The Jim Johnson AIFD Cup

Competitive Floral Design—from the inside out

Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know about Competitive Floral Design — An Insider’s Viewpoint.

Just as there are many people unaware of the existence of psychic fairs, bird shows or ice dancing, there are those oblivious to the entire parallel universe of floral design competitions. But every beginning floral designer remembers their first competition and having palms so sweaty it was difficult to use a knife. It is a younger person’s world—one in which established designers do not often take part. So, what was I thinking when I entered the Jim Johnson Cup Floral Design Competition?

I was thinking it would be a wonderful way to show my respect and gratitude to a gentleman who has inspired and educated so many in our industry, myself included. I figured I could bring some additional attention to this event and, while doing so, stretch my long dormant competitive muscles. It has been 30 years since my last floral competition. Competitive floral design is very precise and needs to be cleanly executed. As we mature as designers, our competitive design muscles tend to develop love handles along with everything else. Besides, who wants to come home to a competitive floral design? I would rather be welcomed home by something lush and voluptuous!  Most of all, I entered this competition to learn. I truly believe you are never too old to learn. Besides, one of my best qualities is that I’m not afraid of humiliating myself. I didn’t want to lose my one best characteristic when I needed it most.

One side-effect of jumping into the ring was that it inspired other mature contestants to do the same—Jodi Duncan AIFD and Stephanie Bremer Barro AIFD. The initials AIFD stand for “The American Institute of Floral Designers.” In fact, Stephanie went home with a trophy, but more about that later.

My career for the last ten years has been focused on product development for Park Hill Collection, so I don’t touch flowers every day. Since I no longer work full-time in a flower shop, I secretly practiced in my garage, binged watched “The Kids’ Baking Challenge” and played “Fortnite” with my son Leland to develop my killer competitive instinct.

Two days before the competition, my new friend Jodi Duncan AIFD stopped by our home to break up her long drive from Illinois. We joked about attempted food poisoning or pushing a fellow contestant down the stairs. It was all Ha-Ha, but that night she slept in the downstairs bedroom, and I swear at dinner she did not take one bite until after I did! I must admit the raviolis did taste a little off. The next morning, she went on her way, unscathed. Todd and I packed and headed to the airport. I had to make a quick stop at the hardware store for some new tools, as most of mine were no longer competition ready. The one item that was an absolute for me was a design knife given to me by my floral mentor, Michi Burrell AIFD. The leopard print handle is unmistakably Michi!

I arrived at the competition that evening a little giddy with a mixture of excitement to meet the other designers and a case of old-fashioned nerves. The competitions consisted of three themed designs created in three 45-minute sessions using exclusively flowers and material provided a la “surprise package.” Any items you did not use could be used in any of the following designs. A large audience was present, seated in front of the panel of 18 contestants.

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 2.17.50 PMThe first container and bucket of flowers was distributed—a classic silver urn with handles, a protea, large anthurium leaves, tulips, dahlias, gerberas, roses, orchids and assorted foliage. Host Ken Senter AIFD announced the theme to our eager ears. We were to create a Hitomi Gilliam AIFD-inspired Tropical Nouveau design – ready, go! To understand the scope of the task you need to know that this type of design mixes domestic garden flowers with more exotic tropical flowers. As for Hitomi, she has elevated floral design to an art form unlike anyone else. In other words, if the theme was “Be God,” it would have been a lot easier to pull off!

I quickly set the timer on my phone to help me pace my progress. I gave thanks to God and Facebook for my following Hitomi and knowing what a Tropical Nouveau design is. I finished on time and was generally pleased with my design. I shadowed the large anthurium leave to create a shelter over the other garden flowers, carefully balancing the placement of their colors. The seal had been broken on my long dormant competitive ambitions, and I was feeling great – feeling alive!

