BY CHERYL ANDERSON
Laura Dowling, Chief Floral Designer at the White House from 2009 until 2015, was the featured speaker at Kenilworth Garden Club’s Annual Benefit luncheon on May 2, 2019 at the Glen View Club in Golf, Illinois. During her tenure at the White House, she managed décor and flowers for thousands of events, including state dinners, parties, receptions, and for the East and West Wing offices, Camp David, and the Private Residence.
Dowling is the author of Floral Diplomacy at the White House and A White House Christmas. Her newest book, Wreaths, is a tutorial taking wreath making to a whole different level with ideas that are both creative and unique, giving readers just what they need to know to design their own beautiful wreaths or duplicate her designs.
Wreaths is the author’s first in a planned series of how-to books. She considers wreaths as a “motif”: one has to think about the “mechanics” in their construction, a challenge she enjoys. She shared that the next in the series will be Bouquets, with examples and detailed instructions on the mechanics of an “open and relaxed approach” to floral arranging.
Dowling related stories about her experiences that led to her position at the White House and a brief history of the evolution of flowers that were brought into or at one time completely banned from the historic residence. Growing up in Washington state, she was inspired by her grandmother learning the importance of introducing color to floral design. Drawn to Paris and its flowers, she began her studies there and still visits for inspiration.
After completing the interview process and securing the position, her first assignment as chief floral designer was a state dinner to be held in just three weeks! Important to Dowling is the “potential of flowers to communicate,” and state dinners certainly lend themselves to such communication. Months of research go into each of them and “floral diplomacy” comes into play. Decisions have to be made about a suitable color scheme, what china is to be used, traditions, history, likes and dislikes of the visiting dignitary, until finally her vision for the event would come together.
“It never got old walking around the White House,” shares Dowling. Many of us have had the same emotion when visiting. Jacqueline Kennedy was the first to create the position of chief floral designer, and going forward, each First Lady would bring their own style to the White House. There are hundreds of portfolios of flower requirements to fulfill.
One of the most intense times is decorating the many rooms and passageways for Christmas. Legions of volunteers are called into action. There are many other projects and celebrities often show up. Fresh flowers are always a finishing touch, requiring “mixing and matching according to personalities.”
At the luncheon Kenilworth Garden Club President Mary Lois Hakewill shared with the guests that the event raises funds for the current and future projects and programs of the organization, including volunteering at Misericordia and maintaining the Charles A. Ware Memorial Garden on Kenilworth Avenue.
Benefit Co-Chairs Mary Quinn Gordon and Marty Peterson Shaw, formed a committee of Kenilworth Garden Club members whose talents and creativity made for a beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. On each table and throughout were topiaries of fresh yellow lemons evoking a little sunshine into what was a very rainy day.
In 1923, Kenilworth Garden Club was invited to join The Garden Club of America, with this new chapter came a heightened awareness of state and national issues concerning conservation and beautification.
The original rules state: “Any member not brave enough to wheel a barrow of manure down Kenilworth Avenue, if need be, was not worthy membership.” In addition, discussion of “dress, disease, bridge, servants, and children” was strictly taboo. They were known as dirt gardeners, cultivating, weeding, transplanting, and raising their own plants.
Dowling believes that “following a passion can lead to extraordinary things, and anything is possible in America with perseverance and a commitment to excellence.” Today, the Kenilworth Garden Club continues their passion for gardening, flower arranging, conservation, horticulture, and participation in their community.
Photo credit: Cheryl Anderson