Berkshire floral designers display homegrown style
Located in a chilly Zone 5, the region isn’t necessarily known for brilliant tropical blooms, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an abundance of flora to choose from. Here, Ariella Chezar at her Zonneveld Farm.
Photographs by Belathee Photography and Scott Barrow
“My mom was Dutch, and an artist, and so I grew up in a beautiful world,” says Ariella Chezar, a seasoned floral designer based in Egremont. “She was very resourceful and creative, and I don’t think that we had much growing up, but there was this abundant way that she had about her, so it didn’t feel like we were lacking.”
That inner abundance almost always included flowers, and it is something that Chezar brings to her aesthetic philosophy with her 25-year-old flower business, Ariella, Inc. Many consider her to be the gold standard of floral designers. With several books and many high-end weddings to her credit, Chezar says that her unique, wildly organic style began to germinate years ago right here in the Berkshires when, as a teen, she worked with veteran garden and floral designer Pamela Hardcastle and horticulturalist Barbara Bockbrader, co-owner (with husband Robin Norris) of the Campo de’ Fiori garden shop in Sheffield.
“They gave me my original flower inspiration,” Chezar says. “They surrounded themselves with a beautiful life. Their way with design and their approach was totally different. With Pamela, we’d be placing a branch at 2 a.m. after long deliberations. Barbara would just throw something in an urn at the last minute and it was perfect every time.” Chezar’s story unfolded from there, bringing her first to New York, where she worked for a time with famed floral designer Robert Isabel, and then to the mecca of all things floral: California.
“The New York market was very much about the perfect bloom,” Chezar says. “In San Francisco, it was very much about foraged materials, persimmon, vines. It was loose and a little bit wild.”
The West Coast isn’t the only place known for its organic approach to floral design. For decades, many Berkshire florists have used the elements of their wild surroundings to inform their style. Greens, woody bits, and wildflowers make more than cameo appearances in centerpieces, urns, wreaths, and other floral arrays. They relish what presents itself—cattails, fat sumacs, hydrangea trees, black-eyed Susans—creating a distinct sense of place and season with native flora.
That natural garden sensibility is what inspires Nathan Hanford and Jedidiah Thompson, co-owners (and partners in life) of Township Four, a floristry and home shop on Pittsfield’s North Street. The shop is a “place you can truly get lost in,” says Hanford, who also works full-time for Soldier On as a case manager and artist-in-residence. The couple lives on 13 diverse acres in remote Becket, and Hanford is always foraging for interesting mosses and woody plants to incorporate into new arrangements.
“What’s happening with floral design is right in line with what’s going on in the culinary world,” says Hanford. “Not everyone wants flowers grown in Brazil or Holland. Sometimes we get to forage onsite at locations where we are doing arrangements, and that’s a treasure all its own.”
“I like seeing the little bits and bobs that come with plants,” adds Thompson. “We’re creating little vignettes that feel like they’re just a piece of the forest floor.”
Thompson often works alone at the shop, which also houses found objects, potted plants, and the painstakingly accomplished wares of local artisans, including Hanford, who is an embroidery artist. It is also the site for workshops on creating mini-gardens, succulent wreaths, and foraged centerpieces. For Hanford, Township Four is a creative space and artist’s studio. His partner has to usher him out the door so that they can be home at a “decent hour,” a concept that eludes many floral designers, especially during the June through October wedding madness, and every major life event in-between.
“I have 12 weddings booked for June,” says Carolyn Valenti, a 25-year veteran florist whose studio is based in her Dalton home. “There are times when we’re working seven days a week. There’s a lot of lifting and carrying in this industry. It’s the schlepping that’s going to kill me! But it’s a lot of fun. It’s the kind of business that I don’t have to leave in the next ten years.”
Valenti, whose husband, Steven, is the owner of the Steven Valenti Clothing for Men in Pittsfield, says she was coaxed into the flower business when she was asked to do the tables and chairs for a gala event at Hancock Shaker Village. Word got around about her unique centerpieces and style, and she found herself at Tanglewood as the official “house florist.”
“It’s one of those industries that cropped up out of necessity, at least for me,” she says. “It was a way for women to earn a living while taking care of their children at home. You could do both. And that’s what I did.”
Her three children are now grown, but Valenti is never done nurturing. In some cases, it’s a bucket of roses that she “babysits for a week” until the buds open. Or her garden, where she grows lilacs, hydrangeas, dahlias, and other blooms she likes to use in her designs, which are predominantly for brides. The biggest change in the industry over the last two decades: social media.
“There is all this information going around, and I feel sorry for these brides who are on Pinterest. Their minds are spinning with ideas,” says Valenti. “It’s hard to focus on one thing at a time.”
All the designers agree that Pinterest and other image-heavy media is a double-edged sword. “When someone comes in with a Pinterest board, it’s a great touchstone for us,” says Thompson. “But we are always thrilled when customers allow us artistic freedom.”
“It’s more about the feeling that the images evoke,” says Valenti. “It’s about creating a vision. It’s not written in cement.”
That fine balance between a floral designer’s artistic liberty and a client’s vision that tips, at least from Chezar’s vantage point, at the fulcrum of seasonality.
“It’s a fun challenge to step into someone else’s idea of beauty,” Chezar explains. “People do tend to attach themselves to a specific flower. I really like to see flowers in their season. It’s a dance about having things look ‘of a place.’ I don’t want to even look at a rose until June. I have no interest in a tulip in August.”
To that end, Chezar’s business has shifted dramatically in the last ten years. She has lectured and taught master-design classes around the globe, from South Carolina to the Netherlands to China. This is serious business, and she is eventually hoping to host her workshops at the 90-acre Zonneveld Farm in upstate New York, which she purchased with her husband, Christopher Gregory. The sustainable flower farm boasts fields of perennials as well as shrubs, vegetables, annuals, fruit trees, and its fair share of critters. She really wants people to be connected to the growing aspect of floral design.
“The life force in a flower is potent,” she says.