Memphis/Milano is the theme for this year’s Memphis Flower Show at Dixon Gallery and Gardens, and floral designer Julie Spear is one of the premier participants. Just back from working as a Garden Club of America judge at the Philadelphia Flower Show, here Julie is working with the Memphis/Milano team to produce a how-to video on floral design for the show, which runs April 4-6. Today’s FACE of Memphis, Julie is the ideal instructor for the video project; her venerable floral design career as a Memphis Garden Club member and a GCA Flower Show judge takes her all over the country. Welcome back to Memphis, Julie, and welcome to StyleBlueprint!

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon
Julie is creating a floral interpretation (right) of this Memphis/Milano art object (left), part of the Dixon exhibition.
Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon
Julie, left, is planning her instructional video with co-chairwomen of the Memphis/Milano Flower Show Mary Gaston Catmur and Brandon Morrison, right. (not pictured: the third flower show co-chair, Veazey Krausnick.)

Have you always called Memphis home?

No, I grew up in Knoxville and moved here in ’73. I originally came to Memphis to work with Rodgers Menzies when he was with John Simmons Interior Design.

How do family and floral design go together for you?

Floral design was a part of my childhood. I grew up in a family of floral designers: my mother, my grandmother, my father. My dad was a pediatrician, but he dabbled in horticulture.

That said, I did wait until I was 45 to join a garden club because I was especially busy mothering up until then. I think it is good to join a garden club later in life because you have more time to devote to the work.

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon
The flowers Julie will use in today’s design.

What do you enjoy most about your work as a floral designer?

It’s the creativity, but it’s also the people.

I truly enjoy attending flower arranging demos and workshops and leading them for other garden clubs, too. Presently, I am the chairman of the 24-year-old GCA Flower Arranging Study Group (FASG), a two-year position in which I plan a workshop each fall in a different U.S. city. The instructors are always internationally known floral designers. Last fall we were in Charleston, South Carolina, with our Belgian instructor Gudrun Cottenier. This fall we will be in Memphis at The Peabody with another Belgian instructor Geert Pattyn. I also have to plan a biennial international workshop, and we will be going to Vancouver to study with Hitomi Gilliam in January 2015.

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon_4
The stage is set for a floral design how-to video!
Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon
These objects will soon be artistically placed in Julie’s floral interpretation.

What advice might you offer to someone who wants to enter the world of floral design?

Classes are held all the time at the Memphis Botanic Garden, and Ikebana classes are a wonderful way to start because they teach the basics. These classes are always listed in the newspaper. You can also learn by reading publications and going to the flower shops and just looking at floral material.

Floral design is like sports. You’ve got to get your hand on the ball to know how it’s going to react. The more you do it, the better you get at it. You’ve got to get your hands physically on the material and see which ones you like to work with, how it feels, how it moves when you move your hands over it … all of those tactile things are very important.

All of this is very learnable. The elements and principles of design are constant; they never change; they are present everywhere, from a floral design to a snowflake to a monumental building. They do not waver.

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon

Are there any new projects in your home or garden?

While I was working at the Philadelphia Flower Show, we had a major ice storm in West Memphis, so I am cleaning up. Our yard looks like a war zone!

We live in a neighborhood that was developed among trees which grew in the middle of an agricultural area. The trees were never taken down for farming because it is a low-lying place. Thus, I work with a lot of high shade in my yard and am always looking for good shade plants to add to the mix.

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon_7
In today’s floral design, manipulation is often used, meaning that you don’t just put a flower in a vase and leave it alone.

Describe the basic tools you need in floral design.

Clippers, wire and OASIS® UGlu™ Adhesive dashes — UGlu dashes are so strong that you could probably do a facelift with them! You can manipulate plant material with them; you can do all kinds of things.

In today’s floral design, we are doing a lot of manipulation, meaning that you don’t just put a flower in a vase and have it remain that way. You bend it or twirl it, and you want it to stay there — using either staples, cable ties, UGlu dashes and more.

