Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace

Please Select Search Type:
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Flower Arrangement Basics

( Originally Published 1935 )


The Japanese have contributed more than any other people to the study of flower arrangement, and by them it is regarded as a polite accomplishment of both men and women. In the fifteenth century the Shogun ruled that flowers and plants placed in temples and before ancestral shrines must be arranged with thought. Since that time Japan has had numberless schools of flower arrangement, many of which are in existence today.

In all these schools the flower arrangements have symbolic meanings. Usually there is a part of the arrangement that is higher than the rest and represents Heaven, a lower part that represents Man, a third part lowest of all representing Earth. Sometimes the three parts mean Father, Mother, and Child; or at other times Air, Water, and Earth. A low flower arrangement may be considered an Earth idea, a high arrangement a Heaven idea, and a medium rounded form may represent Man. Most Japanese flower masters and their followers bend and wire stems and prune the plants to follow the exact lines desired in a composition. Other schools favor the more natural arrangements, which are better understood by Westerners.

The Japanese consider that the practice of flower arrangement brings to those who follow it:

1. Ease and dignity.

2. Serene disposition.

3. Amusement in solitude.

4. Familiarity with Nature's plants.

5. Respect for mankind.

6. Privilege of associating with superiors.

7. Health of body.

8. Gentle character.

9. Religious spirit.

10. Self abnegation and restraint.

It is interesting to note that the Japanese feature plant during each month:

a different







July-Morning Glory


September-Seven Grasses




The Japanese prefer simple plants, simply arranged, as expressing best the flower idea. Their flower-masters think that the use of lavish masses of hothouse flowers is somewhat vulgar. The Japanese custom of sending a friend a budding branch so that she may have the pleasure of watching the leaves unfold is better than our custom of sending a dozen hothouse blossoms, which are usually out of their season, are all equally developed, and have absurdly long stems. A spray of plant material from out-of-doors suggests the freshness of growing things, in their natural season.


The fields and woods offer an endless variety of plant life. With wild flowers one should use the grasses that are their neighbors where they grow. Indiscriminate picking of wild flowers is, of course, very antisocial. Children should be taught that the flowers near the roadside should be left for the passers-by to enjoy, and that rare plants such as the arbutus, heather, and trilliums must never be picked.

In a garden, flowers should be available for cutting all through the season. Gardeners say that a dozen varieties, well chosen, will provide interesting combinations until late autumn, and also will furnish material for dried winter bouquets. Garden plants having unusual leaves, buds, and seed pods should be grown because they are as necessary as flowers in making arrangements with individuality.

Since it is usually necessary to depend on the florists' shops for plant material during the cold seasons, one should learn to make good selections in them. It is often better to buy only one or three blossoms alike, with buds, and a few unusual leaves, than to get a quantity of blossoms just alike. Flower arrangements should express a definite idea, but sometimes masses of hothouse flowers suggest only the material means necessary to buy them.


The design principles by which we judge art compositions apply also to flower arrangement. Good proportion is necessary, so it is well to have the plant material about one and a half times as high as a medium or tall vase or one and a half times as high as the diameter of a low, broad vase. Balance is achieved by having the heaviest mass, largest flowers, and longest stems nearly above the center of the bowl. Rhythm results from the use of interesting lines of growth in the plant material. Emphasis on the important flowers comes from subordinating all the others and also the receptacle. Transition occurs when there is a form of medium size between the large and the small flowers, or when a color such as violet is used to harmonize the other colors.


Flower compositions are usually of four different types:

1. Line arrangements, where a few flowers, leaves, and buds are arranged naturally to show their characteristic lines of growth.

2. Mass or composite bouquets, where many flowers are used together for their color and texture effect.

3. Platter bouquets, where only the heads or blossom ends of flowers are shown in flat receptacles.

4. Geometric bouquets, where flowers are arranged in design forms.

Line Arrangements. Many flowers, berries, seed pods, and branches are suitable for line arrangements because of the beauty of single sprays of the plants. Flowers like jonquils, iris, and lilies look well in line compositions, and so do branches from lilac, maple, elm, willow, or fruit trees, which will leaf many weeks earlier if brought indoors. They exhibit a type of beauty often overlooked.

