Roses, Violets & a pinch of magic
When it comes to flowers, Viennese florist Christine Fink is an absolute magician. We spoke with her about the art of generosity and the beauty of the ephemeral.
"Beauty can save the world."
Antje Mayer-Salvi: Do you know anyone who doesn't like flowers?
Christine Fink: Yes, there actually are customers who say they prefer flowers in a garden. But if you ask me, there’s an incredible beauty in the transience of flowers. I like it when they wither and die. Many people think it's just sad and ugly. The plants lose their leaves, their pollen, they start to get slimy. I find that fascinating. Personally, by the, I don't like sunflowers or orange roses—they can be really tacky.
So cut flowers aren’t a long-term investment—at least not according to the logic of capitalism. Why are flowers so beautiful? Just to attract insects?
Because that’s their job. I think it goes beyond a biological necessity, they’re simply beautiful because beauty can save the world. During the lockdown, many of my customers spent a great deal of money on cut flowers just for themselves at home. Flowers are an essential service (laughs).
Do you talk to your flowers?
No, but they amuse me. Daffodils, for example, are funny creatures. Many of them have these little heads and faces that they nod with.
Strictly speaking, the flowers are actually dead by the time they get to your shop. Do you think plants can communicate with us? Do you think its possible that they might perceive our language in the form of vibrations?
I read a funny quote from an Italian botanist: "Plants are extremely intelligent, much more intelligent than humans and animals. They just have one problem: they can't run away." I thought that was really amusing. I don't think they are all that dead when they are in the vase. There is still something going on in them after they are cut. After all, many flowers only begin to bloom and change shape and color once they get to my shop. They don’t just have a visual dimension, they have a temporal one as well. That's why I find them so touching.
"Plants are extremely intelligent. They just can't run away."
Is it a problem for your plants that they can't run away?
I'm lousy at taking care of plants. I've had a terrace for over two years, and of course my gardening is strongly influenced by my job as a florist...
... Where your attitude naturally is "as long as it looks good"...
... Exactly. I own plants; they are constantly being dragged around from here to there and are squeezed into pots that are way too small. My plants would probably love to throw themselves off the seventh floor if they could.
There’s something brutal about cutting flowers, doesn’t that pain you?
I've never had a problem with that. You have to distinguish between a gardener and a florist. The one plants the thing, the other cuts it off. I cut everything, even when it's still growing nicely. I’m also pretty good at throwing flowers away. You have to develop a healthy attitude in that regard when you’re a florist dealing with large orders. You really end up processing masses of flowers. There is this utterly wanton use of material for just one event, one night. By the next day it will all be in the garbage can or the dumpster. Sure, you can take some stuff back to the store, but you're really just making more work for yourself. If I have to throw out 50 beautiful orchids after a party, I’m alright with that. That's just the way it is.
Would you say that the essence of your profession is to waste? That one evening, that one event, is made all the more ceremonious by your flowers, which in turn are beautiful only for that one moment and then wither away. Flowers are an escape from the constant demands for efficiency—they are like a kind of sacrifice...
Absolutely. The real art is to have these flowers perfect at the time of the event. You can only order them in a certain condition; they all have very different shelf lives and blooming times. Sometimes we even have to set up heating tents here in my workshop to make them bloom because they were delivered in bud form. You just have to bring flowers to the zenith of their beauty. That's what I always try to do. After that, they've pretty much done their job.
"I love violets."
Are you an impresario of the unnecessary?
No, I wouldn't say that. I don't think flowers are at all unnecessary. I see it more as a kind of generosity. For example, I love violets that only last one day. I still keep buying them over and over and over again, even though I know that those three dozen bunches in my shop will be in the garbage the next day. I feel practically obligated to provide that generosity, that's my secret recipe (laughs).
Is there a story behind your deep connection to violets?
I associate them with my childhood in the countryside of Vorarlberg, roaming the woods alone. I always found them amazingly beautiful and so graceful, with that special purple and their beguiling smell.
"A violet blossom'd on the lea, half hidden from the eye..." In Goethe’s poem, the little flower is so inconspicuous that it ends up being trampled. The violet stands for affection and love desire, but also for modesty, loyalty and innocence.
As a young florist, I was naturally drawn to the myths surrounding the violet. Then I fell in love with a man [the well-known architect Gregor Eichinger, who also later designed her shop Blumenkraft in Vienna’s Schleifmühlgasse]. I sent him bunches of violets to his office almost every day—anonymously, of course. After two weeks, I finally confessed to him—with the help of sufficient alcohol, I'm terribly shy—that it was me.
