Slow Flowers Journal
“San Francisco florist builds an enduring brand around sustainable design.”
In 2013, during the first year of the “Slow Flowers Podcast,” I interviewed a young floral designer from the San Francisco East Bay who, at the time, was one of the only voices talking about sustainable design practices. I called her “Berkeley’s eco-floral maven” and said this, “Pilar Zuniga is blazing a new trail and is the true definition of a local florist. She has a hometown, Main Street flower shop that goes the full distance to source from local flower farms in her own backyard.”
Remember, this was in the early days of Instagram. When it came to visually exciting storytelling – at least online – individual bloggers still reigned. As early as 2008, when she launched Gorgeous and Green as an event floral business, and later as a local Berkeley retail floral and gift store (2010-2016), Zuniga used her blog to write about sustainability concerns, including chemical-free design techniques and mechanics. “I don’t use sprays, glues or floral foam at all,” she explains.
Today, Instagram is home to Zuniga’s online presence, where followers are drawn to her vibrant aesthetic, often portrayed against a distinctive turquoise-teal wall – a color rarely found in flowers. Wherever she designs, including in her current studio, Zuniga relies on a turquoise backdrop, taking advantage of the beautiful wash of natural light that illuminates it for photography. “That is my brand color,” Zuniga says. “It balances with reds, pinks and burgundies as well as oranges, yellows and jade greens.”
Gorgeous and Green currently sources from several Northern California flower growers that use sustainable practices, including some who are USDA Certified Organic, basing weekly designs from the seasonal harvest of fields
In the Berkeley-Oakland area, Sonoma County and Half Moon Bay. To augment, Zuniga shops at the San Francisco Flower Mart, buying only from vendors of California-grown product.
Her mix of botanicals from boutique area farms, combined with the commercially farmed options, gives her designs an eclectic appeal. “I love pulling together what’s a little wild with elements that are soft and structured, like local roses. I’ll even add tropical sensibility because I’m always looking for that ikebana or modern element. Or I’ll offset a design with strange branches as an arrangement takes shape as a great smorgasbord – as colorful as possible. I always look for unique, vivid colors and combinations.”
Gorgeous and Green’s return to its studio roots three years ago has given Zuniga freedom to expand her most profitable channels of business. While she left the retail format behind, the designer has retained many of her signature features, including bicycle delivery, green mechanics and local flower sourcing.
Customers order online from a selection of sizes and styles for Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville delivery. “Those day- to-day arrangements represent a significant amount of my business,” she says. “We deliver daily, Monday through Friday, working with Pedal Express, a bike courier collective.”
Zuniga continues to offer gift baskets that include flowers and selections of her favorite sustainable items, a carryover from the retail experience. Custom florals for weddings and events continue to drive other channels of Gorgeous and Green’s business, but Zuniga has also developed an online program for smaller wedding orders, with a $400 minimum. “It was a lot of work for not very much income to go through a full-service process with customers who wanted just personal flowers and a few centerpieces,” she explains. “So I developed an online ordering system where couples can order based on their budgets. Generally, they pick up the flowers, or they can talk with me about potential drop-offs, but it usually does not include whole setups.”
This model is possible because of improved technology platforms as well as the marketplace’s general comfort level with online shopping. For customers who need personal consultations, they can pay $75 for the service. In fact, that’s available as an item in Zuniga’s online store.
Since closing its retail space, Gorgeous and Green has been based at a small, garden shed- sized studio in an industrial neighborhood of fellow artists and makers. Now, Zuniga is readying for another studio move. She is planning to build a workshop using reclaimed shipping containers. They’ll occupy extra space on property used by her husband’s Oakland- based company. “It will be fun to use the shipping containers, and I plan to make a garden there,” she says.
There is one more benefit of moving Gorgeous and Green to this location. “The space has a sound stage, which is basically a huge photography and video studio. So I’m thinking of creating some content to share, whatever it is I’m working on,” she says.
Gorgeous and Green, gorgeousandgreen.com,
“A passion for local flowers inspires dual business ventures that serve both retail and wholesale channels.”
When floral designer Sarah Reyes first shared her dream of bringing unique local and seasonal flowers from farms and fields outside of San Francisco to the Bay Area marketplace, I called her a “floral concierge.” She corrected me. “I am a botanical liaison,” she said. Reyes now has two floral enterprises sharing the “botanical liaison” tag line. Wildflower & Fern is a new 240-square- foot retail flower shop, which opened in early September at Oakland’s Rockridge Market Hall, a European-style food and wine market. Unfurled, the wholesale buying business, now shares cooler and storage space with Wildflower & Fern. This arrangement allows Reyes to serve wholesale customers who pick up from the back of the house while also supplying her retail customers with local California-grown botanicals. “
Unfurled started a few years ago with my love of supporting local flower farmers,” she explains. The floral entrepreneur originally purchased flowers from North Bay farms and sold them through a series of pop-ups around Oakland and Berkeley, such as during the First Friday Art Walk.
“I knew there were other people who had the same ideals, and I knew it wasn’t practical for them to get out to the farms,” she explains. Unfurled became a personal floral buying service, with Reyes’ weekly trips to flower farms in Sonoma County financed by a small delivery fee paid by her customers. Reyes believes that it’s good for the entire marketplace to connect florists with farms, even if those florists could be considered her competitors.
Unfurled’s list of studio and retail customers grew until Reyes was playing the floral liaison role for 10-plus clients, including Brian McRonald, owner of The Flower & The B, located in Oakland, Calif. “He eventually became my biggest customer,” she says. McRonald later hired Reyes as his shop manager and offered her the use of a cooler and studio space in his West Oakland backyard for Unfurled’s wholesale venture. (His decision to close The Flower & The B allowed Reyes to assume the store’s lease and open her own retail shop in the same location.)