After a dinner break it was time for the second category. Using the containers and the second batch of flowers we were to create a design appropriate for a gallery opening of the Korea branch of the Benz School of Floral Design. The materials included black containers, a sphere of black Oasis brand floral foam, bells of Ireland, green anthurium, button mums, horsetail reeds, aspidistra leaves, flax leaves and green dendrobium orchids. I took time to sort out and plan my design. When I first glanced at the materials, I didn’t know my head from my Aspidistra!

After organizing all the materials on my worktable, I felt in the groove and really got into creating motion with the lines of the materials. It was looking dramatic and bold with long, extended lines and lines with circular movement. I was proud of my design and kept working on it—perhaps a little too much. With competitive design surgically precision is of utmost importance. Basically, you need to know when to stop. I would compare it to that uncle who should have stayed off the dance floor after one too many. There may have been some questionable movements! Still, with two designs completed I was feeling accomplished.

That good feeling disappeared when I saw the final bucket of flowers provided to complete a colorful bridal bouquet. “Colorful” seemed to be an understatement as I processed this bucket of rainbow-bright flowers—colors I would never choose or use, even if the wedding ceremony were held on an overly festive parade float! What to do? I told myself to stay focused and remain calm. I also realized that this was the one that could take me down and eliminate any chance of a placement.

My head swirled, and it seemed I was no longer in a design competition but in something closer to a daytime drama. I looked around at the other contestants and the audience. Suddenly their names became soap opera-like. I saw Kebbie Hollingworth AIFD and thought she would dominate the orchid world and all the citizens of Pine Valley. Perhaps if I talked to Erica Kane or Lucinda Peltier AIFD they could figure out a way to stop her! 

I managed to regain my mental composure and got back to work. A few moments later I made my first bad decision. I had opted to use a floral foam bouquet holder but realized I did not have enough materials to fill or cover the holder; I should have opted for a hand-tied bouquet. With most of my stems already cut short, that was no longer an option. Maybe I should reconsider getting that “think-twice-cut-once” tattoo!

What I had before me I hated. I attempted to floral glue hydrangea florets to some Italian Ruscus in an attempt to balance the light blue color, as I thought to myself, “I would never do something like this, but ya just did, Blanche!” I then added Silver Dollar Eucalyptus, hoping the gray tone would neutralize the bright colors of the flowers. I tried to add materials to create some rhythm, but the result looked like a clown in a ball gown. With only a few seconds to go I flung water from a flower bucket off my fingertips onto the bouquet, half hoping it would act as holy water and create a miracle, as I pronounced to the assembly, “A stripper once told me everything looks better wet!”

I was hot. I was humidified. I was tired. I knew my only chance of placing would be if Jupiter aligned with Mars. Tonight, was not my night. While the judges tallied the scores, I scanned the gallery of truly impressive designs, and I was proud to be part of this group. The winners were announced. Third place went to Stephanie Bremer Barro AIFD of Austin, Texas. I was happy to see someone closer to my mature age win something! Besides, she had worked with my floral mentor, Michi, for years in California so I felt a special bond with her. I also know people with three names are tough to beat!

Second place went to Glenwood Weber AIFD of Houston, Texas. He looks like a modern version of Clark Kent/Superman. How can anyone compete with Superman? First place went to Samantha Bates AIFD of Louisiana. Samantha has won this competition two times now! That is a major accomplishment, but I may have my kindergarten teacher call her to discuss the concept of sharing! I applauded all of them because, all humorous observations aside, they deserved it. It is never fun to lose, but to let the fear of losing keep you from even trying is far worse.

As I walked out of the Pike’s Peak Wholesale Florist, I said, “I feel as if I am missing something.” My partner Todd quipped, “Your dignity?” So perfectly timed, I had to burst out laughing. Brutal, but truly funny.  I went over my designs in my head and decided what I would do differently. I realized I was already learning.

What’s this I hear about the Frankie Shelton AIFD Cup Floral Competition coming up in April? Further proof that hope and flowers spring eternal!