Which is more important when you are designing with flowers: the flowers or the design?
Here’s one good answer: let it depend on what most stimulates your creativity—whether in the moment of making something with flowers, or over the course of a wide-ranging career.
“For me, the main word is passion,” says Gerry Toh—educator, visual merchandiser, product development expert, art director, web publishing creator, photo- and video-shoot stylist, and floral designer extraordinaire. “You have to find that passion, and for me my passion is design—encompassing flowers of course.”
A passion for design, in the broadest sense, is what has carried Gerry from being a successful retail florist to a multifaceted creative force, making links between flowers and other worlds.
In 1982, when he opened his flower shop, in Sherman Oaks, California—prior to the internet and the era of recipe-driven bouquets—Gerry’s customers allowed him a certain latitude for creativity, he recalls.
“When people wanted arrangements, they allowed me to design (‘Hey, Gerry knows what I want’). So I used elements that most florists wouldn’t use—much of it because it was available and free. I’d pick up twigs, branches, bark, and shove them in the arrangement.”
For this, Gerry got customer accolades: “I love it, it’s so different.” “I think that was what propelled me on a journey that a lot of florists don’t get to take,” he says.
For Gerry, a turning point was when he began to enter design competitions, because they were free from commercial pressures: “My first time, I was roundly trounced, my ego bruised. But part of me said, ‘Now wait a minute; there has got to be more to it.’ That’s my stubbornness.
“I was doing this wild Euro armature design that had just taken off,” he recalls. “It takes a while to wrap your head around something like this. Something says, ‘I hate it, what is this?’ But then you look at it and say, ‘I hate it, but there must be something to it, so let’s analyze it, what’s good and bad about it—or am I just afraid of it?’ Then all of a sudden you love it, and you’re on to the next phase.”
“Now wait a minute, there has got to be more to it.”
-Gerard “Gerry” Toh AIFD, CFD, CCF
A focus on the broader world of design and its infinite possibilities helps Gerry stay open-minded, curious, and adventurous. As a boy growing up in Malaysia, he says, “My dad had this wild scheme that he and his neighbor should grow flowers. They bought 500 pots of anthurium plants. It was doomed from the start.”
Gerry, however, having been exposed in a rudimentary way to ikebana, thought, “Hey, I can do this.” Before long, people were asking him to create ikebana arrangements. Fast-forward 10 years: “I’m 19 in the United States. You have to go to the department of employment where they will try to help you find a job. They ask what would you like to do. I said, ‘I want to be a florist.’ ”
From cleaning roses at a Sherman Oaks flower shop, Gerry went on to design “roundy-moundies” for Mother’s Day. “That was how I got started,” he says. “And I’m grateful to have started that way. You learn so much getting your hands dirty.”
Today, Gerry’s style reflects a blend of the influences of ikebana and those roundy-moundies: lush and romantic, but always with an appreciation for line. And from cleaning roses and creating roundy-moundies, he has gone on to work in a creative capacity for the floral industry’s most important suppliers and service providers, including as a member of Teleflora’s Education Specialist team.
Going forward, Gerry sees himself as “a floral storyteller,” where part of the story is combining flowers with accessories that relate flowers to décor and the larger world of design. His motto? “Always take life in small steps and enjoy every little miracle along the way.”
2013 AIFD Symposium in Las Vegas
Designs by Gerry Toh
published on June 20, 2019.