When Stef Adriaenssens agreed to an interview, we were over the moon and felt quite privileged. His heartfelt opinions, extensive experience, uncompromising dedication to quality, and thoughtful insights are sure to give florists and flower enthusiasts of all levels of experience plenty of food for thought. We hope you all enjoy reading about Stef as much as we did interviewing and writing about him.
Early life and background:
Stef Adriaenssens was born the oldest child of 5 to a florist family in Beerse, Belgium. He was always fascinated by flowers and floral compositions in his early childhood and by the age of 12, was already helping his parents in their shop, making his first floral compositions.
“During busy times like flower holidays or festivities,” said Stef, “I made floral compositions for the shop and my father sold them, telling the clients they were his.”
Stef proved to be a skilled protégé and quickly progressed to the point where his work was even better than his father’s. Nevertheless, when Stef expressed a desire to take classes at the age of 14 in the most well-known school at that time in Holland, he was not allowed. “My parents considered me to be clever and tried to convince me that being a florist was a hard profession and it was better to get a proper education and earn money in an easier way.” As part of a generation of people that respects their parent’s opinion and considers their commands to be the law, Stef instead went to secondary school and later to university.
Stef’s love for flowers never stopped, and even while studying he continued to help his parents out during the weekends, holidays and festivities. “As many clients were in favour of my arrangements, my help was necessary for their business,” explained Stef.
While studying Applied Economic Science at the University it became difficult for Stef to combine studying with helping in the shop, and he started to doubt some of the choices that were made for him. “I couldn’t consider myself to spend the rest of my life working behind a desk. Nature, flowers and the technicity of putting flowers together in a floral composition obsessed me. So in the third year of my university education, I quit school.”
Stef’s parents were not pleased by the choice and refused to help his burgeoning floral career in any way. “Although the rest of my brothers and sisters were in one way or the other connected to my parents’ business and earned a living in it,” said Stef, “I was refused to have any part in it.”
Growing a Business from Scratch
Undeterred, Stef and his then-girlfriend (and now-wife) Katrien, decided to start a business of their own. She was Stef’s sister’s best friend and quite familiar with his work and the family’s business. Katrien was working for the government as an office clerk and was not happy at all in the job. “As a young couple we wanted to have our own project and build it together starting from scratch,” said Stef. “We also wanted to prove to the world, and more specifically our parents, that we were going to be successful even when they never believed in our project.”
As they had no location to start a shop, no help from either set of parents and needed to earn a living, they decided to set up a business in compositions made of dried flowers. Stef explained since the flowers couldn’t die, they offered the opportunity to make floral compositions that are long lasting. “We rented a van and drove from flower shop to flower shop to sell our products. In the beginning, it was very hard, we had nearly zero customers.” After some time the word spread, more customers became involved, and the couple was earning a living. Shortly after they had the opportunity to buy a space in the city of Lier and started their flower shop.
“From that moment on the fresh flowers became more and more important, and after some time we had to give up working for other florists to make dried flower compositions.”
Stef readily admits that Katrien has been the motor of their projects from the very beginning, always pushing his work to higher levels. In fact, it was Katrien who encouraged Stef to take floral courses and get into competitions, which is where their work really took off. “Floral magazines discovered us, we got international exposure, and our working field became more and more specialised, the projects bigger and bigger,” said Stef.
Working together and fighting for the same goal made Stef and Katrien a strong couple, although he admits it’s not always easy living together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with another strong-minded person. “Our passion for flowers and beauty united us and our capabilities were very complementary,” said Stef, who credits their exceptional skills and reputation in the industry to the combination of his and Katrien’s personalities.
Philosophy on Projects
As a rule, Stef doesn’t go looking for new challenges and projects, and he isn’t into marketing at all. “Perhaps I am old-fashioned or just getting old,” Stef jokes, “but I have big problems with how the floral world works today. If there is any kind of floral event, everybody with some name seems to be there. They call it networking. It becomes extremely difficult to decide who is a good florist and who is a good marketer,” Stef clarified. “At this moment I have the feeling there are much more marketers than good florists.” He went on to say that in earlier days, finding a good florist was much easier because people were valued for their floral achievements, whereas nowadays people are valued for their presence at floral events and social media achievements. “The harder they [florists] shout that they are fantastic, the more they are believed. This becomes a big problem.”