Mass Bouquets.    Mass bouquets are usually intended to bring color and sparkle into a room. Peonies, asters, lilacs, larkspur, and chrysanthemums are only a few of the flowers that are attractive in mass arrangements. These bouquets may consist of one variety of blossoms with its own leaves, buds, and seed pods, or they may be of several harmonious varieties. In a composite bouquet one kind of flower should dominate in quantity, in attractive power, and usually in size, while one kind should be very inconspicuous. All should be decidedly different in form, size, and texture.

Platter Bouquet.  The platter bouquet is a more unusual and more difficult composition of flowers than the line or mass arrangements. The stemless blossoms of dahlias or zinnias.look well floating with a few leaves on the surface of the water in flat bowls. Less important flowers of other varieties may accompany them.

Geometric Bouquet. The geometric bouquet is the opposite of the naturalistic one. The flowers are placed in a stylistic orderly design, which is particularly desirable in modern rooms where there are other geometric forms. Usually the vase forms used are simple geometric shapes that determine the lines of the entire bouquet. Variety of form, color, and texture in the flowers adds interest to a geometric arrangement. One unusual semigeometric bouquet consisted of a tall central stalk of phlox with a small tiger lily and a cluster of geranium blossoms of vermilion and magenta at each side, and red-violet stock hiding the stems which were set in a wire stem holder in a flat green dish. All through the bouquet were many long stems bearing downy soft green seed pods that served to unify the arrangement.

Uncut Flower Arrangements.    Flower lovers who do not like to see flowers cut can make pleasing arrangements by combining growing plants. Bulbs and foliage plants look well in one container. Cactus plants of various shapes make interesting combinations. The possibilities for imaginative expression in this kind of plant arrangement are numerous.

Color. In arranging flowers the color element is even more fascinating to consider than the form element. The best way to get a safe, quickly chosen, and effective bouquet is to have a sequence in one color, as violet with red-violet and blue-violet, or the more brilliant harmony of yellow with yellow-orange and yellow-green, or the Russian combination of red, red-orange, and red-violet. It is best to have a bouquet definitely warm or definitely cool in color.

The best opportunity for fine color combinations is in mixed bouquets. It is well to plan them so that one color dominates, with enough yellow or white to make them sparkle, and some violet for peace-maker if there tends to be a discord. Green should be sparse and what there is should be an unusual sort, such as is found in wheat, oats, seed pods, etc. A colorful fall bouquet consists of tritoma (red-hot pokers) supported by small purple asters and quantities of yellow yarrow. Another successful bouquet for a low table consists of a mass of California poppies sprinkled with blue corn flowers and magenta stock.

An effective small arrangement is the one known as a Dutch bouquet, which is a composite of many varieties of rather small flowers of all colors. Almost any flowers that can be spared from the garden fit into such a bouquet. The stems are cut about four inches long and are all held together tightly in a small container about the size of a low cup. The effect is that of a pin cushion of solid embroidery, and is jolly and bright.

A dozen American Beauty roses make an uninteresting color effect, because there is merely red above and green below and the playfulness that is expressed in imaginative combinations of color and form is lacking.

Occasion.   Any flower arrangement should be expressive of the occasion for which it is made. The form and the color of the flowers combine to produce the desired emotional effect. Large impressive masses are suitable for formal affairs; a few dainty, airy flowers are best for intimate occasions. In flowers too, the cool colors, blue and violet, express dignity and restraint, and the warm colors, yellow, orange, and red, are cheerful and friendly.

Personality. Flowers, like other forms of decoration, should express the personality of their owner. One would not expect an exotic brunette to have sweet peas in her home, a sophisticated blonde to use red geraniums, or a gentle grandmotherly person to care for bristling cacti. For personal adornment, too, flowers should supplement, not contradict, the characteristics of the wearer. The coloring of the face, the gown, and the background naturally affect the choice of flowers to wear. Not all women find flowers becoming to them.

Rooms and Flowers.      The type of furnishing in a room should similarly influence the selection of the flowers to be used therein. A primitive type of room requires flowers of sturdy character, whereas fine Neo-Classic furnishings demand refinement in the flowers and their receptacles. The coloring of a room also definitely limits the selection of the flowers for it. Rooms with positive color and pattern may not need any flowers but merely bold foliage plants. A dainty room with a Marie Laurencin type of color scheme of pale pink, silver, and pale blue might have a flower arrangement of these same colors plus the pale orchid that completes the adjacent color scheme. On the other hand, a living room with rich, heavy colors such as dark violet with its triad of dull orange and dull green would be a suitable background for gorgeous tulips or zinnias or composite bouquets of many rich colors. A dining room of silver, white, and black allows the flowers, linen, candles, dishes, food, and gowns to provide the color, thus permitting an entire change of color scheme as desired.


