Sarah Coombs Designer Chat Back: Peter Krask

Today Show Thanksgiving

Today Show Thanksgiving

I've been fortunate to meet all sorts of wonderfully interesting people during my time at the Today show, including Peter Krask. He's been the residential floral designer at the show for over fourteen years, and is the recipient of an award from the American Institute of Floral Design for his work there. His corporate clients include NBC, Sony, Universal Pictures and the Gap. He is the featured designer for The Knot Book of Wedding Flowers, and his arrangements have also appeared in the national magazines WeddingsMartha Stewart Weddings, and Us Weekly.

In addition to his floral work, Peter is an accomplished librettist. His opera With Blood, With Ink will receive its professional premiere in 2014 at the Fort Worth Opera Festival.

Recently we discussed how he got started in the biz, what inspires his palettes, and why novices should avoid tulips.

How did you come to your career? What’s your background?
I came to my career as a florist entirely by accident and luck. I wish I could say that there was a grand strategic plan involved, but, really, it came down to a temp job. Most of my personal and professional ambitions are connected to the world of writing, mostly non-fiction and writing for the theater, specifically opera librettos. But, like most creative work, it’s hard to support oneself doing this exclusively, so my goal was to find a day job that would be creative but also allow time for me to pursue writing projects.  When I first moved to New York, one hundred years ago, I had an administrative temp job with a rather fancy floral boutique which was run by a less-than-honest person, famous for not paying her freelance designers. The freelance florist community is small and tight, and once word gets out that someone’s checks aren’t good, well, workers stay away. So, one morning, the owner literally couldn’t find a designer to come in and work; it was down to the two of us to create the large list of arrangements that had been ordered and paid for that day. The owner said to me, “Figure it out. Good luck.” And walked out the door.  

Photo by Damani Moyd

Now, I had been watching the designers when they had been working, and had come from a background that included study in architecture, art history, and advertising design. But even with some design knowledge, I had no idea what I was doing. But the orders got out that day, and thereafter, I became the chief cook and bottle washer and, along the way, taught myself how to design flowers. Like most things, it’s important to just start. You simply have to begin.  And not be afraid to make an ugly flower arrangement. Which you will. And which I have done. Many of them.

I lasted there for three months, and, when I could stand it no more, I quit and thought, “There’s one more odd skill to put on my resume.  Don’t think I’ll ever be doing that again.” That was almost sixteen years ago, and, here I am, still at it, with a boutique design company and two enormously talented assistants, and many, many, many arrangements behind me.

Today show kitchen segment

What’s your process when working with your clients (i.e. your work flow)?
I’m quite fortunate with my main client, the Today show, because I’ve been with them for so long that the process has become automatic and fairly self-contained. In addition to the weekly installation of the set arrangements, each week I get a list of specific production requests. Then I shop in the flower market to find the best match, and make the arrangement at the studio. As with most clients, the essential things are to be reliable, on budget, communicative, self-sufficient, and honest. If something is not available--and with flowers, either because of shipping or seasonal weather, something’s always not available--it’s best to just say so, because there is always an excellent alternative which can often spark a new idea.  

More important, I think a successful design process includes the ability to read a client’s mind and anticipate their needs. My contribution to the larger design process at Today is to understand their needs, which are complex and tied to a terrible time pressure, and being able to anticipate problems before they arise. Usually, it’s a matter of suggesting a direction that’s grounded in the possible.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or either show or ask for examples; I mean, you can’t be smarter than you are. Part of any designer’s job is to educate or direct their clients. While most people have an idea of what they like, they often don’t know how or what to ask when working with a designer, and that lack of knowledge can create discomfort which can get expressed in all sorts of funny ways. Part of our job is to help a client know which questions to ask and how to ask them. Good design is a collaboration. Good design is problem solving.  

I try to remember some advice from the American music critic and composer, Virgil Thomson, when he described how he, as a specialist, wrote for a general audience of newspaper readers: “Never overestimate your reader’s knowledge. Never underestimate your reader’s intelligence.”

There are two valid models or ways of approaching a client: There are the designers who impose their own specific vision, and designers who create more collaborative vision, one informed by their own taste, skill, and experience. The older I get, the less interested I’ve become in simply imposing an idea.

Today show Wedding

What do you like best/least about your job?
I’m very spoiled. I have a tremendous amount of freedom to explore my curiosities and ideas and see where they lead. Within the larger context of the overall look of the show and the sensibility of the Art Director, I can pretty much do whatever I want. It’s been a real education in a fascinating design lab. I’m also lucky that, over the years, I’ve had to work in a considerable range of styles and in a variety of situations, due to specific production needs and segments. This has helped me become faster, more flexible, and able to improvise: essential skills for any florist.

What I like least about my job is how dirty it is. Flowers are a messy business! There is so much trash that comes from processing flowers. Most people wouldn’t believe it. But there is.  And it’s wet. And it can stink. Plus, it’s murder on your hands. Oasis floral foam is just filthy. And, settling into middle-age, well, standing all day can wear a body out!

What surprises you about your job?
First off, that I’m still doing it! Again, it was never my plan or ambition, but here I am, still at it.  It’s become a bit of a joke in the flower market that I am now an old timer, since there are so many new faces showing up each day.

But, more seriously, I’m still surprised by the flowers themselves. Even when I fall into a rut or depend upon a floral recipe, I can notice a flower I hadn’t paid attention to before, and that can shake things up. Or the season will change, and a flower will come back that I’d forgotten about, and I think, “Wow! This is back! Great!” (And, even with mass production, there are fortunately some flowers that are only available at certain times of the year and that you have to anticipate for a deliciously long time.) The variety is endless. And my taste can be a little fickle, in a good way.

