technique.
Chocolate pencils – this was an easy one, using lengths of red cornus I edged the side of the top three tiers.
The floral content was easy choosing flowers I could glue to the narrow ledges and having oriental links, the heliconia used to echo the points by the origami stars.
Anyway I digress… this is meant to show how I created my tree, the journey of ‘fence post & decking boards to gold medal’.
Well the eagerly anticipated email arrived in my inbox on the 20th March, it had been a month long wait with speculation of what this years brief would be, would we be as pleased as we were with the dress schedule or would it horror of horrors be something we hated… the wait was over it was…
Design and create a fantasy floral tree to celebrate 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, the tree was to be inspired by Tulgey woods and we were encouraged to be imaginative and creative whilst adhering to the rules of at least two thirds fresh flower and plant material and strictly no artificial flowers to be used.
Once again my designing process started with internet searches, watching the films and building up a mood boards of inspiration.
Now this tree could be a whopping 3m high and 1 ½ meters wide so my first thought was that it needs to be made in pieces that would allow me to go it through doors with it and get it to fit and travel in a van to London. It also needed to be sturdy – didn’t want to cause a domino effect where the falling of my tree managed to wipe out the other 13 exhibitors tree’s like a fatal lumberjacking accident!
So this brought up the question of how do I make it? I mean how on earth do you go about making a tree?!? Cue a trip to B&Q where I bought a fence post, decking boards, wood bannisters and some metal threaded rod, I’d been inspired by the basic construction of a bird table base! To help with the balance issue I decided to opt for a tree that was symmetrical, a square fence post meant four branches and four roots and gave actual weight to the base to avoid the dreaded topple effect.
The roots were made by fixing the square bannister poles at an acute angle ( 2 different to vary the heights) to a cross of the base decking boards. The branches were added at two different heights to the sides of the top of the fence post by drilling a hole and sitting on the threaded rod. The rod had also been fed through a drilled hole in the fence post trunk, held in place by nuts. The result was a very basic tree structure.
To add to my five armed structure, four arms and a top section I used very long screws as an anchor point to build on with lengths of wire that were taped into place with good old floristry pot tape – boy that stuff is strong. This created the final ‘bones’ of my tree skeleton.
Next was adding ‘muscle’ onto the ‘bones’ of my tree, my first thought was paper mache but juggling this epic tree with a 5 month old I decided this would be too time consuming so my friend google came up with the answer…. Paverpol!
Fabric sculpture was going to be a new technique to me, but it meant I could add form to my structure by using tin foil, mess free, quick, no drying time, could add very thick layers, it was the ideal solution. To add a natural element to the structure I added palm mule rings at the branch junctions held in place by that super strong pot tape again.
After my ‘muscle’ was complete the tree needed a final ‘skin’ this was going to be the fabric element of the fabric sculpture. Tearing narrow strips of brown cotton I wrapped each individual branch, starting at the tips and tucking the ends in as I went ( the same technique as ribboning a wired bouquet!). Each subsequent piece of fabric held the previous piece in place so very little gluing or mess was made. Many nights followed sat on the sofa twinning fabric around wire and tin foil until the whole structure had turned brown. I then coated my fabric in paverpol, which I had slightly diluted with water and brushed on, turning my soft fabric into a crispy shell.
I added texture by using another art inspired product – crackle glaze – smearing it on in rough patches and rapidly drying, a technique known as demented derma. I added tones of brown with acrylic paint and spray paint and a slight shimmer with a fabulous green metallic wax. Finally a few top coats of varnish seal the layers and stop water tarnishing the design, also enabling me to use my tree as a garden sculpture after Chelsea. Theres nothing worse than spending weeks and weeks making something for it then to become useless, I love a reusable structure!
The next thought process is how to add flowers to the design, well I’d been inspired by the disney film and also by bonsai tree’s where there is a pillow of foliage sprouting from the branches. So how to make them? Well I’d seen on social media some fabulous designs by Ignacio Canales Aracil a Spanish artist who creates structures with pressed flowers and I wanted to do something similar. Time wasn’t on my side so I had to find a way to create a similar effect in a shorter period, I also wanted a fuller style. Cue the powers of Pavorpol yet again.
Making The Canopy
Ingredients; a mister spray filled with 75% pavorpol and 25% water. This creates my glue to knit the textures together. A bowl of the same pavorpol and water mixture. Selection of dried flowers ( I had bougainvillea, leonotis, broom bloom, oak leaves, hydrangea, grasses), Tillandsia moss, sisal (orange, cerise and burgundy)
- Tease out a bundle of the tillandsia and soak with the pavorpol mister, scrunch together so fully coated in the solution but not drenched ( no extra liquid)
- Tease out again into the vague shape required.
- Add fine strands of the dry sisal over the top, then the grasses
- Dip the broom bloom in the solution bowl and shake to remove excess fluid
- Place on the tillandsia nest in a radial arch, repeat with the petals and flowers again soaking in the solution until covered but not soaking.
- Add another fine veil of tillandsia over the top
- The final layer is a thoroughly soaked fine veil of tillandsia.
- Leave to dry for a few days.
As you can imagine this was a time consuming job, especially considering I made over 40 of these! I again sealed with a layer or two of varnich as the pavorpol discolours with water unless sealed and I’d want to spray the flowers to keep them fresh. The canopy pieces were fixed onto the branches with reel wire at various points.
Next I added the finishing details , I had created a porch out of individual pieces of fir cones and a little door – this would become the dormouse house at the base.
Now apart from a few of the animals I wanted to keep the alice in wonderland theme simple so I chose to concentrate on the suits of the playing cards. Using large cookie cutter shapes I bent and formed aluminium wire into hearts, clubs, diamond and spades and filled with a layer of cocoas fibre, covering again in pavorpol to stop the fibre shedding and splitting. I also had small charms attached to a fabulous multi toned and varied thickness of wool.
The final step was the flowering of the canopy which included over 10 boxes of stunning vanda orchids, tray upon tray of phalaenopsis orchids, various houseplants and succulents and also the humble chrysanthemum!
In the end the tree had evolved to incorporate all four seasons in the one design. The tendrils of the wool, tillandsia and amaranthus symbolized spring catkins, the bountiful flowers symbolized summer, the dried canopy, colour scheme and berries were autumn and the bare branches winter.
The seniors were competing at the beginning of the week this meant flowering Friday and Saturday, loading and travelling to London Sunday morning and setting up at the show on the Sunday afternoon. We were allowed 6 hours to unload, set up and add finishing touches, which silly ole me thought would be oodles of time, alas it was not and the evening ended with me drastically running iout of time and barking crazed orders to my poor helper.
Watching the others unloading their designs I had a fierce moment of doubt and was constantly mumbling to poor Jon that everyone had created such weird and wonderful designs and all I had was a blooming tree, that looked just like a tree. Cue crazy doubts that lasted all night and Monday too, had I kept it too simple in style? Was it too subtle in theme? Luckily Tuesday came with good news that I’d won gold with a very healthy 93% and three points from Laura Leong who was crowned Best in show and Chelsea florist of the year 2015. The year of the dress was fab as every single exhibitor won a medal that was silver and above, this year was not such a happy event with only half the exhibitors gaining a medal. I was one of only two golds, there were 3 silver gilts and 2 bronze.
Showing what a challenging brief it had been this year, which I’m thrilled to have done so well at.