A Floral Designer Who Forages in the Hills of Malibu

Sophia Moreno-Bunge sees possibilities for floral design everywhere: in mushrooms, seaweed, driftwood, bread, tomatoes on the vine. “It’s the weird, overlooked, maybe forgotten things,” she says of the materials that capture her imagination and coalesce in unexpected arrangements that might combine plumes of papyrus, say, with waxy chartreuse anthuriums and a branch of ripening green lemons. Indeed, Moreno-Bunge is part of a new wave of designers — among them the Berlin-based studio Mary Lennox and the New York-based Joshua Werber — for whom the term florist seems too narrow a definition; they’re artists who not only confirm the obvious appeal of blooms but also reveal the magnificence of their landscapes’ less flamboyant elements: leaves, vegetables, seedpods, weeds and humble grasses.

This approach has made Isa Isa — Moreno-Bunge’s five-year-old floral design business, which creates effervescent, naturalistic arrangements and installations — the studio of choice for many of L.A.’s most interesting brands. Visitors to the Chinatown store of the clothing label Eckhaus Latta in 2018 might have noticed a single, ethereal white Iceland poppy emerging from a dense green cluster of beadlike dates, slatted areca palm leaves and the drooping, fist-size fruit of the silk floss tree, arranged by Moreno-Bunge in a pitcher on a table of accessories. More recently, she displayed three green tromboncino squash, coiled like snakes, alongside bouquets of black tomatoes, olive branches and unripened persimmons and lemons, at the women’s clothing boutique Shaina Mote in Highland Park. And Isa Isa’s florals add depth to every console and corner of the Kelly Wearstler-designed Proper Hotel in Santa Monica: spilling out from the narrow opening of a stoneware bowl and the back of a metallic terra-cotta armchair are juxtapositions of fiery heliconia, iridescent silver palm, star-shaped Nerine lilies and ropes of lavender-hued palm inflorescence. “My goal is to make work that people can see, not just at weddings and events, but on a more regular basis,” says Moreno-Bunge, 33.

For each project, she creates a narrative, while also considering seasonality, movement and scale (she is a fan, in particular, of oversize plants anchored by tiny vessels). And while her materials may change, her arrangements’ palpable vitality marks them as unmistakably hers; there is always a sense that they might have been plucked just minutes before from some fantastical tropical forest or swaying meadow, their tangled branches and hidden fruits arranged by nature rather than by hand. “I love work that has dimension,” she explains, “Maybe you have many things reaching, so it feels like they’re crawling — or even jumping — out of a vase.” Working with her team of four, she sources her materials from the downtown L.A. flower market, her own cutting garden in Santa Monica — where she grows papyrus, orchids and spotted begonia — and the hills of Malibu, where she frequently forages for wild mustard and oats. Positioned within a streamlined, brightly lit space, then, an Isa Isa arrangement has the power to bring the wildness of the L.A. landscape inside and into focus.

Moreno-Bunge grew up in Venice, where her family owns and operates a beachfront hotel, and Santa Monica. She studied art history and visual arts at Barnard, and after graduating worked for three years with the acclaimed New York-based florist Emily Thompson. “I connected with the way she would create worlds,” Moreno-Bunge says of Thompson, who is known for creating textural, extensively researched designs that privilege rare and little-used plants. “It was never just an arrangement — there was a whole story behind what we were making, connected to the seasons and the history of the spaces we were in.” Moreno-Bunge moved back to Los Angeles in 2014 and started creating the kind of work she didn’t see there: arrangements that celebrated the abundance and diversity of Southern California’s native flora.

But if her materials are deeply connected to her home state, much of Moreno-Bunge’s hallmark experimentations with movement and scale can be traced to family vacations in Argentina, where both of her parents were born. (Isa Isa is named for Moreno-Bunge’s grandmothers, who are both named Isabel). She thinks frequently of the contrasting proportions of delicate wild strawberries and soaring araucaria trees in Patagonia, where her father’s family has a ranch, and of the vast grasslands of Olavarria, in the eastern part of the country, where her maternal grandmother raises cattle. “The way the grasses engulf you with their towering presence,” she says, “and the sounds that come from them — the murmur of birds, crickets and bugs — it inspired me to create work that feels alive. I know I can’t put a bird in an arrangement, but what else can we do that sparks curiosity?”

Like a growing number of floral designers, though, Moreno-Bunge is also keenly aware of the impact her profession can have on the natural world, of the irony that bringing the beauty of the outdoors inside often means contributing to its destruction. “I hope that the industry moves in the direction of using more local and sustainable products, thinking about where flowers come from, and if the people growing them are paid well,” she says, explaining that she uses florist’s plastic only sparingly and buys from small growers whenever she can. She is committed, too, to being a fair and compassionate employer. At the company’s studio, a small converted garage in Santa Monica, she will often make a home-cooked lunch for her staff so they can pause, sit down together and feel nourished and connected. “This industry is exhausting and physical — there’s a time crunch and perishable materials. There’s a culture of ‘We’re so tough,’” she explains. “I try to make it more human.”

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