What's your idea of a design mishap?
There are so many! Let’s start with the obvious: the product dies before it’s supposed to and you have no idea why. (And, even with years of learning the lifespans of many flowers, in the end, you’re dealing with live product: it’s naturally full of surprises.) Or a piece falls over, usually a larger arrangement that isn’t properly structured. Or you make the wrong cut (much like carpentry). Day-to-day, the one that can drive me crazy is losing the shape of an arrangement as you’re making it. The more you try to right it, the worse it gets. You can’t start over because your stems have been cut, so you’re stuck with a wonky arrangement.

Are there any design themes with flowers that you’d like to see return?
I’d be happy to see a return to what I would call an “Italian” style of flowers, or perhaps “romantic” might be a better term. I can define it better by what it’s not: not rustic, or weedy, or blowsy, or overblown, or brimming with wildflowers and sunflowers. (I hate sunflowers!) We’re in a moment when the emphasis is on flowers as sculpture and, even with the exciting possibilities that has opened up, it’s sacrificed the deeply sensual nature of flowers: how tactile, how fragrant, how colorful they really are. The flowers don’t get to speak for themselves any more. You stop noticing the flowers as flowers. For weddings, I’d love to see a re-imagining of the Art Deco approach to flowers.

Today show wedding

What are you “over”?
While repurposing has been a real boon to the design world, I wish it a speedy demise in terms of containers for flower arrangements. It almost never works, and the effect of whimsy usually fails, especially when the water in the container leaks out all over the table or onto the rug. I once had to do a series of arrangements in some old lace-up roller skates. I’ll just say this: it’s not a good idea to have centerpieces that can roll down the table. Use vases, people!

How do you tell the difference between an arrangement that’s done and overdone?
Usually the flowers will tell you. As you make an arrangement, you learn to listen to the flowers. They’ll tell you where they want to go. At a certain point, you can get stem-lock, where you literally cannot fit another stem in without all the others breaking; that’s a good clue.

But, generally speaking, I think most arrangements are “under-done.” People most often don’t use enough flowers, or they use too-much filler. Either way, the arrangement always looks sparse and unfinished. Most of my arrangements are nothing but flowers. I use very little filler or greenery.  

What’s on your bookshelf? How are you inspired?
Right now, I’m reading Pictures and Tears by James Elkins. It’s a rather eccentric examination of the history of people who are overcome to the point of tears when looking at paintings, and how that phenomenon has seemed to stop in our age. It’s quite thought-provoking, and raises all kinds of interesting questions about how we do or do not engage with art. I’m also getting ready to re-read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red a strange and moving novel as a poem, in anticipation of its sequel Red Doc > which just came out. I’m also midway through Nancy Mitford’s hilarious Love in a Cold Climate. Of its kind, it’s perfect.

As for inspiration, three things: looking at paintings, taking photographs, and real skill of any kind: that always excites me. And, of course, flowers themselves. How can you look at a Festive Maxima peony and not want to make something with it?

Today show wedding

Any design crushes?
Hmmm. Most of my crushes are painters. And people who can mix patterns: I’m hopeless at it and would love to be able to see that way. I will say that I love walking by Flowers of the World on West 55th Street and checking out their window displays. They are far removed from my sensibility, but they are always so simple, imaginative and thoughtful; full of suggestions for ways of approaching flowers.

What inspires your palettes?
I think my strongest skill as a florist lies in my sense of color. And, if my clients are to be believed, I do have quite a specific color palette, although this must be unconscious. I couldn’t tell you what it is, as I think I use all kinds of colors. But my sense of color grows out of studying paintings. Time at the Met or the Frick is what you need to learn how to work with color. It’s amazing to me to look at the combination of wildly disparate colors in some paintings and figure out how the artist ties them together.

One other source of color inspiration is the flowers themselves. Most flowers contain multiple colors, some of which shouldn’t go together. Take a look at the number of colors in some of the petals of a hydrangeahead: there are some wild combinations! There’s your palette right there. And Mother Nature can’t be wrong.

Do you have a dream project?
Not a dream project. But I do have some dream product! About five years ago, the Japanese got in the business of flower production. The flowers are astonishing! They are the same varieties that other producers grow, but they are nothing like them: not in size, color, or longevity. But, alas, they are likewise incredibly expensive; way beyond the reach of most budgets (and I already work with generous budgets). I would love the opportunity to really explore some of this product.

Today show wedding

What’s next for you career-wise?
Oh, I don’t make predictions anymore. As long as I can keep my current clients happy, I’ll be happy. However, I am interested in trying to expand my business into the area of weekly installations for private homes or real estate staging, and am eager to discuss this with any potential clients. And finally getting a website up (which is still under construction). Aside from that, I’m open to surprise.

Do you have any advice for people who want to create flower arrangements at home? Do you recommend any books or classes, or particular types of flowers they should work with or avoid?
The simplest way to learn how to create an arrangement is to simply start. Try it out and see what you can come up with. It’s surprising what you can uncover that way. There are some basic design principles and techniques, especially in terms of creating structure and framework in which to build an arrangement, and thanks to google, you can find that online.

Classes can help, too. Call your local wholesaler or florist and they can most likely tell you who is offering a good class.

My advice when making an arrangement is to think beyond color, which is where most people stop. Flowers are also shapes, and textures, and fragrances: you’re always building in multiple dimensions and not just an outer surface of color. In this regard, you are making a sculpture. And, as I said before: use lots of flowers! You’ll probably need two to three times more flowers than you think. Really, you will. For sure, I would also avoid using tulips, which continue to grow two to three inches more after they’ve been cut, thereby destroying the beautiful shape you’ve made.

But, mainly, don’t be afraid. Flowers are very humbling in that they are connected to time. Whatever you make is going to die and be thrown in the trash. I can’t tell you how liberating it is to know that!