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Career Day

From a basement office, she made the White House bloom

A former White House florist on sugar artists, ‘Kids’ State Dinners,’ and how to make the most of supermarket flowers

By Julia Beck

Ginny Wydler worked in the White House Floral Shop during the Obama Administration. She is the founder of Lilac & Page, a floral design company.

How did you land in the White House Floral Shop?
I placed a cold call to Laura Dowling, the White House chief floral designer. As luck would have it, Laura and I had worked with the same floral educator in Paris.

What was the shop like?
It was an unassuming space tucked in the basement of the White House. It was fun, and often busy and buzzing around big events, such as state dinners.

Who worked there?
Four full-time employees, additional volunteers, and a regular cast of creative talent from all around the country. Laura would bring in noted individuals from different fields: artisan paper makers, engineers, architects, and sugar artists. One Christmas she brought in Virginia-based [cake designer] Maggie Austin to make remarkably realistic sugar flowers.

What events stand out in your mind?
“Kids’ ‘State Dinners,’” which were associated with the First Lady’s “Get Moving” campaign. There were topiaries made of brussels sprouts and sculpture bowls made of cherries.

Make a commitment to keep flowers in your home at all times, even a single bloom, a branch, or a sprig.

At the White House, do you have to be extra careful about how you source flowers and other supplies?
It was less about sourcing — though domestic and local suppliers were always the priority — and more about budget. Laura was very fiscally focused.

Where do you get flowers now?
My primary relationships are with local farms and wholesalers. This means buying based on availability. It marks the change of seasons and passing of time in my work.

What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you as a floral designer?
I handle on-set floral design for [the PBS cooking show] “Pati’s Mexican Table.” I need a large volume of floral materials to cover windows and surfaces and create a warm mood. When I began, I did not understand the power of lighting and other set elements. It was painful as I stood there watching flowers wilt under the heat of the lights.

Any tips for making a bouquet with flowers from the supermarket?
You can pull any arrangement apart and build your own! Go to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Both try to source locally.  Break up what you buy and create something unique to you. Focus on a monochromatic palette or single flower arrangement. Make a commitment to keep flowers in your home at all times, even a single bloom, a branch, or a sprig.

What flowers are easiest to work with? Hardest?
Hellebores and ferns are very temperamental. Certain flowers, like those with thorns, are stunning but take a lot to condition and prepare. Tulips can grow an inch within 24 hours of being cut. Each flower has its own way it likes to be handled and arranged.

What is your own favorite flower?
I am huge fan of peonies and ranunculus. Sweet peas were grandmother’s favorite, so they resonate with me. Lilacs remind me of my hometown of Cleveland, where I knew it was spring when the lilac tree that grew outside of my window would bloom.

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Julia Beck is a writer based in Washington, D.C.


Illustration by Verónica Grech

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