It isn’t impossible for good florists to cut through the digital clutter though, and disheartened professionals should take a note from Stef. Despite not marketing his work and refusing to look for the next challenge, plenty of customers still find Stef. Perhaps, the lesson here is to focus on technique, quality, and the art form instead of one’s social media following. Because, according to Stef’s customers when asked how they found him, “quality always shows and can always be found.”
Some of Stef’s Most Memorable Projects
With such a huge variety of projects crossing Stef’s path during the recent decades, it’s impossible to pick a favourite, but Stef was able to say that he prefers the most challenging ones. “That doesn’t mean they are the biggest,” said Stef, “Sometimes very small floral work can be ground-breaking and trigger my brain.” The projects that Stef cherishes most are the ones he and Katrien organised, planned and executed themselves.
Specifically, Beyond Imagination in 2011 (for the 25th anniversary of the business in their hometown Lier), Bloom in 2012 (a floral show in Ostend opened by the Belgian King and Queen), and 2013’s Taste of Three, which was setup in a romantic castle near Antwerp.
“What made those 3 shows special is that they were not only about floral realisations,” said Stef, “They were a combination of different kinds of art. Not separate forms of art combined in one exhibition, but a query for the common points between them and the creation of a symbiosis. This brings the exhibition to a higher level and widens the horizon of interested people. The future of floral exhibitions needs to be found in this area.”
Lessons from Around the Globe
Stef and Katrien have travelled to many places around the world including Buenos Aires, Argentina and seven years of teaching and demonstration experience in Russia. But it was working in China that completely changed Stef’s perception of floral possibilities.
“Even today we are still adapting to the situation,” said Stef. “Working in Russia taught us that we needed to approach our projects in a different way. In Europe, we are so spoiled that all the material we want to use we can buy.” In Russia, nearly every single thing must be imported, which is extremely expensive and many times unrealistic, forcing florists to search for creative solutions. “Adaptation is the magical word, but it is hard to do it without giving up quality and the high standard you want to live up to,” said Stef.
In China, however, the sky is the limit. Stef and Katrien were working on several big government projects and noticed that the cultural differences were so enormous, that adaptation wasn’t even possible. “You need to rethink everything,” explained Stef. “In the beginning, you make the mistake by thinking in Western standards and limitations. So you tell your client what their expecting is not possible.”
But if Stef learned one thing in China, it was that everything is possible if the client really wants it. Stef also notes differences in project planning practices. “Their [Chinese] short-term planning is completely strange for us. We like to plan big projects a year in advance while you can be happy you get three months in China.”
Chinese projects may be extremely challenging, but it’s exactly the type of challenge that Stef loves. “Here [in China] you can design the impossible, but it will always be combined with a lot of stress, time pressure and unknown factors you need to solve on the spot.”
Despite their globetrotting ways, Stef and Katrien still have a few countries on their wish list, Japan and Australia being two enormous gaps. “Never knew why I didn’t get there up to now,” said Stef, though the cost is definitely a major factor that can make working abroad expensive. Not only are aeroplane tickets and hotel costs one of the largest financial hurdles, another being that Stef and Katrien are a package deal.
“When travelling abroad, Katrien is the best assistant I can wish for… She also takes care of me during my projects as in the heat of the battle I forget to eat, sleep.” In 2016 Stef was diagnosed cancer, was very ill for more than 3 months and narrowly escaped death. Since then he only travels abroad accompanied by Katrien.
Stef enjoys having an authentic experience when he travels, he doesn’t like to stay in hotels because they look the same all over the world. “I always ask my clients to have some place to sleep with the organisation. This way I can learn about their culture, their politics and their habits. So exciting! The more you travel, the more respect you get for other cultures.”
Stef admits the cultural differences can be overwhelming if unprepared. “You need to have a switch inside your head and constantly change the channel, or you will get frustrated and limited in your creativity.”
Here’s a fun fact about Stef: The only places he refuses to travel are war zones. If the organisation cannot ensure his safety, he won’t go.
