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The Urbanist

How I Learned to Arrange Flowers Like a Pro

Our writer became a florist for a day under the tutelage of Peninsula Chicago’s floral design artists.

Illustration: Dan Page

Behind the curtain of Kehoe Designs’ in-house floral studio, bouquets of three-foot-tall Dutch tulips stand at attention in elegant crystal tubes. Sprawling green dianthus stretch toward the ceiling. Alien-looking orange pincushion flowers, which resemble smaller, friendlier versions of the killer plant from Little Shop of Horrors, roam the base of the arrangement. Downright Oz-like in its grandeur, this selfie-worthy display will soon adorn the lobby of the Peninsula Chicago.

The two refined Russian women in matching black outfits who greet me when I enter don’t want me anywhere near it.

My idea of arranging flowers, when I bother to take them out of their plastic sleeves, involves hacking through the stems of Costco roses with dull scissors and shoving them into the first vase I can find. The result is a mismatched mess that my wife ends up fixing herself, which defeats the purpose of buying her flowers in the first place.

In an attempt to add some green hue to my thumbs, I signed up for Florist for a Day, one of several “bespoke programmes” offered by the Peninsula to deliver the sort of behind-the-scenes access demanded by people who can afford to stay at a luxury hotel on the Near North Side. Other excursions include a $1,600 helicopter sightseeing tour and a Princess for a Day kids’ option that includes a gown fitting, custom glass slippers, and a ride around the city in a pumpkin-shaped carriage for a cool $6,000. But isn’t your child worth it?

At $450, my outing isn’t quite as opulent. But it does include chauffeur service to the Pilsen headquarters of Kehoe, the fancy-pants event and decor company that crafted the backdrop for Oprah’s final show celebration and Obama’s Halloween bash at the White House. It also creates displays for the Peninsula every week.

After a tour of Kehoe’s 270,000-square-foot space, which houses an army of craftspeople who do everything from woodworking to upholstery, I’m introduced to Lala Rojas and her mother, Elena Ter-Grigoriants. Both emigrated from Moscow in the 1990s. Ter-Grigoriants, a former college instructor now in her 60s, came to Chicago to pursue her dream of working with flowers. Her 40-something daughter worked as an interpreter in Moscow before she, too, fell in love with floral design. “The first time I put my hands on the flowers, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” Rojas says.

The mother-daughter team has been primping and pruning the Peninsula’s arrangements for more than 14 years. Ter-Grigoriants usually sketches the initial ideas, then the two build on each other’s suggestions, stem by stem, until the piece is complete. “My mother will start talking about something, and I already know where she is going with it,” says Rojas.

The pair often arrive at the Peninsula after midnight to transform the lobby—as well as the reception desk, street-level entrance, restaurant, and other areas—with new floral creations while hotel guests sleep. (A typical installation features 500 to 1,000 stems.) Sometimes they linger after their work is finished just to catch the reactions of the first people who saunter into the lobby for breakfast.

“You are going to help us,” Rojas says. It’s a command rather than a suggestion. We walk toward the lavish display destined for the Peninsula’s lobby … and continue past it. She points to a small bouquet she and her mother are working on for St. Patrick’s Day. Cute and kitschy, it features twisted branches and white hydrangeas interspersed with sparkly leprechaun hats. At the bottom is a pot of gold. I half expect them to ask me to bust out an Irish jig right then and there.

I’ll be constructing one of the two ultragreen Lucky Charms–style arrangements that will frame each side of the lobby’s front desk. Rojas hands me a pair of shears.

Two tedious activities take up the bulk of the time: snipping the nubs and stray leaves from stems, which can foster bacteria that encourage decay, and cutting the individual flowers to the proper length to fit the receptacle. (Pro tip: You can cut tulips short because the stems will keep growing.)

“Watch your fingers,” says Rojas as I nearly slice off a digit while giving a haircut to a cherry blossom branch. It seems so minor, but the angle of the incision affects how the blooms sit and is vital to creating a pleasing display. “You don’t want your flower looking up at the ceiling,” she says. “Usually, you put them in at a 45-degree angle so the center of the flower is looking at you.” Hello there, hydrangea!

Rojas points to a small pile of delicate orchids with petals as soft as a newborn’s bottom. I give each stem a fresh cut and gently nudge the flowers into water-filled test tubes, which allows them to sit atop the arrangement even though their stems don’t reach the bottom of the vase. Finally, I clip a tiny green hat onto one of the branches. A couple of spritzes with a spray bottle of cold water and—voilà!—an arrangement fit for St. Patrick himself.

Now the ladies want me to come up with my own piece. I start with some height, grouping four tulips at the back of a square vase. Snip, snip. I bunch some white roses and green dianthus in separate corners, adding layers and textures. It’s relaxing. I’m in the zone.

“You are a very good student,” says Ter-Grigoriants, who has been watching me closely. “Some are very hectic with the flower placement. I like how you take more time.” She compliments me on how I fill up every open space without overpacking. And she likes my simple color palette. “Any more than three colors, and the arrangement can become too busy,” she says.

What can I say? I have a gift.

I get to keep this arrangement, and I can’t wait to present it to my wife. She’ll never believe I had the delicate touch to pull this off. But then disaster: While hurriedly loading it into the back seat of my car, I knock over my creation. The resulting mess ends up looking even worse than one of my Costco hack jobs.

“Hi, honey,” I say as I peel away the sopping wet carrier and attempt to re-arrange the smushed wet roses on the spot. “Uh, these are for you.”

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