Barack Obama may have been president, but when it came to fabulous floral displays, Laura Dowling, ’81, ’91, was undoubted queen. In fact, Dowling says the former president mentioned to Gov. Jay Inslee, ’73, that the thing he would miss the most about the White House was the flowers.
As the nation’s Chief Floral Designer from 2009 to 2015, Dowling created nosegays and bouquets for the White House’s public spaces as well as the first family’s private residence, often working hand-in-hand with Michelle Obama. She was the sixth person to hold the role.
If you think arranging flowers for the White House is a ladylike, Jane Austen sort of low-energy occupation, think again. “I was regularly putting in 100-hour weeks,” says Dowling. She had only three other floral staffers and a bevy of volunteers to help.
Dowling has fashioned Olympic torches from carrots and gloriosa lily flames, and coated robotic floral versions of the first family’s dogs with black and white pipe cleaners. For all her creativity, her true talent is reflected in the title of her new book: “Floral Diplomacy at the White House.”
To understand Dowling’s approach to flowers, it’s important to understand her past, especially her time at the UW. She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and then a master’s in public policy from the Evans School of Governance & Public Policy. After serving as a legislative assistant to former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, Dowling worked at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think tank based at the Smithsonian Institution.
“I loved that it was in a castle,” says Dowling. “I had an antique desk, Oriental carpets and I met scholars from all over the world.”
In the late 1990s, she reinvented herself as a techie by studying computer programming through a joint program sponsored by George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College and got a job at The Nature Conservancy, where she worked supporting fundraising and communications. “These technical skills complemented and enhanced my policy background,” she says.
But it was a trip to Paris in 2000 that transformed her into a floral virtuoso. “The bouquets I saw there literally stopped me in my tracks. At the time I thought, ‘I need to learn how to do this.’” So she went to flower school at L’Ecole des Fleurs in Paris and began to learn the techniques and secrets to French floral art.
Next, she set up a part-time business doing flowers for parties and small events while still working full time at the Conservancy.
“It was when I created the arrangements for the grand opening of the Chinese embassy attended by 900 people that I understood flowers communicate more than just beauty,” she says.
In Chinese culture, flowers are full of meaning and metaphor. After some research, Dowling filled the embassy with vermillion red flowers (symbolizing fire, good fortune and joy) with round, topiary-shaped bouquets that convey fulfillment, perfection, unity and completion. At the Chinese Embassy, Dowling learned how to express the cultural language of flowers on a grand scale.
She won the White House job in 2009 by entering an eight-month process of applications, interviews and elimination rounds. The final challenge was a floral competition where the three finalists were sequestered in separate White House rooms and given four hours to create a large Blue Room arrangement, an Oval Office display, and a complete state dinner tableau of flowers, china, linens, silver, candles, and so on.
After an interview with the First Lady, Dowling learned that she landed the job—just in time to plan the first state dinner looming a mere three weeks away.
She came to see herself as a kind of floral diplomat. Her arrangements telegraphed diplomatic and cultural messages for state and congressional dinners, visits from foreign dignitaries and holiday celebrations.
During a state dinner for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Dowling chose a floral motif rendered in molecular designs in honor of Merkel’s academic achievements and her doctorate in chemical physics (who knew?) featuring her favorite color (yellow) and acknowledging her passion for cooking and baking with plum-colored flower and fruit designs. The Chancellor is apparently known for making a famous plum cake.
Designs were more straightforward in the Obamas’ private quarters, like using orange and blue for the Chicago Bears, the president’s favorite team.
To maintain her grueling seven-day-a-week White House work schedule, Dowling kept up a daily running routine, a habit she learned at the UW as a member of the Husky women’s track team. Between distance running and lots of coffee—another Seattle habit—she found the energy to whip up her creations.
Dowling’s time at the White House ended in 2015 with no formal announcement from the Obama administration. Not one to dish about palace intrigue, she moved on. Dowling is now working on a second book about the White House at Christmas. It will be released this fall and promises to showcase the national residence at its blooming holiday best.
Meanwhile, Dowling is in demand as a speaker at flower shows and museums. To learn more about her former job, watch her 2016 TED Talk, “How Flowers Became a Powerful Tool for Diplomacy.”