Last weekend, in dusty Al Quoz, a line of golden sunflowers bobbed in the breeze, signalling the location of the Dubai International Flower Festival. It's the first event of its kind in the UAE, and organiser Manohar Gidwani hopes it will put Dubai on the floristry map.
Gidwani, founder of cut-flower supplier Al Lokrit International, says: “I’ve always had it in my head to run an international competition here, something really ‘wow’, with big flower displays. Big is beautiful for me.”
While visitors saw flowers from across the world in all their colours and forms, an important part of the event was the floristry competition, where eight floral artists submitted two arrangements each. The first was meant to be an interpretation of “Dubai through the eyes of the world in floral form”, while the second, smaller arrangement, had to incorporate a sustainability theme. The judging panel, which comprised industry experts such as international floral designers Tomas De Bruyne and Marios Vallianos, rated the submissions based on their creativity, technique, colour palette and interpretation of the brief.
Gidwani hopes the floral artistry displayed at the festival will help to highlight new industry techniques and trends, and will also inspire higher standards among local practitioners. The winner of the festival’s US$10,000 (Dh36,731) first prize was Belgian floral artist Sören Van Laer, for a creation featuring twisted branches interspersed with exotic flowers.
Van Laer chose to intellectualise the brief, rather than taking a literal approach to colour and form – all the more impressive given that this was his first visit to the country. He explains the thinking behind his Dubai-inspired design. “When you look at the shape, it’s a kind of bird to represent Emirates Airlines, and looking from the top-down, it looks like a tower. Inside is a kind of explosion of flowers as Dubai rises up. There is power and movement,” says Van Laer.
Among the profusion of brightly coloured flowers, that included protea, gloriosa and orchids set within twisted branches, were slices of dried fig hung from threads – to create movement and offer a nod to local food heritage.
A second, smaller arrangement, centred around recycling materials and sustainability, incorporated plastic tubes that Van Laer melted himself. “Nature is so strong that it can grow even when its ‘soil’ is plastic,” he says, in a reference to the growing trend towards hydroponics, an essential part of food sustainability in this part of the world.
Remarkably, only five or six years ago, Van Laer was a tomato grower based in Antwerp, but clearly one with creative and artistic ambitions. “I was always inspired by nature and working with nature in gardens, but I wanted to work with flowers,” he explains. So he made a move into floral design. His work varies from conducting demonstrations and workshops to taking on freelance event work, such as the floristry for weddings.
For the Dubai contest, all the designers called ahead to request the flowers and materials they required from the organisers; they then had one preparation day and a further five hours the following day to assemble and deliver their design concepts within the confines of their allocated booths. Van Laer asked for branches so that he could make his own forms. “If you order an iron framework, it’s never going to be what you imagine. In this way, I can do my own thing.”
The weather worked against the competitors as an unseasonal heatwave descended, creating an additional challenge. Reflecting on the nature of competitions, Van Laer says: “Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you are not. This is the first time that I’ve won money. Before, I’ve always invested my own money in it to get better and better.”
Tamas Mezoffy of Hungary was the first runner-up. The round shape of his environmentally responsible arrangement symbolised an eternal circle, which was merged with modern floristry. His use of transparent plastic and rubber tubes evoked clean reservoirs of water, colourless and pale. Meanwhile, colourful flowers imbued with gold foliage presented “a celebration of the renewal of life”.
Mezoffy’s larger piece, the floral vision of Dubai, was, in the words of the designer, “colourful, cool and rich”, reflecting Dubai’s multicultural population, as well as its culture and abundant gastronomy. Fluttering paper ribbons, which measured more than 1,000 metres in length, were incorporated into the structure and suspended from a circular golden frame, evoking a sense of Dubai’s architectural forms. Revealed in glimpses at the core of the structure were also brightly coloured, individually cut flowers hung in glass test tubes.
Alex Choi of South Korea took the second runner-up prize for his Dubai interpretation, entitled Green Kingdom of the Black Desert, based on the concept that “under the bright sunlight, the silent desert blooms with green life”. His structure of bound black threads reflected the undulating form of the desert dunes and provided a backdrop for the floral aspect of the design.
Tomasz Max Kuczynski of Poland continued the desert theme with his design of golden roots. He says: “I wanted to show that even in the desert something like this city can grow, and that’s why I use a lot of expression in this arrangement, and really precious flowers such as orchids, heliconias [also known as lobster claws] and proteas. To show the space, I’ve used some bigger flowers. I like it when you see the arrangement and you want to look inside; I think it’s a lot more interesting. The architecture here was also part of my inspiration as much in that Dubai is really tall, and the lines reflect that.”
Kuczynski received art school training before studying floristry, and decided that flowers would be his way of life. His aesthetic is reflected in his play of space within sculptural forms.
“When I developed this topic, I googled Dubai and its culture and colours, as well as watching movies and then decided on my technique,” says Kuczynski. “I love this city, it’s really amazing and can provide a lot of further inspiration for my work.”