Journalist • Commentator • Editor
Japanese Flower Rebels
Find a Place in the Village
The New York Times
By Jessica Seigel
In a Greenwich Village garden apartment, seven young Japanese women conferred anxiously over a worktable. "Is it too tall?" Akiko Ogita asked. Pondering the possibilities for error, she stood as still as a philosopher contemplating fate. "I'm worried; I don't have confidence," Ms. Ogita, 26, confessed. "This is my first time."
Finally, she reached out with her scissors, snipped a blossom from a potted begonia plant, and stuck the cut stem in a vase that was slowly filling with pink amaryllis buds and scarlet berries. Just like that, she arranged the blossoms in a way that seemed nice. And it was.
Japanese women coming to New York for lessons in flower arranging seems as absurd as New Yorkers going to Tokyo for rudeness seminars. Three centuries ago, when forest covered Manhattan, the art of floral design called ikebana flourished in Japan, where the intricate craft is still revered as a national treasure, like the tea ceremony.
First Coca-Cola, then Levis and sneakers. Now comes the ultimate insult to Japanese tradition: American flower arranging. That might explain the intensity of the secretaries and shop clerks who were in Greenwich Village seeking floral freedom during a three-day seminar. They were cultural rebels—however elegantly dressed and well-mannered—in New York to commune with the Rolling Stones of floral expression, Tom Pritchard and Billy Jarecki, who in the late 1980's and early 1990's pioneered an American natural style with their Pure Madderlake shop and books.
Breaking the hush as the women hunched over the buds and vases, Mr. Jarecki cheered them on. "This isn't brain surgery, and you're not carving granite," he said, pausing for an interpreter to translate. "If it's not so beautiful, you're going to throw it out eventually anyway."
Those are fighting words in Japan, where blossoms cost two to three times what they do here, and ikebana, also known as the way of the flower, involves hundreds of precise rules about cutting, bending and placing stems, right down to angles of 10 degrees this way or that. Though encouraged to follow their instincts, the women constantly asked for reassurance.
Perched on two-inch platform shoes, Ryoko Ahta adjusted and readjusted two flowering eucalyptus stems in a cocktail shaker. Like the other women, Ms. Ahta, a 23-year-old English major who works part time at a Wendy's in Tokyo to support her flower habit, seemed to meditate over her selections, moving as slowly as in a tai chi exercise. "Is it too big?" she asked, gesturing at the eucalyptus leaves sticking above her arrangement like a wispy coxcomb. It was jaunty, perhaps risque.
A classical ikebana master might measure the height of the main stalk in comparison with side branches, the vase and sparse blooms. There are no such rules in the Madderlake style, which is built on casually airy arrangements, antique accessories and woodsy flourishes. Mr. Pritchard scrutinized her stems. "Just right," he said.
In the kitchen, Tomoko Shiihara prepared to take an even bigger risk -- Mr. Pritchard was showing her how to wash the roots of three lily of the valley sprigs, which she planned to combine with thick pink heather. It would be a tricky combo, since two kinds of roots would show through the clear glass container. A student of ikebana for 10 years, she was all too aware of her creative daring with this freewheeling below-the-water's-edge style, which is a Madderlake hallmark. "I am trying to understand the natural way," she explained. "I don't understand because I never studied it."
But then, natural isn't always what it seems in America, either. In the 1980's, when elaborate, overblown arrangements were fashionable, Mr. Pritchard and Mr. Jarecki spread their revolutionary style, first in Greenwich Village, then on Madison Avenue, then at a SoHo shop called Pure Madderlake (after a dark shade of red). Their carefully wild esthetic swept society circles from the White House to the Hamptons. Soon, lavish was out, natural was in, including $50 flats of moss and pricey boxes of nothing but grass.
In 1993, two years before they closed their New York retail shop, the partners opened a design studio in Tokyo. Drawn by publicity in Japanese magazines, young women began studying regularly with a Madderlake disciple, Takaaki Nonen. The twice-a-year trips to New York are a chance for students to learn from their idols, whose relaxed manner is part of the draw. "First, we tell them its O.K. to laugh," Mr. Pritchard said. Occasionally, the women do.
In Japan, flower arranging has become a flash point for many young women. Before World War II, ikebana certificates, earned through weekly study, were considered a prerequisite for marriage. Even today, well-bred women in conservative communities must study the exacting rules of ikebana to make a good marriage.
Like those American career women today who studiously can't cook, some young Japanese women simply refuse to dally with buds. Mari Ikeda, who works in public relations for the New York-based Japan Society, remembers fights with her mother, an ikebana teacher, on the subject. "I refused to learn from her," she said, explaining how, for her, flower arranging seemed a symbol of being submissive.
In adopting the Madderlake style, the Japanese women throw out the rules but keep the flowers. The classes in Tokyo with Ms. Nonen are exercises in self-expression that culminate in the New York tours, which cost the young women $3,000 to $4,000.
"The Japanese are reluctant to say their feelings," Ms. Nonen explained. "They ask, 'Am I right to say it is beautiful?' They need experience in trusting themselves." The experience included leisure time to see the musical "Chicago," tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art and shop at stores like Tiffany's.
Shopping was serious business, though, when the women cruised the 26th Street flea market to bargain for flower containers, ranging from retro Fiestaware vases to a martini pitcher. "The choice of material is 90 percent of the battle," Mr. Pritchard told his students, urging them to visualize the mood they want to express. "Do you want to impress, overwhelm or coax?"
In another excursion, they visited the 28th Street wholesale flower district to learn how professional designers might select blooms and branches for bouquets. At Caribbean Cuts, the women marveled over miniature oranges and pineapples. At Fischer & Page, they gaped at the color riot: peonies from New Zealand, hydrangeas from the Netherlands, roses from South Africa.
More than the variety, the piles of blossoms in flagrant bloom amazed the women. In Japan, flowers for sale are displayed with closed buds from behind glass refrigerator cases. "It's not right," said Junko Sone, 26, who works at her family's computer company. "The flower is a flower. It should be seen in bloom," she added, opening her closed hand to demonstrate a bud unfolding.
Transported by the touchable displays of open blooms, Ms. Sone seemed to flush from the heady vision. Later, in the tranquillity of the workshop, she happily positioned, then repositioned, first left, then right, the last sprigs in a bouquet of lilies. "This is such a special time," she said through the translator. "It's not superficial. It's mental. It's spiritual for me. If you see these beautiful things, you don't need words."
December 24, 1998