Big Project Challenges
When it comes to large-scale projects, Stef says that the most difficult part is the design: putting your ideas on paper, solving the technical problems, setting up construction and material lists, calculation of costs and setting up a working list. According to the European standard, the design should take much more time than execution, which is why many of the large expos or projects are often designed up to a year or more in advance. The only difference being in China, when negotiations for government-backed projects can stretch so long that the design phase is a short as the execution phase.
Every single thing must be considered before the project can even begin. “Waiting for the construction to be welded, correcting where necessary. This is the most exciting phase of the process. Once you start working and if you planned well, you only need to follow the schedule and can see the embryo growing to become a beautiful baby.”
Stef says that the most joy a florist can experience is when a visitor enters your expo with open mouth shouting: Wooow!! (A reaction that his work quite frequently elicits.)
As for the compositions themselves, Stef prefers working with just one type of flower so that the variety of the bloom can be admired and that the composition stays strong and clean. “Once you start mixing in abstract compositions often the composition becomes busy and chaotic.”
Stef doesn’t like to incorporate non-vegetal materials in compositions as they have the tendency to distract the eye from the essence of the composition and destroy unity. “Some people say all in this business has already been made and seen,” said Stef, “That is why they start applying artificial or non-vegetal material into floral compositions, in order to be new, authentic. This is completely wrong. It is the easy way. Being creative is harder.”
Working with a Dying Medium
Working with temporary materials like flowers can be quite stressful, Stef explains, especially when working on very big projects and in hot environments. Flowers must be at their most beautiful from the deadline until the end of the event, which is often more challenging than realising the technical process.
For example, providing air-conditioning systems might help, but they also remove the humidity from the air, which can be as lethal for flowers as the heat. Additionally, when considering geographical situations, sometimes it is impossible to control the flower at all.
One of Stef’s recent projects in Guangzhou included over 400,000 tulips and, although the blooming was carefully planned to get them ready for the opening of the show, the outside temperature suddenly dropped to 10°C for 2 weeks, requiring extra heating to be provided to make them blossom. “In Europe, we can tackle this situation. In China, it was an enormous operation with many difficulties,” said Stef.
Because florists work in a dying medium, the only way they can preserve their work is through pictures. With digital photography, this has become much easier than before, but even digital photography has its flaws. “The only disadvantage of photography is that we lose one dimension. Most of our floral work is so 3-dimensional that this is a pity.”
A Style and Philosophy of His Own
“At the risk of being pretentious I would like to describe my work as ‘Pure Aesthetic’,” said Stef, whose personal style has been carefully crafted for more than three decades.
Highly technical in nature and a fusion of east and west, some consider his style to be feminine due to its highly refined nature and prominent eye for detail. “In a technical way, many eastern influences determine my work. Also, the composition is pure, minimalistic and characterised by using few materials.”
Stef’s style is also very recognisable since he tries very hard not to be influenced by other florists, though some of his teachers’ characteristics can be seen in his work. Copying would be to show a lack of respect. Stef received his formal floral education at Daniel Ost’s school where he refined his existing horticultural knowledge and his technical background largely from helping his father building houses. Until 2012, Stef was the editor and final editor for Fleur Creative and Fleur Magazine where massive amounts of floral compositions passed through his hands.
If you combine all that information together with a passion for modern architecture and interior design, it’s easy to see where Stef’s inspiration and technical obsession come from. “I will always look for a technical solution to realise my ideas. If they are not available, I will make sure I will invent them in order not to make any concession to the original idea.”
Abstract shapes, fluent lines, layering… specify most of Stef’s contemporary work, but he also likes to work rather baroque, using a lot of flowers. Regardless, the lines need to be clean; the shape strong, the usage of flowers often minimalistic.
“I always try to make my compositions abstract,” said Stef, “This way the visitor can use his/her own fantasy and discover certain forms inside the composition. What someone considers being a Christmas tree another may experience as a dinosaur.” Stef names these differing perspectives as the strength of abstract work. “In figurative work, everyone sees the same and leaves no room for imagination. Inspiration can be found in many different places: nature, architecture, interior design, fashion, museum, and contemporary art.”
