In the Spotlight: Featured uBloomer, Christopher Grigas

Christopher Grigas (aka – MFT) is the owner of In Bloom on Schuyler Pond, a floral/gift/antique shop in Saratoga Springs, NY. He lives in sin with his partner Donald, in a nice townhome five miles from the shop. Together they have two Corgis (Ceily and Sandy) and a pet Tarantula named Sammy.

Featured uBloomer Christopher Grigas

When did you first get interested in Floral Design?

My interest in flowers started at a very young age…I was nicknamed “Nature Boy” by my elementary school classmates because of my interest in plants, flowers and nature. I even remember my mother ordering flowers for me on my birthday when I was 11 or 12…seems weird, but as soon as the arrangement arrived, I remember identifying all of the flowers to my mom…I should have known I was on a career path already.

Describe how you got started in the floral industry and when you knew that floral design was what you wanted as your career.

As a high school Junior/Senior, I worked at a local nursery/garden center and enjoyed it tremendously, even though I was spending most of my time there cleaning horse stables and watering nursery plants. When I went to college, it was serendipity that I applied to an Ag/Tech School, as a liberal arts major. After one semester, I decided I HAD to switch majors to horticulture/plant science. I excelled and graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in Ornamental Horticulture & Plant Science with a minor in floral design. I was recruited by a nursery in Georgia right out of college, so I moved there as a management trainee, but only lasted about 1 ½ years when I decided to go in a new horticultural direction…I applied as a designer for a flowers shop. I worked there for just under 2 years and once again changed direction….to a gardener at a botanical garden. Clearly, I was step stoning my way through the industry to find my niche. I worked at the Atlanta Botanical Garden for a year and decided it was time to move back north. I packed it up and moved back home to Upstate New York. I applied as manager of a very small local flower shop and then worked at a prominent local shop for about ½ a year. I got to the point that I knew I had the skills to have my own floral shop, so I left the flower shop and got a nursery sales job back at my local garden center that I worked as a teenager. While working there full time, we spent those six months prepping our space, getting the DBA, signing leases…etc. September of 2002 we opened our first shop “My Favorite Things…fine flowers, gifts & antiques”.

In Bloom florist shop

Talk a little about your Horticulture training and how it influences your designs.

I believe that my horticulture training is the absolute basis for all of my designs. My tagline for the shop has been the same for a long time, “a fresh approach to design through the art & science of horticulture”. Floral design, from the simplest to the most abstract, is based on botany and plant physiology. I think that when you understand the botany and physiology of your medium, you can manipulate it in any way you want, with success. Flowers are to you (the designer) as paint is to a painter, clay to a sculptor or fabric to a fashion designer. Also, something as simple as having studied extensively both common and botanical plant/flower names is very useful because it gave me an edge over florists that lacked that training. My friends laugh when I spout off random botanical names….they say, “you realize you could make those names up and we would never know”. Seems funny, but it is a skill that can impress colleagues or clients and raise your professionalism above the “flower stylist” label.

What is your favorite Cut Flower and what are your favorite Landscaping plants/trees?

A favorite cut flower is so difficult to choose, but I do use a lot of orchids in my work. I love Cymbidiums, Cattleya, Phalaenopsis and Phaphiopedilum orchids tremendously. They are versatile, long lasting and unique…three qualities I wish more cut flowers had. My favorite landscape tree is definitely Ginkgo biloba and favorite landscape plant is Black Bamboo. Indoor plant?…probably Calamondin Orange Tree.

You teach floral design training sessions, what are some of the design aspects you like to focus on?

My demonstrations and speaking sessions are usually pretty laid back…I find that if you lecture, people lose interest in your words. Most public speaking I’ve done has focused on basic design elements like color or design technique. I try to make “color” easy for novice designers. They tend to want to use every color in every design, so I explain that it is usually more appealing to the eye when you harmonize colors…analogous combinations are the easiest to explain because I tell them to choose a “color family” and they get it….and the colors are often seasonal combinations. When I talk about design techniques, I often ask the audience (garden club members) to bring in containers that they have difficulties designing in. I always bring buckets of blooms with lots of different botanical greens…that way I am not limited, so the designs are complete with flowers & foliage. What I want them to take away from the demonstration is to break down their own design boundaries and look at things differently than what seems intended. (example) One person brought in an 18” tall cylinder vase and said she always fills it with rocks and puts 6 short roses in the top. I showed her how to take that same concept and apply it more creatively. So, I filled it with water, wired 5 cymbidium blooms on a strand of copper wire and submerged it….I thought she was going to faint. Teaching others to think outside their comfort zone is tough, but can inspire them to try new things…and buy more flowers.

