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Christian Tortu
The man who reinvented
the art of floral design

The Ecole des Fleurs at Paris’s posh Hôtel de Crillon offers classes taught by some of the hottest names in floral design, but the biggest draw is uncontestably the school’s celebrity art director, Christian Tortu. Parisians and admirers from around the world eagerly plunk down €300 to spend a mere two hours in the presence of the master.

“He’s the Yves Saint Laurent of flowers!” exclaims Jeff Leatham, whose own beyond-fabulous displays have turned the lobby of the George V hotel into a top tourist attraction. “I was lucky enough to work with him for a few months—he has influenced a whole generation of floral designers.”
    A boyish 49, Tortu seems to have already done it all. As a youth growing up in the Anjou countryside, he showed an early interest in nature as well as in the gardens tended by his parents, who sold their produce at nearby markets. He eventually began working in local flower shops and then studied horticulture before moving to Paris in 1977. There he honed his skills with a prominent florist whose clients included Chanel and other big names. After a few years, however, he was ready to return to the countryside—until he saw the “For Sale” sign on a little flower shop on the Carrefour de l’Odéon.
    Tortu took the plunge, and his iconoclastic arrangements soon caught the eye of Catherine Deneuve and other fashionistas. Before long he was creating awe-inspiring decors for couture shows and society weddings, opening boutiques from New York to Hong Kong, signing licensing agreements and penning coffee-table books. In 1998, he launched a signature line of vases, tableware and other products, which led to the opening of a second Paris boutique at 17 rue des Quatre Vents, a stone’s throw from his flower shop.
    With two decades of success behind him, Tortu remains faithful to the simple philosophy that ironically propelled him to fame in a city that is anything but. His ideas about nature—which he then applies to humans—are set forth in Sensational Bouquets, which notably claims that all flowers are created equal and that you can see beauty in everything if you just take the time to really look. An awkward translation gives the unfortunate impression that Tortu is preachy and a bit righteous, but in person he appears sincere, kind, even humble.
    Besides, how could you not like a fab florist whose only office window displays six plain clay pots full of dead grass? “Oh, I’ve been meaning to do something about that,” he grins sheepishly.

When asked about your past, you always bring up the fact that you come from a modest background. Why is that so important?
Well, the more I look back, the more I realize that all I really did was bring very simple things to Paris. I pioneered the notion of presenting nature as it really is, the idea of using branches and fruit as well as flowers. That was totally new in this industry. All of a sudden, right in the midst of a city of concrete and stone, nature was being delivered in its original, raw state. At the time, the only nature you could find here was at the florist’s, but that was a kind of false sophistication. It was too sophisticated, in any case, to move people, to make them feel anything real.
    So I took the opposite approach, presenting things that were practically in their natural state. And then, something amazing happened: People said, “Now that’s sophisticated!”

Wasn’t this return to simplicity something of a trend in the ‘80s—in decor, cuisine and so on?
Yes, I didn’t blaze this trail alone. There were several of us who were promoting this new style in Paris. It coincided with a more general movement toward more eclectic decors, with traditional furniture mixed with modern pieces, and expensive furnishings mixed with inexpensive things. That was very new. The same was going on in cuisine. People were mixing ingredients that weren’t usually combined and using simpler foods—that was the period of Joël Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes.

If you were a chef, which one would you be?
Well, I wouldn’t be a Paris chef, that’s for sure! Well, actually, I really like Martin Veyrat at Le Grand Véfour. His cuisine is at once sophisticated and simple. Outside Paris, I like the Troisgros style, the way they juxtapose soft and crunchy textures. And of course I love the refined Provençal cuisine at Baumanière in Les Baux de Provence.

And if you were a fashion designer?
Perhaps Lacroix because of his sense of color and poetry. He too is both traditional and modern. He always presents a certain number of designs that are somewhat predictable, then another that is totally surprising, mixing fabrics that could be shocking if someone else used them but that are pure marvels in his hands.

You can claim a certain number of firsts in the world of floral design, for example, using mundane plants, fruit and exotic flowers....
Yes, and I also introduced the idea of making seasonal arrangements. Before, shops carried pretty much the same flowers all year long. I launched the idea of respecting the seasons by using autumn flowers, winter flowers and so on.

You are also famous for your monochromatic bouquets.
We began making those in the early 1980s. We did all pink, all white, even all green. In fact, we were the first to do totally green bouquets. Once again, everyone thought that was terribly chic!

Some of your other ideas are presented in your book, which is practically a political treatise—not exactly what one expects from a florist!
Yes, it’s true, I talk a lot about a hierarchy of values, and I try to show that all flowers are created equal. For me, flowers, soil, branches and moss are all the same. There is really no difference between a €50 orchid and a €2 blade of grass. All of it comes from nature and deserves the same respect. In fact, it’s often the blade of grass that sets off the orchid, creating emotional and visual impact.
    A bouquet is really a sort of micro-society, where people who are more or less rich, more or less good-looking, more or less talented live together. The less-talented have a huge importance because without them, the others might not be able to do their jobs or evolve or even live. So yes, it’s perhaps something of a political stand: We are all equal, even if we are all different.

