Corina & Theresa Williams Founders, Celsious

INTERVIEW Althea Simons


“I started playing around with this idea in my head: what if I were to open a nice, clean, friendly, welcoming laundromat where people could hang out, have a cup of coffee, bring a laptop and work?” – Corina Williams, Celcious

Sharon:It seems like the whole world is in bloom right now — even in New York, where nature is comparatively scarce. When you're out walking, what catches your eye?

Brittany:Things to avoid stepping on, usually. I'm really interested in the people that occupy the streets, and faces. It depends, too — different neighborhoods have completely different draws for me, the city is so generous in its offerings that way. I'm a sucker for anything flowering, really. The city roses in particular right now. I jaywalk to look at flowers.

S:Your creations are visual feasts, but there's a sensuality to them that goes far beyond looks. How do you take the other senses into account when you're working? Do you ever feel like you're also creating a fragrance as scents layer together?

B:I take the sensory experience into account in every aspect of my life, from bedding to bath products to what I'm eating, so that definitely finds its way into my work when appropriate. I am sensitive by nature, and so really subtle details, glances, textures, smells have a way with me. I love how they can sort of stop and cement time. I don't ever feel like I'm concocting a fragrance, per se, but I am definitely aware of how the senses activate and how aromas can be incorporated to signal something — but I never want them to be overbearing. Fresh flowers have this potency to them where, like people, they can definitely be seductive and alluring beyond appearance.

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S:Your use of color is fascinating, especially those shades that don't naturally occur in flora, like those saturated blues and wild metallics you're known for — they seem to both reference and elevate those amazing artificially colored flowers from bodegas in a surrealist way. How do you approach the idea of nature and naturalness in your work?

B:Those things naturally occur in nature — just not typically on land. A lot of flowers have a natural shimmer to them as well, as if they’ve been dusted, so I see these tweaks merely as enhancements in the same way one might apply makeup or dye their hair. A kind of dress-up and opportunity for expression beyond the natural given state. So much of our taste development forms in social conditioning/programming, community, and context. I make a conscious decision to use things I've thought of as cheap based on my own conditioning to try and decontextualize them, in an attempt to make the medium itself more accessible and break down class systems. Why is one flower better than another? Why do these preferences form? What are they based upon? I want people to question their intake instead of mindlessly consuming. I love being able to glamorize the conception of bodega flowers because not everyone can afford a florist and then that product still feels special. There are so many layers to my practice, though. I see my flowers as sexually liberated, empowered, and free thinking. We are all on our way to death, so why not make a parade of it?

S:It's been said that this generation is obsessed with plants — specifically the nurturing, styling, and documentation thereof. Do you ever feel a conflict between that which is grown and that which is cut in the botanical zeitgeist? Do you keep houseplants, or strictly cut flowers?

B:I have five houseplants I love dearly. They are mostly begonias. If I had a bigger apartment, I would probably have more and when/if I retire someday I'll likely only take care of and cultivate plants and have a cutting garden. Plants and flowers are very instrumental to my coping with existence and the cutting of them is natural — they continue to grow. It is not like using a flower kills a plant, and as as long as there are flowers left for the bees, all is right and the natural cycle can carry on.

This generation is also obsessed with the digital, which is where I think the opposite reaction occurs. We are becoming so removed from our biological natural state that the further we grow away from it, the more the desire to reconnect comes in. There is the whole biophilia hypothesis that addresses how our love for life and living things is part of our DNA, and flowers fall into that as well. Plus, living in a city, we are starved. I'm not sure I would've started working with flowers in this way had I not been so aware of their absence in my life here.

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S:Does it hurt you somehow when your creations wilt and fade?

B:I am no stranger to death or loss so I see that progression as natural. That being said, there is a variety of heartbreak in every one of my days, purely in having to leave them behind. I am very selective about who I work with in knowing that when the flowers are left, they will be appreciated fully and not treated in an overlooked or discarded manner. I reuse a lot of product. I take photos to try to preserve the moment and then have to walk away — but yes, it's always sad. It's like saying bye to someone you just met but got on with quite well, knowing it's the last you'll see of them. There is a whole plot of emotions wrapped up in one arrangement. This is also why I prefer smaller projects. There is less pain in the aftermath. My team is always thanking the flowers too. We really love them.

