In Washington, there is no greater honor than having an opportunity to design for the White House (regardless of who is president or what political party you belong to). Pretty much since its formation under the Kennedy Administration, the White House flower shop has had a closed door policy with only a few people ever getting a glimpse of its inner workings.
In 2009, something radical happened under the Obama Administration. Chief Florist Nancy Clark retired and her position became available. Rather than promote from within or simply appoint another Chief Florist, a design "competition" was held.
Several notable florists participated, but, in the end, it was Laura Dowling with her exquisite taste in garden-style design, experience with historic homes and eye for color who prevailed.
At the time, I did not know Laura. Although we had never met, we actually lived within one city block of each other. As soon as the announcement was made, I had this feeling that we were destined to connect.
On my prettiest hand-made stationary, I wrote a little note introducing myself as an experienced designer and expressing my sincere desire to volunteer for her at the White House.
Several months went by as Laura acclimated to her new position, but one afternoon I received the voicemail.
I can still feel the smile on my face and butterflies in my stomach as I stood outside of Helen Olivia and listened to "This is Laura Dowling from the White House . . . would you like to come in this weekend?"
Ummm, Yes! What time?! I will be there!
In my mid 20s, I felt so small every time I was admitted through security and allowed to walk among the pristine grounds and below the ornate architecture. Now in my mid 30s, I felt that same sense of awe when I returned this year as a guest to view the Christmas decorations.
The flower shop was tiny but always bustling. Laura: two coffees in hand, a computer behind her, gorgeous florals in historic vermeil containers spread about in front of her, and always an eye on every detail.
Laura was beyond complimentary from the very first day I worked with her. In her signature whispered tones, always encouraging me to try her style which was full of new philosophical concepts and floral angles I had never attempted in my retail design life.
To do this, the days were long (12+ hours sometimes) but I never saw Laura tired or overwhelmed. She never complained when it was just her or her and me alone in the floral shop, often until 10 pm or later.
Once a summer she might jet off to Paris for a quick inspirational trip, but, in her words, she would come back "hitting the ground running," full of new ideas, techniques and energy.
We would endlessly debate the meaning of "modern" and wasn't garden style modern after all?
We designed flowers for the diplomatic rooms, flowers for the residence, parties and holidays. Never allowed anywhere without an escort and always under the vigilant but unobtrusive gaze of the Secret Service. It was still an awesome feeling to be virtually alone in the most famous of American interiors. No ropes and quiet all around.
Laura shared with me what she had learned from her master teachers Gregor Lersch and Catherine Muller - always recommending that I continue my floral education by studying with them first-hand in Germany or Paris.
I was not the only designer Laura invited into the White House. In my opinion, her volunteer program was almost above the way Laura elevated the quality of design within the White House. Laura shared her position with so many people, teaching, complimenting, and directing all the while. This was something truly revolutionary, and, in my opinion, the way it should be.
You did not have to be a florist - you could be a cake baker (Maggie Austin), a planner (Grit and Grace), a staffer, an architect or a housewife. Regardless, Laura had a project for you, and it probably involved a glue gun or pipe-cleaners!
In so many ways, I look at Laura as a floral conceptual artist; a woman with a vision who knew how to direct her volunteers and achieve designs that have never before been possible.
I am not sure if even Laura realizes the impact she had on so many people and what a hole has been left for this spirit of collaboration among her designers and volunteers.
People who know of my relationship with Laura are constantly asking me about her, and if she has any projects going on that they could be a part of.
Sadly (for us) I have to relate that Laura is in full book tour mode. After launching not one (Floral Diplomacy) but two (A White House Christmas) fabulous books, she is now in the beginning stages of her third (Wreaths: With How-To Tutorials) and is constantly on the move.
Flawlessly moving from Chief Florist to celebrity floral educator, Laura continues to be my number one design inspiration. Most active on instagram, I get a warm feeling every time I see a post in which she has pushed the boundaries once again and created in a way I have never considered before.
Though I do miss our time together at the White House, and the magical place that it truly is, I feel very lucky to still have Laura in my life as a friend and mentor, and love seeing all the amazing things she continues to achieve.