In Full Bloom
November 13, 2011
Text by Maria LaPiana Photography by Courtesy of Diane James Home
Diane James is sitting in her busy workroom in downtown Norwalk, hands folded neatly in her lap, telling how she came to be the queen bee of faux flowers. “You won’t believe it,” she says, dropping her voice to a whisper, “but I was always a snob when it came to silk flowers.”
Of course, she adds with a grin, that was back in the day, when silk was synonymous with fake. “Oh, the colors were awful, and when you opened a box of stiff stems it looked like they were shot out of an electrical socket!” recalls James, whose short dark hair and bright eyes give no hint of her seventy-six years. But as time went on and faux flowers became more lifelike—thanks to new fabrics, finishes and manufacturing techniques—her disdain faded away.
Today, James has taken silk flowers to a luxurious new level. Her stunning blooms grace foyer tables in the finest homes, have filled the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center and are sold at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. If you’ve been to a charity dinner, a designer show house or the newly refurbished Connecticut Governor’s Mansion, you’ve likely seen James’s work. From statuesque statement pieces to the most delicate single peony in a miniature glass vase, her incredibly natural-looking arrangements inspire awe and double-takes.
Even as a child, James was surrounded by flowers. Her mother “was always carrying in armfuls and arranging them,” she says. But it wasn’t until James went to live in Belgium with her husband in 1964 that her passion blossomed. “They have the most beautiful flowers over there, and the dollar was strong,” she recalls. “So you could absolutely fill your car for very little money.”
Enchanted by the European style of floral arranging, James went to London to study with renowned florists Pulbrook & Gould, returning to the States in 1979, twin daughters and newfound skills in tow. For many years, she mostly dabbled, making arrangements for herself and friends. One day she happened to poke around in a silk flower warehouse—“I just put some things together,” she remembers—and was sold.
James knew she had a gift, and a potentially lucrative one, when a silk arrangement she donated for a silent auction at the Bruce Museum sold for $1,700, well above the starting bid. The winning bidder was so pleased she promptly ordered eleven more arrangements.
Serendipity played its part over the years, too. When James provided flowers to liven up a friend’s display of silver vases at Bergdorf Goodman, the merchandising manager was smitten and commissioned her to create a line for the store. Her first collection sold out in two weeks. “It was 1997, and she was newly divorced at the time,” says James’s daughter Cynthia James Matrullo. “She was single after more than forty years, so her success, it was a kind of a rebirth, a reawakening for her.”
These days, Cynthia and her twin, Carolyn James McDonough, run the business side of the company, while James serves as chief creative officer. Their mainstay, the flowers themselves, are manufactured overseas (most aren’t made of silk at all, but rather cotton or a polyester blend) and purchased through U.S. importers.
James personally designs every arrangement, creating two new collections each year. Her samples are painstakingly reproduced by a few talented women, many of whom have been with her since the start. With extraordinary attention
to detail, the workers touch up the colors on petals, then neatly trim stems and place them gingerly into vases or pots filled with “water,” a polyurethane compound that is perfectly clear when it hardens. Finally, James says, the workers carefully perfect the composition and fluff the blossoms so they look as much as possible “like something God designed.”
Prices for James’s creations start at $110 for a single bloom and climb upward of $900 for a tall custom arrangement. With sales of just under $1 million last year and orders steadily increasing, optimism is the order of the day, every day. “We’re shipping to England, Australia, Japan…all over the world,” says Carolyn. “It’s a very exciting time for us.” •
Diane James Home, (203) 846-0303, www.dianejameshome.com