Beyond the Bouquet:
Floral Arrangements Inspired by Ikebana
Written by Marc Palatucci
Photographed by Hanna Tveite
Floral Design by Marisa Competello
After a decade working in the fashion industry, Marisa Competello sought a fresh beginning. Rather than agonizing over her new path, she made a straightforward decision and gave in to a natural attraction. “As my new medium,” she recounts, “I chose flowers.” Specifically, she began to pursue the art of flower arranging, known formally as the traditional Japanese practice of ikebana. But rather than embark on the long road toward mastery by engaging in formal study, Competello opted, for the most part, to teach herself. “The only class that I did take was three hours with this amazing woman—she taught me the philosophy behind it, and we did an arrangement together. By the end of it, she was calling me a samurai.”
Competello recalls this compliment with a laugh, but the comparison is not as fanciful as it may seem. In Japan, ikebana dates back thousands of years, to when Zen Buddhist priests composed floral offerings as a meditative exercise, and yes, even the samurai of the warrior class created flower arrangements to ponder mortality and achieve focus before heading into battle. While Competello respects the rich tradition and contemplative aspects of flower arranging, she has chosen not to dwell on its historical and spiritual side, instead learning the fundamentals and drawing upon them as of one of many influences in her “freestyle” arrangements.
Imaginative, abstract compositions are a signature of Meta Flora, the New York-based floral design studio that Competello founded in 2014, and for The Line, she embraced the challenge of creating a fresh approach to the Valentine’s Day bouquet: something more exotic than the typical dozens of long-stemmed red roses. The first step was to visit her favorite flower source—a neighborhood farmer’s market—and seek out blooms in neutral hues. She also considered the women who would appreciate such a non-traditional aesthetic. “As a woman, receiving flowers of any kind is a romantic gesture, regardless of the shade,” says Competello. “Even with a neutral palette, they can be super elegant and romantic.”
Though perhaps unconventional in the eyes of a purist, her work reflects many of the hallmarks of ikebana, including an affinity for delicate asymmetry. “I’m always drawn to a balance,” she explains, “or an imbalance, for that matter.” That said, Competello is not shy about bending rules and breaking with tradition, such as when she shears the fronds of a few ferns to box their edges. “I use it as a moment to create another shape,” she says, “Flowers don’t really come in squares or rectangles, so it’s always nice to mix it up with something unexpected.”
Discovering a ‘New Face’ in the Familiar
- Contemporary interpretations of ikebana emphasize transcending concepts of traditional use to discover a “new face” in the material. Surrounded by a spiky halo of fronds from the Bismarck palm, a cluster of anthuriums appears even more exotic than usual. A two-tone brass vase by Lex Pott accents the shiny and rosy qualities of the flowers.
- Calla lilies have blossoms that grow straight and tall—and last especially long in floral displays. Cascading from a round vase by Los Angeles-based potter Victoria Morris, the trumpet-shaped white blooms evoke openness and ease, while the curved stems suggest linear movement.
- An artfully juxtaposed composition of anthuriums puts the focus on the quality of the line. Clustered leaves and cream-colored flowers are united by their staggered heights and exposed stems, and grounded by a porcelain Lyngby vase: a fluted form designed in the mid-20th century as a reference to the cogwheels of industry.
- In this freestyle arrangement, a bold loop of steel grass provides line for the composition, while two sprays of white orchids punctuate the curve, adding both mass and texture. The empty space created by the grass is balanced by the conical form of the vase, a matte black vessel by Victoria Morris.
- Hardy and easy to bend, flowering quince is the ideal material for any kind of ikebana. The spiny shrub’s blossoms will last for two or three days, even without water. In this arrangement, the dramatically angled branches emerge from a leather-lined brass tray and are also adorned with orchid blooms.
- Dramatic, deeply lobed leaves such as those of the monstera plant (also known as a split-leaf philodendron) can be the star of a contemporary ikebana arrangement. The large, flat leaves are simple to shape and gain stability when surrounded by horsetail stems in a cylindrical vase by Victoria Morris.
Her instinctive approach to arranging flowers can even create surprises for Competello herself, like the discovery that one of her creations was remarkably wearable. “It had this perfect loop shape,” she recalls of the piece, which a model had slung over her forearm. “It kind of just worked for her to get her body in there, almost like a piece of jewelry or a bag.”
This openness to the organic evolution of things is especially apt considering Competello’s line of work, and it’s a main reason why she doesn’t obsess over the future of Meta Flora, hoping only that it “continues to grow, and to build momentum.” She might one day like to open a shop or public showroom in New York, but in the meantime, she is content working privately with a range of clients in fashion and design, and traveling when she can to places teeming with inspiration. “I’ve been going to Hawaii, which is fantastic—the flora and fauna are insane,” she says. “A lot of what I use in my work is tropical, so it’s amazing to be somewhere where all my favorite things are literally growing from the ground.”
I’m interested in freestyling and in blurring the lines of floral arranging, involving ideas of movement, shape, and sculpture.