Reyes wants to establish a different brand and culture for Wildflower & Fern. That means transitioning from imported roses to a selection of hybrid tea and spray roses from a North Bay grower; it means offering evergreen and berry branches in the winter, reflecting the seasonal flora of the region. She believes that the customer base will embrace this shift, a prediction that played out in early September when Wildflower & Fern opened its doors.
“We didn’t have time to process all the flowers I had just picked up from area farms,” Reyes recalls. “Customers were pulling bunches off of the cart like it was a farm stand.” She also noticed that the stems from her supplier farms are stripped, trimmed and processed, “the way a florist processes flowers,” something she attributes to the fact that many of the owners are farmer-florists.
The constancy of having a retail location rather than operating out of her car and a borrowed cooler is allowing Reyes to experiment with products and services she’s been dreaming about. These include offering a regular farm-sourced floral subscription program and educational workshops. A store with regular hours means adding employees, which Reyes hopes will free her up to expand the areas from which she can source local flowers. She’s been in talks with flower farmer groups in the Sacramento Valley and in the Santa Cruz area, for example. This hub-and-spoke model is one that has always worked for farmers, bringing rural harvest to the city. Reyes is reinventing this model to suit her personal mission.
“I take a lot of pride in the connections that I’ve made and the relationships I’ve kept with the farmers. This new path allows me to also provide those flowers to retail customers. I believe I’ll be able to expand my reach to the end consumer this way.”
Unfurled Design, unfurleddesign.com,
“Former fashionista reflects on moving from
couture to bespoke floral design.”
Her fashion career began at high-end department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin & Co., and later, led to top sales and marketing roles for cashmere and couture designers. Her creative influences range from a 1970s suburban childhood in Santa Clara, Calif., once home to thousands of acres of cherry and plum orchards (now the heart of Silicon Valley), to studying art and film making – and fashion runways around the globe.
In 2013, after sending her youngest child off to school, Susan Chambers was drawn to floral design. She had read an article about the Russian River Flowers School in Sonoma County’s Healdsburg. “I needed something creative. I was missing that breath of life through creating,” she recalls.
The pivot from fashion to floral design became Chambers’ self-described “master’s program.” After a year of private courses, the designer traveled to London to take a workshop at the famed McQueens Flower School.
The one-week intensive course was a transformative experience for Chambers, who loved returning to London where she was once an art student. She has since continued her studies at McQueens on a number of occasions, gaining confidence in classical skills as well as in her own aesthetic.
“I learned that event floristry existed and that I could tell a story with flowers,” she recalls. “To know that I could create a space, create a moment of discovery when the beauty of flowers could make people gasp when they walk into a room … it was so liberating.”
bloominCouture got its start five years ago when a friend proposed that Chambers design the flowers for a corporate event. The studio has since evolved, mostly through word- of-mouth and referrals. Weddings represent a small portion of bloominCouture’s clientele, balanced by “whole home florals” for San Francisco clients who appreciate how Chambers designs arrangements that reflect their interiors and artwork, as well as for holidays. These commissions are the antithesis to the intensity of a wedding.
“It becomes a personal relationship that we have of getting to know their style and their events; what rooms need florals and what colors they love,” she explains.
Five years after forming her studio, Chambers realizes that her bloominCouture floral enterprise is similar to documentary film making and visual merchandising for top fashion brands. “I am creating a visual space and telling a story,” she says. “When I use an unexpected element in an arrangement, whether it’s a funky seedpod or a branch of blackberries on the stem, the flowers become the texture. They become the fabric.”
Seasonality is at the core of Chambers’ philosophy, and she relies on a number of flower farms located from Half Moon Bay to Petaluma. Sourcing flowers locally actually saved an early wedding from disaster, she recalls. When a delivery truck carrying her rose order broke down and couldn’t get to the San Francisco Flower Mart in time, Chambers telephoned a childhood neighbor in Santa Clara, about one hour south of San Francisco.
“I asked, ‘Do you still have the beautiful persimmon tree?’” Not only did the neighbor cut fruit-laden persimmon 058 FLORISTS’ REVIEW | NOVEMBER 2019 tree branches for Chambers’ event, she harvested old roses and branches of citrus trees – and drove the haul into town for her.
“That is still one of my favorite weddings,” the designer maintains. “The wedding took place under redwood trees. We had the persimmons on the branch, coming out of the arrangements. It was just beautiful, and it felt so organic with the fog rolling in. I thought, ‘This is my childhood.’”
That experience has taught Chambers to observe California’s natural environment with appreciation. “I get that rush like I would in fashion, when we would ask, ‘How are we going to do this?’ and then we’d figure it out. It’s a shift in perspective. In Northern California, I have such amazing options. I can cut jasmine year-round from my garden. There is an abundance of Eucalyptus here in San Francisco. I look up and see pine cones or cool seedpods and think, ‘I could use that. Let’s be unexpected. Let’s use nature in a new way.’”
Chambers believes the romance and beauty of visual arts can transport the viewer, be it watching a fashion show or enjoying a dinner party. “I am completely captivated by the conceptual magic of ephemeral beauty,” she says. “The thought that as the lighting changes, the nuance and mood of the room shifts; that something as simple as fruit scattered on a table softens the formality and adds intimacy. Now my medium is flowers, but it’s expanding, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find myself back in fashion – this time creating the backdrops of runway shows.”