Flower Sushi by Christopher Grigas

As an educator, what are some frequent mistakes florists/designers make or misconceptions they have in design work, marketing, or floral care?

A major mistake I see a lot in floral design, whether professional or amateur, are bad mechanics and improper flower care/handling. I see bad mechanics often enough to have collaborated with Erik Witcraft on the uBloom article, “Floral Design Mechanics” to get uBloomers talking about it…hopefully making a little ripple in the industry. Mechanics are the lifeblood of flower designs. I see many professional designers entering incredibly beautiful arrangements into flower shows, but by day 2, they are wilted and weak or dead. Bad representation of a shop often seems to stem from bad mechanics and flower care. Even really high end shops get reputations for having “bad flowers,” but the flowers are usually as fresh as the other shops. The designers though, may not be properly trained or are a little ignorant when it comes to simple mechanics or care/handling that help flowers last to their greatest potential.

When marketing my work/shop, I use my own personality as a sales tool…I know, I sound like a jerk but hear me out. When clients call or visit the shop to order flowers, I already know that they are not just there to order flowers and move on. They are there to discuss, engage and reveal a little about themselves and probably the person the flowers are for. If not, they would have used an internet service or gone to the grocery florist…right? So do them justice by engaging, discussing, and revealing a little about you. When a person spends money on flowers (a luxury item), they want to feel special…and I make sure they do. The misconception a lot of florists have is that people buy flowers in a robotic way these days, but I find by making yourself part of the whole package, you have created a relationship that no internet wire service will ever be able to duplicate. I think it may boil down to customer service in the eyes of the buyer, but I know that I am marketing myself to make them more apt to return.

You have recently moved your shop. Talk a little about the reasons for the move, the process, and how you are keeping your customers coming in the doors through this change of address.

The funny thing is…we have moved our shop 3 times in 7 years. We went from a small floral/gift/antique shop to a stylish floral art/event studio…then back to a floral/gift/antique shop. This last move was a true moment of serendipity! In the final months of our last lease, a customer came into the shop to order arrangements for Thanksgiving…she was stylish, funny, had good taste, and I could tell she knew something about retail and flowers. Turns out she owned one of the most beautiful antique/gift stores in the region (SchulyerPond.com). Quickly, we developed a relationship that morphed into a business plan. With her 8 years of successful business, and our 6 years of established floral business, we could latch our little flower shop to her established business and keep our clientele and attract hers. During a dinner meeting, IT came up…do we want to keep the name “My Favorite Things”? The reality of it was that we had grown out of our own name and needed a fresh start…what better timing? Well 3 months and about 75 names later, we came to “In Bloom” so it would work with Schuyler Pond’s name as a collaboration without competition. (We figured “My Favorite Things at Schuyler Pond” sounded like a pond plant and tadpole store). So, we transitioned our shop to the new location and made several conscious decisions to keep our old name attached to the new name by 1. Printing the back of our new biz cards with “formerly My Favorite Things & MFT Designs Studio”, 2. Using Face Book, Twitter and our blog to promote our new name and location 3. Transition our old website over 3 months to our new website to be sure all of our old clients had a chance to learn of our changes.

My advice on a move or transition is simple…make sure you keep in contact with your current clients and let them know you want to keep them as customers. I try to remember, my customers are the ones who made me who I am as a florist…your reputation is built by what your GOOD customers tell people. Keep them.

What is your favorite aspect of floral design and what is your least favorite?

My favorite aspect of floral design is buying new product and using it. I love flowers and plants…I am (enter corny line) so stimulated by good product…and you know what I mean. When I open a box of flowers from the wholesaler/importer it’s like Christmas for me. The luscious jewel tones of fresh Orchids & Dahlias, pure white Calla Lily, bright and shiny green Hypericum, vibrant garden Roses, fragrant Stock and fluffy Hydrangea…It’s thrilling.

Least favorite…unfriendly people that don’t want to advance the floral industry.

You deal with a lot of brides…talk about your approach and communication techniques for keeping things going smoothly during the “partnership.”

I try my best to provide attentive service to our brides-to-be, beginning with a one on one floral consultation. We ask key questions from preferred color and style, to the couple’s personality traits which help us design the wedding flower vision through their eyes. I even find it important to ask about the things they DON’T like. I tend to reveal a bit about myself to get the brides to open up and feel comfortable enough to talk with me as a friend. We then keep in close contact with our brides via email, phone calls & Facebook leading up to the wedding date to make sure they feel confident in their choices and our collaboration. Maintaining a close and intimate relationship with our bridal couples is the key to a successful wedding vision.

We do have them sign a contract once they agree on pricing and the overall proposed wedding design. I understand that changes can occur during the wedding planning process right up to the last week, so we make sure our brides feel comfortable and know they can call us with questions or for advice without feeling pressured or stressed. The collaboration between the florist and the bridal couple is crucial in executing a flawless overall wedding design.

