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Secret Chicago: flower arranging for pros



Everything in this place is green. Never mind that a lot of it has faded into sickly pale greens over the years. The curtains are green, the chicken wire is green, the foam is green, the Xerox machine sits atop a sea-green box, the woman at the counter slicing off the green stem of a carnation is smoking a cigarette from a green box.

In the classroom students sit behind green curtains in green seats listening to a lecture by Jim Moretz, the director of the American Floral Art School at 539 S. Wabash. The school's been here for more than 50 years, teaching floral design to people who are serious about becoming florists.

"We don't get hobbyists or housewives," said Moretz. Flower shops across the United States send their students here for training. Other students will take the techniques they learn back to their flower shops in Singapore, Japan, Holland, and Germany. There are also branches of the school in Singapore and Taiwan.

Classes are held every day from nine to five. Each day they cover a different topic: one day funerals, another day centerpieces. Students spend half their time in the classroom and the rest in the workshop learning to design arrangements. They are taught by Moretz, by Al Mendoza, who runs a flower shop in South Holland, and by Bill Peklo, who gave up a 25-year career as an accountant to become a florist. The three-week course costs 600 bucks, which includes materials such as flowers, wires, and foam.

The school was started in 1937, when a woman named Tommy Bright wanted to teach floral design to war veterans. It was called Bright's School of Floral Design until William Kistler, a posthumous inductee into the Floricultural Hall of Fame, took over in 1951. Kistler's specter still looms over the school. He was a world traveler, and the walls of the school are decorated with artifacts and photos from Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, South Africa. His world's-largest bouquet-holder collection is displayed behind a glass panel, and an Ethiopian cross, which was used by priests in blessing ceremonies, hangs on the wall. There are pictures of Kistler with Johnny Mathis, Mae West, and one of the school's most celebrated graduates, Rusty Young, who served as White House floral designer under five presidents.

Jim Moretz still calls the former director Mr. Kistler in a reverent tone. He has tried to remain faithful to Kistler's vision of an international school, and he is responsible for the opening of the Far East branches of the school. "Our students in Singapore and Taiwan are wives of presidents of corporations, import-export companies. We've had wives of ambassadors," said Moretz. "It's a very specialized course for them: centerpiece arrangements for their home. No funeral work at all. Chinese, they hate funerals. You just say funerals, and they go 'Yiiii.' Our classes there are geared more to the wealthy housewives, but they work very hard. I make them sweep their mess off the floor even though they're dropped off by their chauffeur in a Mercedes Benz."

Moretz has worked at the school for 22 years. With his bright red cheeks and bald pate, he looks like a cherubic Donald Pleasence. He says he's worked at flower shops ever since he was a four-year-old boy living in Boone, North Carolina. As a high school student, he began a newsletter about flowers and sent copies to bigwigs in the floral industry, including Bill Kistler, who was impressed with the boy's pluck and gave him a summer job at the school in 1959. After majoring in floriculture and business administration at Ohio State and working as a floral designer at New York's Plaza Hotel, Moretz came back to the school to stay.

"At this school, we try to emphasize making a profit and giving the customer the best showing possible," said Moretz. "It's a fine line that the students have to walk. Don't be creative to the point where you've lost money on the design, yet give the customer the best showing of the flowers they have ordered. It's a fine balance."

Moretz teaches by using what he calls the Socratic method: he asks questions, and the students nod yes. Much of the class time is used to demonstrate different types of floral arrangements. Some of it's skillfully executed; a lot of it's really tacky. On the countertop in front of the classroom is an arrangement made out of leisure-suit oranges and browns. There is also a flower pot with a toilet plunger in it, and something that looks like a white porcelain chia pet with purple statice sticking out of its back.

"Don't get carried away to the point where you lose common sense," Moretz admonishes his students. "As cute as it is, is it logical for plants to grow out of the back of an animal?"

The students shake their heads.

"Is it going to be hard to put foam in there?"

The students nod.

Mendoza brings out a series of specialty arrangements. A loaf of french bread with pink carnations lodged in it, a Mr. Bill made out of mums and felt, a Spuds MacKenzie made out of mums and stuck in a Bud vase, a stork made out of mums in a white compote.

"The difference between Europeans and Americans is that there people have learned to live with flowers on a daily basis," said Moretz. "You go grocery shopping over there, and you buy a few flowers. It's like buying Coke or milk or bread. For most Americans, it's based on an occasion. You've got to get sick, you've got to get married, you've got to be born, and you've got to die. And that's when we buy our flowers." But, he said, "Flowers are better than booze, and they're better than cigarettes. They're the best gift. I don't think a flower has ever hurt anybody."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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