Isari Flower Studio: Making Dutch Masters Magic With Designer Tam Ashworth

Photos by Ryan Benoit

Don’t let the brooding shadows and tulip tumult fool you. Dutch masters-style floral arrangements are enjoying a moment in the sun.

During the 17th century, morning glories, roses, anemones, lilies and (of course) tulips were painted with heartbreaking precision and drama by Netherlands artists like Rachel Ruysch, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Maria van Oosterwijck and Willem van Aelst. Today the still-life style is back in demand. You’ll find these energetic, maximalist cascades throughout wedding receptions, Pinterest boards, even the Spring/Summer 2014 women’s and men’s collections of Dries Van Noten.

Still-Life With Flowers by Rachel Ruysch

Still-Life With Flowers by Rachel Ruysch (b. 1664, d. 1750).

So when we were invited to Isari Flower Studio to take a class in creating Dutch masters arrangements last week, we made a beeline for the Solana Beach, CA, space.

And what a breathtaking space it is — tall and airy, but with enough chandeliers and curios to feel cozy. When we ask founder/owner Tam Ashworth to free associate on the studio’s aesthetic, she calls it “diverse and relevant, fresh and effortless, modern and well curated.”

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The studio offers floral and event design.

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After some mingling over after-work champagne, desserts and tea, the class begins.

The studio hosts monthly one-hour floral design classes, whose topics range from lilacs and peonies last Mother’s Day to “Italian Garden” (rustic blooms and vines) coming up on July 16 to succulent centerpieces in August 13. Tam, who’s originally from Thailand, draws a lot of floral inspiration from her childhood spent in Great Britain.

“I grew up in countryside in England,” she says. “I attended boarding school since my elementary and high school years. Everything is very pastoral [there] — rambling hedges in abundance, old-fashioned roses, very ruffled and scented.”

Her career in floral design began when she arrived in the US in 1988, creating massive lobby and public space installations for the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. That led to a tenure as the in-house florist for the Four Seasons Aviara, after which she founded Isari. The studio’s name is actually one of the two names Tam was given at birth. “Isari means ‘the king’s’ — his medals and declarations, coat of arms,’ ” she explains.

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Above: Tam Ashworth, founder/owner/lead designer of Isari Flower Studio & Event Design.

This is probably a good time to mention that Tam’s hospitality is legendary. Students are offered tea, champagne and desserts before class; during class, Tam provides instruction that’s warm, assured and direct. The Dutch masters centerpieces we created included many favorite blooms in season right now: alliums, irises, peonies, sunflowers and roses. And that’s naming less than one-third of the plants we used.

Bless those Dutch artists and their more-is-more approach.

Below, check out the step-by-step from the class, and then the spectacular results at the end. And yes, Tam — and then Ryan! — had to step in to help me. So many times…

—TH

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We begin with wet floral foam inside a woven vase.

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Plant number one! A blooming artichoke.

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Next is another purple charmer, allium. (The alliums have been looking GOOD this year, haven’t they?) Tam leads the class step by step, flower by flower, advising us to diversify heights and create depth by bringing some plants to the center and others to the perimeter of the foam.

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Next: hybrid delphiniums and sunflowers are installed. Tam also tells us to design from every angle, turning the container as we work to make sure our arrangements sizzle from all sides.

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Tam steps in to help me with my arrangement, which was starting to look a bit one-dimensional.

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For longevity, all stems are snipped (some by a little, some by a lot) before entering the floral foam, which we watered every day.

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Stylish, funny and unrelentingly photogenic, Tam used to model for fashion houses like Chanel, Kenzo and Marni.

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Okay, here I’m trying to make my snapdragons criss-cross like a coat of arms. Better in theory than in practice, but hey, I was going for a Game of Thrones thing…

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Tam makes it look so effortless. She adds the next flower, an agapanthus with a dome of lovely white flowers.

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Agapanthus (known also as lily of the Nile) is one of the taller garden flowers, but for this purpose Tam recommends cutting it short to add fullness near the base of the arrangement.

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A handful of lavender joins the just-added pink lilies and montbretias (those are the red flowers).

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Next comes the tulip, the central flower of the Dutch Golden Age.

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And how gorgeous are they?! With their pink and green ruffles…

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Then things get wild with chamomiles, left, and feverfew, the spray of yellow button-shaped flowers on the right.

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Fever(few) started long ago…

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I give the montbretia a kind of nonfunctional squinch while Tam adjusts with the positioning of my scabiosa flowers.

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Orange ranunculus adds a new burst of color.

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That moment your husband has to step in and help you with your flower arrangement.

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Teamwork! Peonies and dahlias have been added to the centerpiece, to up the romance factor.

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Classmate Niki Morrison’s wonderful design.

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Michele McCloskey makes beautiful botanical music with her Dutch masters display.

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Beatrice Flores creates a dreamy, opulent poem with her plants. Pokeweed, eucalyptus pods and spires add fullness and extension to the arrangement.

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All together now.

Tam Ashworth, Isari Flower Studio

Tam with the masterpieces en masse.

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Here is Tam’s wondrous design. There’s a small cyc in the studio, so your arrangements can roar against a clean background when you photograph them.

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A cafe au lait dahlia — one of the loveliest things in life.

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Back at our place, let the Instagramming begin.

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