Laura Dowling’s passion is flowers — and they are her business, too.
Dowling, who grew up on a farm in Washington state, studied floral design in France, and says she’s strongly influenced by French floral design. The garden style, with blooms that seem to have come from a rural garden, is a favorite. When she first became the floral designer for the Obama White House, First Lady Michelle Obama had already become famous for creating the White House garden planted with vegetables to be served at the presidential table, and was celebrated as a fashion icon for effectively mixing designer pieces with fast-fashion ones in her wardrobe.
Dowling wanted to create the same mix with common garden flowers and more sophisticated ones. She is particularly adept at using greenery to set off flowers, often using greens and leaves to cover vases and other items. The floral schemes she created also took note of recycling and other environmentally friendly practices.
The former First Lady, she notes, had “a vision about the White House [being] open and accessible to the American people, and that design and decor should help communication. As I thought through the flowers, I knew about using fashion in a diplomatic way,” she says. “The research that went into state dinners was to support her personality, her priorities, all of her policies. For me, it was natural — natural coming from a policy and communications background.”
Now, Dowling has written a book, “Floral Diplomacy at the White House” (Stichting Kunstboek), which is about her six years in that role. Surprisingly, before she got the position, Dowling was doing a completely different full-time job at the Nature Conservancy, working in communications and was also making floral designs out of her basement for clients including the Chinese embassy.
Her husband, Bob Weinhagen, a Washington lawyer who, as Dowling puts it, “works in a nonpartisan position on Capitol Hill drafting legislation for both sides,” saw a story in the newspaper about the floral designer at the White House retiring after 32 years. Dowling didn’t feel she was qualified, but her husband insisted that she apply for the job. She made it through the early rounds of the competition and in the end got the position, blowing the other contestants out of the water. It was her designs for an upcoming dinner for the Prime Minister of India that helped win her role. And, in a world where who you know is everything, a simple cold call to the White House was all she needed.
In the book, her bouquets and centerpieces are shown in vivid color, creating an impressive display.
Dowling is a tireless student, and even when she was working at the White House, she would frequently visit Europe for classes in Germany or France. She also worked a grueling schedule that involved long hours seven days a week, which is partly why she didn’t hold the position longer.
Preparation for major state dinners would begin as much as four months in advance, although she only had a few weeks after being hired before the India dinner — still her favorite — took place. Before making decisions, Dowling would do extensive research, coming up with unexpected details, such as that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was raised in a modest cottage and her favorite color was yellow. The result: Dowling put vases of yellow flowers around the White House during the German leader’s visit.
Among the motifs that were very popular at the White House were various floral and other versions of the two presidential dogs, Bo and Sunny. Dowling had them made up in various versions, including one in ribbon in which the tail inadvertently caught fire. Another popular element in her purview was the White House Flower Shop, where visiting dignitaries and celebrities often turned up, among them Justin Timberlake.
Dowling, in general, finds the role of color in floral arrangements to be extremely important, and she often favors strong, saturated shades — the lynchpin of her decorations for the India dinner. She also enjoyed using the china services of different administrations and using table decorations from the past, including beautiful pieces brought in by Jackie Kennedy. She also used the 14-foot-long Monroe centerpiece, called a plateau, which had previously been banished by Ulysses S. Grant’s wife Julia, who hated it.