Finding community among flowers with Maurice Harris and Elizabeth Cronin
The floral artists discuss the power of showing up for oneself and why flowers are the ultimate luxury
Words and photography by Felton Kizer Additional photography by Taylor Rainbolt
Before I met Maurice Harris, founder of floral studio Bloom & Plume, and Elizabeth Cronin from Asrai Garden, weddings and funerals came to mind when I thought about flowers. It wasn’t until afterwards that I started thinking how flora can reflect community. Flowers have never been a thing that I’d consider luxury – a waste, yes, but never luxury.
In the duo’s HBO series, Full Bloom, I saw just how opulent floral design could be. And in Harris’s 2020 Quibi show, Centerpiece, I was able to witness the core of some of my favourite creatives. Through intimate conversations with them, stellar music accompaniments and trust, he guides us through the conception of each centrepiece, which reflects their journey.
In the interview below, we speak with Harris and Cronin on taking pride in the art of floristry, what really defines luxury, and more.
How has your sort of perspective on community shifted now that you’re building your own communities?
EC: ‘For me, community just sort of happened naturally. When I opened Asrai [Garden] in 1999, it became a safe space that people were drawn to, and that they wanted to spend time in.
‘And it's been a place where stuff might be really expensive, but if you want to sit in here for four hours and try on every ring in the store, we got you. No one’s pushing you out. I don’t know how intentional I was, I think it’s just my nature. And so it happened. But now, thank god for the queers. I feel like that [queer] community carries you pretty much wherever you go when it’s your community. I can land in any city and if I find the queer folks, I can feel like I’m at home.’
MH: ‘I find community to be really complicated. And I think it just depends on the definition of the person. Meaning, when I first started Bloom & Plume, it was just about survival. It was [about] who [was] willing to go on this journey with me long enough to keep it going. Once people saw that there was a spark there, they kept putting wood on it and we just kept the flame alive. They see the value and I see the value in them.
‘When I almost lost my business, my brother moved to LA so that he could have better eyes on it. He saw the value of what I was creating and realised that I needed help. You can’t do everything by yourself. My flower shop peeps are literally like my family. And it’s interesting, because I wanted that same vibe when I went to open a coffee shop.
‘I wanted it to be a safe space for alternative voices – people that don't often get to be seen or heard – to have a seat at the table. And that turned into a sh*t show. It’s fascinating, because we have this euphoric idea around creating community both inside and outside our coffee shop as a way of treating commerce. But capitalism doesn’t give a sh*t about community, creativity, and diversity. It’s just like, what is the bottom line? And us wanting to have our avocado toast [retail] under market doesn't mean that our vendors sell us avocados cheaper. It just means we're not making as much money as we need to keep this business alive. So when we’re selling at market rate, it makes it seem like we’re money-hungry capitalists. But it’s just me and my brother, and we’re almost half a million dollars in debt over a little 1,000 sq ft coffee shop that serves less than 200 people a day. You do the math – it doesn’t add up.’
EC: ‘That’s also the thing about the queer community. Because once you’re in that space, people are looking for you to f**k it up.’
MH: ‘And I think that comes from Target, Walmart, every big brand you can think of [exploiting] queer people. There’s been such a performative notion of what it means to have community that then the onus falls on the people who are actually [in the community] – it's such a backwards way of looking at it.’
How would you both define luxury and your relationship to it?MH: ‘I'm a luxurious b***h. I mean, I wake up and I’m luxurious.’
EC: ‘I’m a Taurus; I was born to be comfortable. I was literally born to be in a bubble bath with someone rubbing my feet with good smells around me. But I do love that luxury doesn’t always equate [to] money. There are ways that you can find it or treat yourself luxuriously without a big budget.’
MH: ‘To me, it’s more experiential. I always tell people that flowers are the ultimate luxury, because they die faster than you can actually experience all of their joy, [whereas] a diamond is forever. And with flowers, people will pay a lot of money for an event that lasts six hours. That’s luxurious, and for good reason.’
EC: ‘It feels luxurious to me when I’m driving to work in the morning and I catch the sunrise. And I’ll pull over just to watch it. That’s a luxury, having five minutes to do that. But also, if you do have those five minutes, that can change your day. And I feel like those experiences are luxurious.’
MH: ‘I think a huge reason why I opened the coffee shop was because of the experience of being able to have that time to sit back and observe. A lot of people of colour don’t have the luxury of time; we’re trying to survive. So, aesthetics get compromised, experiences get compromised. And that’s something I’m really passionate about.
‘When I first started my business, the way that I survived was doing house flowers. And I just thought it was weird. Then I saw how they bring all of the expensive furniture to life by having life in the space. And then I was just like, how do I do that for other people [to help] them understand how great this is. And not just taking your Trader Joe’s bouquet and putting it in a glass cylinder. But actually letting the flowers breathe, rearranging them and cutting them, so that you really can enjoy their beauty. I think that's luxury.’
Maurice, in relation to Centerpiece, what did you want people to think about or take away from watching the show?MH: ‘The name is obviously based on flowers being the centrepiece, but also getting to the centre of people’s creative process. I use beauty as a tool to see a person and find what’s beneath the surface. I think about it as if it’s showing how to construct a magic trick without giving the magic trick away, so that you can figure out for yourself how to generate your own creativity.
‘You’re not going to do whatever I’m doing or what Rashida Jones is doing. But if there’s something about how Maya Rudolph is talking about her childhood, for example, and you’re like, “Oh, I connected to how she’s able to find her imagination”, then that’s great. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing – for people to tap into their own creative agency and [learn] how to generate that on their own.’