S:You come in to 190 Bowery weekly to refresh the flowers. How does the space (and Totokaelo at large) inspire you to create something new each time?

B:It's such a forward-thinking and inclusive environment that I feel it fosters the sort of play I am interested in. Also, there is such great care in the curation and experience of it all that I try to keep up with the elevation of all of that. Everything is so considered, and that makes it a welcome home for the flowers. It's really fun for me to think of tourists coming through, too, and how I could possibly be adding to the narrative of what their experience of New York might be. Plus, the history of the building — it's so iconic! I am honored to create in a space with such a historical legacy.

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S:How much does the vessel you fill with flora inform the creation itself, and vice versa? Do you have any favorites?

B:It is hugely informative. I am very particular about vessels. I often like to work with a very discreet vessel so that the flowers can do their thing. There are other instances where I like to let the vessel speak loudest and use only delicate flowers. It is usually the vases that are the most beautiful that are the most impractical for me to use, but I don't have favorites. Favorites can be stunting.

S:To accompany the launch of Pleasure Garden's latest issue, which is all about the rose, you created an impactful ‘rose garden’ display. How did you approach the idea of the rose, a flower so steeped in symbolism and emotion — and sometimes cheesiness — with fresh eyes?

B:I had ordered these rambling rose bushes, but it was too early in the season for the them to be in flower, and the leaves had crisped up, so the whole display became more delicate by default. You have no control over these things. I always just approach things with determining what they mean to me. The rose is one of my favorite flowers. I love the fragrance, the countless varieties, and that she is full of thorns. I find her to be the epitome of strength for some reason, and have never quite understood the cheesy component, because in her wild natural state she is anything but. Some of my favorite places are rose farms and rose gardens. I doubt I will ever tire of or overdose on the rose. Once you become aware of how vast the species is, there is endless discovery.

S:Also accompanying the launch was a limited run of silk scarves by Software Studios featuring a photographic print of one of your creations. Do you find yourself wearing florals, or do you prefer to keep flowers to real life?

B:I prefer them in real life. But I usually don’t go for wearing flower prints. I love the one we did, as it's not your typical pattern repeat. I always find the coloring in flower prints a bit strange too, too safe. Something about them always feels a bit aged, and not in the romantic Pre-Raphaelite way, so I feel ours is of its time.

S:Over the past five or ten years, floristry has seen a sea change in its very makeup, becoming known less as a traditional craft and more as a highly expressive and individualistic art form. As a prominent figure in this movement, how do you see floral art evolving in the future?

B:In Western culture, yes, there is a shift, but I feel that ikebana and specifically Sōfu Teshigahara was the precursor to that. There are certain artists who have worked with flowers to deliver their expression (Mapplethorpe, Ana Mendieta, Araki, Camille Henrot, Willem de Rooij) but I've not seen someone who works so closely with flowers as their day-to-day practice get to exhibit in an art arena outside of the teachings of ikebana. When I realized that about four years ago, it was confusing. I would question why I was being hired to fabricate pieces for other artists when I had ideas of my own that I could produce myself. But it's all perception. To the art world, I was a trade worker. I have great respect for the trade, but personally, I find it very restricting — it does not fit into my life in the way it might service others. I've done my best work to try to muddle up that line for all of us who resonate beyond the confines, which in recent years it seems maybe there are many. I oddly don't identify as a florist at all. I don't have a shop and I don't really do weddings anymore.

I'm not sure how it will all progress. I have a lot of hopes, though. I hope people start to think for themselves instead of just regurgitating. I hope people start to respect the process more and all of the back-breaking work involved. I hope people honor their influences. I hope curators invite floral artists into their exhibitions. I hope people allow for this continuation of flowers to exist beyond weddings and funerals.

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