Orchid and Rose Centerpiece designed by Christopher Grigas

What and whom do you draw inspiration from?

I am very inspired by nature. My favorite design style is naturalistic design in the Dutch/Belgian style. Using natural materials like bark, twigs, moss, stone and botanicals in my designs make me feel like I have combined my style with the intended nature of the flowers. The tiny details of nature are what make me love my work…leaf skeletons, fiddleheads, dewy spider webs, grass plumes in the wind…it is what I love.

Designers I follow and am inspired by include Els Teunnesin, Bart Nys, Geert Pattyn from Europe and American Designers Michael George, Jeff Leatham and of course, Martha Stewart. I find the range of their works cover a spectrum of creativity that any floral designer can learn from and help them discover their own potential as a designer.

Describe the ideal wedding or event you would like to design if money was no option. (colors, floral materials, style, lighting, linens, venue etc…)

Ideal wedding / event would be a masquerade style on Halloween. It is my favorite time of year and my favorite “holiday” (my father’s birthday was on Oct 31…so I celebrate it every year.) Instead of black/orange/purple….no creativity – I would make floral designs in lavender/taupe/ivory/brown/red….ok, it would be like a vampire wedding. I’d love a Baroque-Goth combo that is so ugly it’s incredibly irresistible and sexy…yet dark and luscious. It would be held in a white Birch forest, illuminated by suspended Italian villa strand lights draped with green hanging Amaranthus…lots of pillar candles set out deep into the forest like a ring of fire. The dinner tables would be long farm tables draped with ivory, copper and chocolate browns pin-tuck linen, and ivory chiavari chairs, of course. Um…no budget, let’s cover the edge of the forest floor with ivory and velvet red rose petals. If the flowers are not sexy, the marriage is not sexy.

What was your favorite or most unique floral design to make?

I love making designs that are a challenge or unique to anything I have made before. Recently, I created an inspired design with bark and Hyacinth blooms with a few Phalaenopsis orchid blooms that I felt compelled to post on ubloom as a project. I got lots of comments about it and thought it was great because I had broken some of my own walls down to create a new look. I realize it is not a design for everyone…but it was the design for me. I find simpler design are more effective.

Got an interesting or funny story to share? (crazy customer, bridezilla, outrageous set up, etc)

I remember the first wedding I ever had at my own shop…I agreed to design composite flowers. Let me set the stage….I absolutely freaked out the morning of the wedding because I had bought the roses the day before. Well, tight flowers don’t work with these lovely designs. I have never screamed or panicked worse. Here I am, peeling rose petals, gluing my fingers together, yelling at everyone who walked in the room ( poor Donald). Well, it worked out….they didn’t notice a thing.

If you could study floral design with anyone/anywhere….WHO would you study under and WHERE would you go?

I would love to hang out and work with Bart Nuys in Belgium. I am so inspired by his work and everything I see him do. Each of his designs are inspired by natural elements, yet have a cohesive look of pure style and subtle perfection. The designs are calming yet the mechanics are often complicated…where an untrained eye may scoff at the ordinary simplicity.

Modern Floral Design by Christopher Grigas

Talk about your future goals and aspirations.

I have my dream shop right now…In Bloom is the shop I have dreamed of having when I first wanted my own shop as a design student. The future is open right now, but I am looking forward to possibly testing at symposium next year for AIFD certification.

Additionally, I really think that public speaking and writing is something I enjoy, so I think my career may one day change direction (big surprise) where I may either write a book and/or become an industry enthusiast (public speaker).

I love this industry and always want other designers to feel like they make a difference and should always look to enhance their career and try to grow as a florist/artist.

What other things (besides floral design) do you enjoy doing?

I love photography. I was a photog in high school and always enjoyed capturing moments on film. The art of photography is so inspiring to me when I can get another person to see my vision through film. As a florist, photography has become even more important to me because I always want people to see my designs as I see them. Artful photography helps me capture my designs (another article I wrote for uBloom) in ways that let clients understand the arrangements in the context intended.

If you could splurge on anything, what would it be?

I think splurge is a funny word in this economy…I would probably take a trip to Europe to travel though Belgium, Holland, Germany…for a personal trip that would probably end up more business related. From what I hear, it would end up being the most inspiring thing I did in my life.

List your favorite…

Music Artist…
Mariah Carey
Fantasy (remix) Mariah Carey w/ ODB
T.V. Show:
Grey Gardens (documentary 1975)
Do botanical science books count?
Fleur Creatif…(European)
Not my Chrysler Town & Country delivery van
Architectural style (dream home style):
Arts & Crafts Farm House…with land.
I love me some Sushi/Japanese