Floral designer Shane Connolly was born in Northern Ireland and came to London to work as a research psychologist before ending up in the flower business. He set up his eponymous studio in 1989 and has since arranged flowers for hundreds of weddings and events, including the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, which was notable for the avenue of trees he created down the nave of Westminster Abbey.
He was awarded the royal warrant in 2006 and has written four books on the art of flower arranging. His biggest recent project was doing the flowers for the opening of the V&A museum’s new Exhibition Road Quarter in London.
Why did you choose this profession?
At risk of sounding like a Miss World contestant, I have always had a natural inclination towards creativity and have always been interested in gardening. My parents gave me a greenhouse when I was 10. But I was taught at a school run by Christian brothers where, if boys were academic, they did science, not music or art. Before I knew it I found myself going to university to study psychology. During my degree, I met Michael Goulding, a family friend who ran a flower business — not a traditional shop-based florist but flowers for events. I realised then that floristry was exactly what I wanted to do.
How would you characterise your style of flower arranging?
What I aim to do is be botanically led, rather than put design first. So if your wedding is in June and you want it to be very romantic, I start to think of types of flowers, maybe roses, and think about what I could do with them. Instead of thinking of an image — say, clouds of pinkness — and then going and buying every pink flower in the market, I try to let the flowers lead me. That is increasingly difficult in the age of Instagram, when people have a set idea and pages of photos they want you to recreate.
Name your top three influences/people or places that inspire you.
That’s hard! Is this like Desert Island Discs [the BBC radio programme where guests choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island]? So many different places inspire for different reasons. I like garden designer Arne Maynard’s approach. I find him very inspirational.
Equally, I visited Boughton House in Northamptonshire for the first time last weekend and it’s the antithesis of what Arne Maynard might do, but the scale and simplicity take your breath away.
Then there are places like the V&A that I’ve been lucky enough to work with for 20 years. You can go there every week and constantly see different things. And the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The sheer eclecticism there sticks in your mind.
What has been your favourite project to work on?
There have been so many, but working on a couple of Indian weddings definitely stands out. You can do things there that you can’t do here. We had candelabra made and crystal bowls along the tables. It would look gaudy here but over there it didn’t look wasteful or opulent.
Of course, the other standout is the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding. I felt completely trusted. It was extraordinary.
Besides yourself, who would you choose to do flowers for an event of your own?
If I were holding a party in the UK, I would ask Flora Starkey. Her flowers are exquisite and she really thinks them through. Like me, she tries to be seasonal and local and — this is going to sound a bit Miss World again — tries to respect the flowers.
If it were in the US, I would go with Emily Thompson. She is absolutely plat du jour in New York.
What is the one object you would never allow in your home?
I hate it when high-tech things are the focus of a room. I have a television, of course, but I keep it hidden in a cabinet.
The strangest thing I’ve ever been asked to do was to line a grave with flowers from the person’s garden. I’ve never forgotten it. The flowers all got squashed but the widow didn’t want the coffin just being lowered into mud.
What do you look for in a client?
I think I should put this question on my website. My ideal clients are people who either have a garden or like gardening because then they understand the seasons and how plants behave. Also clients that trust you. It’s a lovely feeling when a client doesn’t worry about photographs and just says, “I trust you to make it beautiful”, which you do.
How do you go about planning the flowers for, say, a wedding?
I always meet the bride and visit the venue with her. Then we talk through ideas without looking at photos, just imagining things. I do the worst sketches you’ve ever seen in your life, but I do sketches. Sometimes I even take photographs and paint over them to show the ideas. Then we get to work.
Which is your favourite bloom?
I look forward to lily of the valley every year. It’s the scent. I always think that if heaven exists, that’s what it smells like.
Does the ephemeral nature of flowers ever sadden you?
Not really. It’s part of the beauty of nature. What I find more problematic is waste. I’m the patron of a charity called Floral Angels, which recycles flowers after big events. So a client can donate their flowers and then Floral Angels ties them into bunches and takes them to hospices and homeless shelters for people who have never been given flowers before.
How has your background in psychology helped in floristry?
The best thing about doing a degree, whatever degree it is, is that it teaches you to analyse and research. So if someone comes to me and says, “My favourite thing is the 1930s or 18th-century tennis” (no one has ever said the latter, by the way), I know how to find out about it.
What would you say is the top trend in floristry at present?
I think, and hope, there is a trend toward more careful sourcing and sustainability. I travel in the States a lot and they are very keen on sourcing correctly, both in terms of food and flowers. Over there they practically know the name of the mother of the cow that gave you the steak on your plate, and the same goes in floristry.
Facebook: Shane Connolly and Co