The magic worked—you were a couple for many years after that. How romantic! Do you also compose scents and fragrances?
As a florist you have to, if for no other reason than because people can have allergic reactions. There are flowers that really do have an extremely strong scent. When you're decorating a dinner, you can't slap a hundred hyacinths on the table, the guests will all keel over. The scent of flowers is a sensitive issue in floristry. There are many flowers, especially lilies, that give people headaches. I also do a lot of flower subscriptions, delivering once a week to offices, law firms, restaurants, and so on. If an employee has to work next to a bouquet of lilies, inhaling their scent eight hours a day, it's just too intense. You can't do that.
"Flowers that smell like chocolate."
Is there a flower whose scent intoxicates you?
Yes, there are a few scents. A few types of daffodils can smell incredibly good, as well as lily of the valley, roses, of course, and certain orchids. There are tulips that smell like oranges and little cosmos that smell like chocolate! White peonies give off a beguiling scent. In the summer we even work sage and mint into the bouquets—it smells like summer.
You create the most enchanting and elaborate floral arrangements for proms, hotels, funerals, and sometimes even get flown in for posh weddings. Were there moments when you reached your limit?
Yes, that was during an assignment for a Jewish bar mitzvah celebration. It took place just around violet time. I made up green panels of cushion moss for the customer and stuck the violets on them one by one. That was the hardest thing we ever did. You had to pin them on one at a time with a wire. It was crazy. There were almost 30,000 violets. They only lasted two days, they had to be treated like newborn babies. Pampered, practically. At times like that, it's a very stressful job. You have to be on your toes like a chef.
You’re a well-known florist today. How did that come about?
I grew up in a very rural area—very modest—in the Bregenz Forest. My father was a woodworker and my mother a housewife. I have eight siblings and I’m the youngest. We had hardly any toys, so as a child I just played with what was there, with flowers. I wove wreaths and spent whole afternoons decorating the street with meters-long borders made from daisies, dandelions and all sorts of stolen flowers. I loved that! Later I began an apprenticeship as a florist in Bregenz. My former boss and teacher, Mathilda Ressmann, had attended the best florist school in the world, Weihenstephan in Bavaria. I owe a great deal of what I know to her.
What makes a good florist?
A sense for colors and shapes, great dexterity, a good feel for people, and a three-dimensional imagination—because bouquets are something you really have to build. I often dissected flowers as a child, they are architectural works of art. They are so perfectly constructed. And physical fitness is a must, it’s a very strenuous job. You’re at the green market at three o'clock in the morning, in the evening everything has to be in place, and the next day everything has to go. Flowers can carry a lot of weight, both literally and figuratively.
"Flowers are architectural works of art."
Speaking of which, people often come to you in the more extreme moments of life, don't they?
Yes, really very extreme, especially at funerals. Flowers help a little in alleviating people's pain, they make you feel good and, to some extent they bring something positive to a sad occasion. I love to create wreaths and casket sprays; sadly enough I’ve had to say goodbye to some friends with my arrangements. There is something very peaceful to me about covering a casket with flowers.
When we think of flowers, we think of lovers. I'm sure you've managed to bring a few couples together with your bouquets.
I wouldn't quite say that, but I have made sure that many a beloved has been swept off her feet (laughs). I often have to write these little cards that are dictated to me over the phone. I don’t want to reveal too much, but lets just say I pass on a fair number of intimate, whimsical-to-cryptic messages or "inside jokes" intended for a lover. It's very sweet how some people really think it over in detail, and I do my best to make it happen the way they want it.
Have you ever had something go really wrong with a flower delivery?
Not in horribly wrong, but I did once forgot a wedding bouquet. The bride wanted to sue me. She got one, but not the one she had ordered. I simply didn't have the cream-colored roses she wanted, it was two in the afternoon on a Saturday. I threw the loose flowers into the cab with a colleague, who then tied the bouquet in the car on the way to the registry office.
Is there any dream project that you want to realize with your flowers?
On the steps of the venerable Vienna Secession, to the left and right of the entrance, there are two very large basins supported by turtles. In them are two paltry laurel trees. I would love to secretly fill up these basins some night; the next day they would be full of flowers, just all of a sudden.
Thanks for the interview!