You also take up another issue that women everywhere must love you for, at least if you apply it to people as well. You say that flowers are beautiful at every stage of their life, that even a wilted flower can be beautiful.
I think that concept is very important. Before, florists displayed only roses that were opened just enough but not too much or tulips that were just beginning to open. Here, we’re not afraid of using tightly closed buds or roses in full bloom. Obviously, we wouldn’t sell them to our customers because they wouldn’t last very long, but we do sometimes use them for decorating purposes.
    I remember the first fashion show we did for Galliano—we made bouquets with 3,000 to 5,000 roses that were completely open and starting to die. It was tremendously risky, a crazy idea, but that is what gave them their true poetry. The bouquets reflected the fleeting moment, the intensity of a fashion show that lasts only 10 or 15 minutes. So I realized that Galliano was right to ask us to do it.

It was his idea?
Yes, but then afterward I thought it was so great that I wanted to do similar things. I didn’t fully realize how dangerous it was to put half-opened flowers in a truck in the middle of July in Paris....

I think the saddest flower is a rose that has wilted before blooming. I’ve always wondered why that happens.
Oh, that’s awful—like a miscarriage! Very macabre. A number of things can cause that. When it happens, take the flowers, even if it’s a whole bouquet, re-cut the stems and then lay them in a bathtub full of water so that the entire flower can be rehydrated. They usually perk up after about 30 minutes.

Have you noticed any differences between the floral arranging styles in France and those in the United States?
Yes, I think we have more freedom here. In the United States, I was fascinated to see that people order the exact same bouquets over and over again. In France, florists always make different bouquets. Otherwise, I think that given the fact that people travel so much and have access to the Internet, there is less and less difference in styles from one place to the next. Well at least that’s true of New York and Paris. Other areas in the U.S., even big cities, seem to be a lot more conservative. But a florist always has to work for his clients and adapt to their tastes—the bouquets he makes are for them, not for himself.

What new directions are you exploring these days?
More and more, I’m realizing that the design of our vases is influencing the flowers we choose, the styles of the bouquets we make. I think we are the only ones in the world to offer our own line of vases as well as bouquets conceived to go with them and other assorted decorative items. It’s a comprehensive approach to flowers, an entire art de vivre.

But don’t flowers also influence the design of the vase?

Of course it works that way too. And sometimes when we try to make an arrangement in a prototype, we realize we’ve gotten the proportions all wrong, so we start over again. But we always keep the utilitarian aspect in mind. Often, companies making vases want to create beautiful objects, but they don’t think about how they will be used.

Do you personally design all of them?
I work with a couple of designers on our product line and on objects that we make under license for Baccarat, Limoges porcelain-maker Raynaud and others. By the way, we’ve just signed a licensing agreement in the U.S. with Caspari to design some paper napkins.

What has been your most popular vase?
We have two different kinds of vases: opaque models—made out of ceramic, terrazzo, zinc, silver and so on—and glass. I realized that opaque vases visually cut a bouquet in two, and that people often like to see the stems; they are a sort of second bouquet. That’s what led me to create Diabolo, a square glass vase with a hole in the middle that the stems can swirl around. It’s been our best seller.

How exactly do you proceed when you are putting together a large bouquet?
Before you start, you must do two things: Consider the setting, which determines the dimensions, then select the color scheme. After that, every bouquet is a different story. It’s quite amazing really. You can start as usual with, say, greenery and branches, and then plan to add the flowers, which you can leave long or cut medium length or shorter. That’s what gives the bouquet its personality. But at the last minute, you might think, “Oh, this huge bouquet is kinda boring, I want to give it more punch,” so you lift the whole thing out of its container and cut the stems really short—suddenly something very formal becomes witty.
    Basically, everything happens as you go, with each step determining the next. For example, you decide at some point whether or not you are going to keep the leaves on a stem. That decision will change everything, given that it will create either full or empty spaces. And every flower can lead you in a different direction: You pick each one up and examine it individually; if it looks especially good you put it somewhere where it can show off; if not, you tuck it in somewhere else. It’s a bit like cooking—you improvise according to the quality of what you have on hand. If you buy a kilo of tomatoes but only a couple are ripe enough to use, you have to adapt your recipe accordingly.

What mistake do people most often make when arranging flowers?
They are too timid, so they end up with bouquets that are conventional, tepid, unimaginative.

What aspect of your work excites you the most at this point?
Creating decors for special events. The reasons are simple: You have bigger budgets to work with and more freedom. At the same time, it’s the most frustrating thing I do because it lasts only a few hours, then everything is torn down. That’s painful.

You have influenced a number of young floral designers in Paris. Who are some of the up-and-coming talents you have nurtured?
One is Stéphane Chapelle; he has a boutique on the rue de Richelieu. Stéphane does beautiful work using a lot of branches and greenery and not many flowers. There are other petits Tortus who are unknown right now, but you’ll probably hear about them in two or three years.

Do you have any new projects in the works?
Well, I’m about a third of the way through a new book, but I’m not completely happy with it. So I think I’ll probably start all over again! Anyway, I already have another idea I like better. Farther down the road, I would like to perhaps get involved in research to identify the beneficial properties of plants. We are very careful about what goes into our soaps and creams, but I would like to find some good partners with whom I could really explore this fascinating area. s





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