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Laura Dowling, Former White House Florist Turned Author, Visits With Flower.Style

For 31 years and through four presidential administrations, Nancy Clarke served as chief floral designer in the White House. During that time, Laura Dowling was earning degrees in political science and public administration and eventually working for The Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C. However, during some time in Paris, Laura found herself smitten with French floral design and eventually enrolled in the Parisian design school, École des Fleuristes de Paris. “The bouquets I saw there literally stopped me in my tracks. At the time I thought, ‘I need to learn how to do this.’ So I studied floral design in Paris once or twice a year for many years,” Dowling shares. In hindsight, the French floral training complemented my academic background and professional experience in strategic communications, allowing me to create a powerful new tool for communicating nuanced messages and policy themes.”

It was in Paris and later back in D.C., working part-time from a home studio, that she honed her elegant style. Reportedly, that style was part of what attracted First Lady Michelle Obama to Dowling’s work during the intensive interview process that eventually led to her selection as chief floral designer. She held that position from late 2009 until her departure in February 2015. “I approached my job from an entrepreneurial perspective, introducing a new garden style of flower arranging supported by new operating systems, management procedures, and an expanded volunteer program,” Laura explains. It was an intense experience that required a significant personal commitment. “I literally worked 100-hour work weeks, seven days a week,” she adds. 

As chief floral designer, Dowling managed flowers and décor for everything at the White House, including both the public and private spaces as well as all official events and the much-renown Christmas decorations. Now, in her first book, Floral Diplomacy at the White House, published in March 2017, she shares some insider secrets and many of the amazing designs she created as America’s chief florist. Her new book, A White House Christmas, is due out in October. What is perhaps most notable about her work is that she presents her always-lush arrangements in containers that are, or appear to be, organic—made from moss, leaves, branches, and other natural materials. “I believe that organic, integrated containers can totally transform the feeling of the arrangement and create the appearance that the flowers are growing out of the vessel,” says Laura. She adds that this approach results in bouquets that are both elegantly refined yet approachably casual—a recipe she said was designed to make guests feel welcomed (and inspired) as they visited the White House.