Mechanics are the things that help you put your flower arrangement together and hold the flowers in place. Tools are what you use to cut and manipulate the flowers. Today, if mechanics are deliberately visible, then they may become part of the design. In the past, designers wanted all of their mechanics to be hidden, like a petticoat. Now, we have learned the rules and learned how to break the rules. For example, you can have chicken wire showing, and the pattern of the chicken wire becomes part of the design.

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon_16

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon

How is the 2014 Memphis/Milano show unique?

Memphis/Milano depicts the international movement of the 1980s that was a reaction against modernism. Memphis/Milano, the Dixon art exhibit, is a collection of industrialist furniture and design objects owned by Memphian Dennis Zanone.

This show is probably the best show we have ever done because the objects we will be interpreting are so dynamic and bold. The art collection we are interpreting embodies the elements and principles of design.

We are working with a compilation of bold geometric shapes, primary colors and strong forms, all of which are going to make the floral interpretations have to rise to the occasion, to have the right proportions and equal impact of what we are interpreting. I foresee this year’s floral designs as constructions or sculptures more than arrangements, and the containers will be of integral importance in the compositions.

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon_13

What challenges do you predict for the floral designers participating in the Memphis/Milano show?

The main challenge will be to not be redundant. One of the things I am interpreting uses circles, straight lines and tubular forms. What you want to do is visually take your artwork apart and reconstruct it with the floral materials, so that when you look at your interpretation, you see different pieces of the artwork you’ve interpreted but not in a matchy-matchy way.

Refer to the StyleBlueprint post I read this morning (5 Tips for Exploring Contemporary Art, advice from David Lusk), and you will see that floral design is just like contemporary art!

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon_18

Are you involved in other community or outreach organizations?

I’m on the flower guild at Calvary Church, which is wonderful and means a great deal to me. My mantra in design is: Unfortunately we are not curing cancer, and unfortunately we are not creating world peace, but fortunately we are able to enjoy, work with and share the beauty that God has given us in His creation.

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon_12

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon_17

Do you have a favorite activity other than floral design?

My grandchildren!

Do you have a specific mentor in floral design?

My grandmother. I just gave a program at the 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show, and someone came up to me afterwards and said: “You quote your grandmother all the time. I wish I could have met her!” She was a wonderful and talented lady.

What’s the best advice you have ever received?

“Julie, it’s really important to learn the Latin names of plant materials, because it’s just like people. If you know who they are related to, then you know why the heck they act that way!” —my grandmother

What must-have fashion items are in your closet?

Scarves and black pants.

How do you unwind and recharge your batteries?

Floral design is a way to unwind, and I also love playing with my two Corgi dogs.

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon

If there’s one place in the world you’d suggest someone visit, where would that be?

Pawleys Island, SC. If it can’t be Pawleys, then give me Paris … but maybe not in that order!

What books are you reading?

My bedside reading is very eclectic. First of all, since it is flower show season, I have a stack of my favorite go-to books for design inspiration. Then, in no particular order, are: Eye of My Heart, writings on grandmothering; Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, actually re-reading that; American Priestess by Jane Fletcher Geniesse, about Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem; As Always, Julia by Joan Reardon; We’ve Always Had Paris … and Provence by Patricia Wells; and They Came to Nashville by my former schoolmate Marshall Chapman.

Anyway, that is today. It changes!

What is the beauty product you can’t imagine not using? 

Oh, you can’t ever get enough war paint!

Julie Spear_MGC Flower Show at Dixon

What special event are you especially looking forward to in Memphis?

The Memphis/Milano Flower Show, of course! The biennial Memphis Flower Show, a GCA Major Flower Show, is open and free to the public, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 5, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 6. The purpose of this show is to exhibit outstanding horticulture, conservation, floral interpretations of fine art and photography, as well as to allow Memphis-area youth participants to join an educational exhibit.


For more information about the Memphis/Milano event, visit Memphis Garden Club at or Dixon Gallery and Gardens,

Thank you to Whitney McNeill, our photographer today. Whitney was also the videographer for the MGC educational video being created on the day of our photo shoot. Kudos to Whitney for being a masterful multi-tasker!


About the Author
Christian Owen