WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama has Obama-ized the White House with healthful menus, planted bok choy and rhubarb to supply them, and ramped up the fashion quotient with metallic strapless dresses and studded belts. Her latest style statement: official flowers in a looser "garden" style by Laura Dowling, the new White House chief floral designer.
Dowling's hot-glue gun has been smoking as she's created hundreds of arrangements, many in custom containers she's wrapped in birch bark, moss and dried apricots. The more relaxed, sometimes unexpected look incorporates armloads of romantic blooms, trailing vines, shaggy ferns and the occasional hot pepper and Brussels sprout.
"It's my job to create a new signature style," said Dowling, who took over the job in October. "And sometimes instead of flowers, we can use vegetables for a centerpiece."
The cactus is even crashing the party. At the May state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón, prickly pear cactus showed up in vermeil wine coolers, and Dowling tucked a few in the centerpieces of fuchsia roses and Cattleya orchids.
On a daily basis, though, President Barack Obama is said to prefer one simple floral arrangement in the Oval Office, plus a bowl of red apples.
Fresh flowers create a backdrop for every White House event. "The floral arrangements that Laura and her staff create add to the welcoming experience that I want guests visiting the White House — whether they be heads of state or families on vacation — to feel," Michelle Obama said in an e-mail, adding that her favorite flowers are roses, mums, peonies and hydrangeas.
From a modest work room, Dowling supervises a staff of three who plan months ahead for protocol-laden ceremonies and holiday extravaganzas such as Christmas. And don't think presidents are too busy to notice flowers.
Ronald Reagan once stopped former White House chief florist Dottie Temple to ask about the then-very fashionable curly willow branches she'd arranged in the Reagans' bedroom. "About those sticks on the mantel," Reagan said to Temple. "Is anything going to happen to them?" Temple says she got the message. "Yes, sir. I'm going to get rid of them as soon as possible," she said.
Dowling, 50, ran her own flower-designing business in Alexandria, Va., specializing in French-style bouquets, before she got the top flower job in the country. Soft-spoken, she seems calm in the center of high-pressure domestic bustle. Her ground-level command center has a walk-in cooler filled with buckets of roses, arrangements waiting to be delivered to various offices, and yogurt and Diet Coke. Six months before Christmas, there is already a stack of straw-wrapped wreaths on the counter.
Dowling traces her love of flowers to her grandmother's rose garden in a small farming and logging town in Washington state. Dowling pursued a career in government and public policy but was always interested in decorating, antiques and crafts.
She never thought about a career in flower design until a trip to Paris 10 years ago, when she spotted a bouquet by well-known French florist Christian Tortu made of sweet peas, rose hips and lady's mantle. "I saw the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen," recalls Dowling, who then perfected her style on a series of trips to Paris to take classes at L'Ecole des Fleurs with Tortu and other designers to learn cutting-edge techniques and trends.
Dowling, a devoted Francophile, eventually built her own reputation doing flowers for special events and weddings, and lecturing at the Philadelphia Flower Show and at Pierre Deux, a home furnishings store featuring French country decor. She is constantly looking for new ideas and recently attended a five-day class in Germany by designer Gregor Lersch, where she worked on natural compositions in a woodland setting overlooking the Rhine River valley.
About 15,000 visitors come through the White House weekly on public tours, according to Semonti Stephens, deputy press secretary to Michelle Obama. Dowling's flower arrangements, focal points in the stately historical rooms, draw a lot of attention.
"The flowers in the White House are one of the things that visitors always commented on," said Betty Monkman, former White House curator.
Dowling's intense work weeks are often seven days long. The last entry in her personal blog "L'art du Bouquet" was made in September. But she says the job is "an honor, a privilege and a fairy tale."
Recently, Michelle Obama asked her to create a parting gift for France's Carla Bruni-Sarkozy after a private White House dinner. Obama presented the former Chanel supermodel with a small all-white bouquet of roses and orchids with camellia foliage.
"It was a gift of friendship," said Dowling, who tied the gray satin ribbons in a French braid on the bouquet herself. "It feels like each of the flower arrangements we do here has its own story."