A large collection of receptacles and stem holders for flowers is necessary in order to arrange flowers to look their best. An adequate collection of vases should include Oriental, modern, and conservative containers of metal, glass, pottery, and porcelain. Entirely plain receptacles are preferable to any others, as the receptacle must not compete with the flowers for attention. A collection of containers should include various textures, as glass for the delicate cosmos, pottery for the marigolds, and pewter for the pussy willows. There should be large, heavy jars and pitchers to place on the floor to hold generous arrangements of budding tree branches, pine boughs, autumn leaves, sunflowers, or seed pods. Baskets are often attractive receptacles for flowers; if there is a tall handle on the basket usually the flowers should not be as high as the handle. The ten- and twenty-fivecent stores offer a variety of simple undecorated containers of glass and earthenware, the round fish bowl being one of the best. Any well-shaped glass bottles or tin cans can be painted with ordinary paint and used as receptacles for flowers.

Medium and tall vases should flare at the top, because the stems need space and because the flaring tops follow the lines of growth of radiating flowers. A pinched-in mouth on a vase seems stingy. Low containers are necessary for platter bouquets and for arrangements of flowers like the iris which have sturdy stems that are interesting enough to exhibit. When stem holders are used they should be concealed if possible by foliage or flowers.

Some of the most useful colors for containers are foliage green, putty color, dull blue, black, browns, dull reds, yellows, and clear glass. The most stimulating effects occur, however, when pure red-violet, turquoise blue, jade green, or similar colored vases are used to hold flowers of adjacent colors.

As has been stated previously, the color expert considers also the receding and advancing qualities of color. Orange-colored flowers should not be placed in a blue vase because the vase will appear to recede and the flowers will advance, producing a disturbing effect. It is also safer to refrain from using cool-colored flowers in warm-colored bowls. Neither should the artificial or acid colors such as orchid, blue-green, and turquoise blue be combined with the earth colors such as brick red, clay yellow, and brown. These restrictions on color are somewhat arbitrary, but should be studied by persons who wish to produce the most subtle effects.


The two places in the home where flowers probably mean the most are the dining table and the hall. A cheerful greeting by flowers in the entrance hall makes a welcome that has a spiritual quality, and flowers on the dining table have the power to turn a necessity into an aesthetic experience.

Placing a bouquet to its best advantage deserves careful attention. Line arrangements often look well on the eye level, but most compositions look best much lower down. In fact, it is well to try large bouquets on the floor first, or on very low tables or stools. It is not surprising that flowers look well near the floor because most of them have grown close to the earth. Drooping flowers and vines should be placed high in a hanging basket or on a mantel or wall bracket. There should be proper relation in scale between a bouquet and the table upon which it is placed. A small bouquet looks lost on a big table; a large bouquet on a small table looks topheavy.

Flowers for the dining table should be low, although it sometimes is difficult to harmonize candles having the flame properly above the eye level, with low flower arrangements. If the table is large it is often desirable to have flowers on both ends of it, or distributed over it, instead of merely in the center.

Backgrounds. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a special background for a flower arrangement, to shut out disturbing elements or to give it additional beauty. A small triple screen about one foot in height covered with silver paper on one side and gold on the other is a useful background, as the gold side can be used for yellow, orange, or red bouquets and the silver side for the others. Other interesting background material consists of colored papers, Chinese papers, strips of wall paper, hand-woven textiles, or whatever harmonizes with the flowers without detracting from their importance. Sometimes it is effective to place a sequence of related colored papers under a vase of flowers.

Small sculptured figures of humans and animals add interest and often a gay touch of humor to a flower arrangement. Naturalistic figures are not so good in design as those that are somewhat conventionalized or geometric. Colored candles in candlesticks, beautiful boxes, dishes, books, tiles, etc., sometimes provide the contrast of form or color that completes a composition. When such objects supplement a flower composition they should express the same idea as the flowers themselves.

Bookmark and Share