A Quest for Beauty
“All my life has been a quest for beauty,” said Stef. “I have adoration for modern architecture and fluent lines. I like to play with lines for so long that unique shapes turn onto my paper.” But these lines and shapes are not created in a vacuum; they must always be in certain harmony with the surroundings. “I can only make exceptional work if it needs to fit into a certain space or surrounding,” explained Stef, “There needs to be a philosophical connection. If it is not there the first moment, it will be very hard to make a proper design.”
Stef defines pure beauty as “that which catches your breath, makes you stop breathing and open your mouth to gasp for several minutes.” Pure beauty is something that makes you wonder how it is possible. “If you combine flower art with other art forms and you are really looking for a symbiosis, you can even bring people to tears from happiness and overwhelming emotion.” Stef should feel proud since, by his own definition, much of his work has achieved pure beauty.
“The only floral techniques I hate are those that have no respect for the flower,” said Stef. He explains that form the moment the flower is cut, the dying process starts and that florists should try to prolong this life as long as possible instead of employing controversial techniques that leave the dying flower waterless.
“Also, structures need to sublimate the flower you want to show,” Stef said. “Often we see beautiful structures, but the link, the connection between flower and structure is missing. In this case, the flower has no function.”
While every season of the year is special in its own way, Stef’s favourite time of the year is Christmas, “because at this time of the year you can be extremely creative and it will also be appreciated by your customers.” Not only does winter provide florists with lots of branches to use, but also materials like red Cornus can be used to create different abstract structures, not to mention the cheery Christmas lights and candles, and the smell of fir trees— all combine together to create cosy warmth.
“I consider it to be so blasé to say you only love Ecuador roses or Ranunculus or Peonies,” said Stef. “Who doesn’t love these flowers?”
As for the popular challenges going around the profession like using flowers considered to be only funeral flowers in non-funeral arrangements and using only “common” flowers? Stef finds these to be rather stupid. “What one culture considers being a funeral flower another sees as the imperial flower. You should try and see the beauty in each flower and present it in such a way that it sublimates its beauty.”
Stef is always on the hunt for flowers in the more niche market. Most of these aren’t grown on a large scale but are still extremely beautiful, like the Sandersonia and Gentiana.
A Word of Caution Regarding Competitions
Stef has not had positive experiences in the competition circuit. “I did some being young, but only have devastating stories about them. It is often horrifying if you see what happens in floral competitions.” Stef explained that young people often invest a lot of money and time competing, and can become completely demotivated after some bad experiences. He cites incapable juries that lack proper knowledge being one of the major reasons, in many cases the jury is of a lesser floral level than the competitors.
“It gets even worse when the result of competitions is already decided before the competitions starts,” said Stef, “Even at the highest-level manipulations are quite often present. Even with the certain standardisation of judgement rules, irregularities are more the rule than the exception.”
In Stef’s opinion, the problem is that many young people see competitions as a way to get to a higher level in the industry; a way to get the necessary promotion. One way to avoid a devastating experience is to simply adjust one’s expectations.
“Don’t expect that the best is going to win. See it as a lottery; if you are lucky, you win. Don’t be disappointed in the other case. Compete in the Olympic thought: taking part is more important than winning!”
Despite his own experiences in competitions, Stef is emphatic that “there is no better place to learn about this profession than there. Open your eyes, learn from your colleagues, become stress-proof, and learn to work under time pressure.”
The modern florist does not only need to be a good, skilled person but also a good manager.
Just as we need to organise ourselves to achieve the status of an artist, we should follow the rules, which apply, to all forms of art: The Elements and Principals of Design. These should be the core of our education, without forgetting that these rules need to be combined with the necessary passion for the profession, for flowers or it will be worthless. A lot of books have been written about these Elements and Principals, but few people know about them, and even fewer people can apply them in reality, signalling there are major problems in our education system.
What the Future Has in Store for Stef
While not obsessed by commercial floristry by any means, Stef has always kept his shop and will continue to do so. Despite finding his work abroad, teaching, demonstrating and building projects to be 100 times more exciting than work at the shop, Stef believes in remembering where one comes from, staying humble and grateful.
“It all started in my shop. It is like a baby. You don’t kill your own child,” said Stef. “Also, by having the shop, I keep in close contact with the consumer market and know what is happening there. It gives me the security that when the world decides they have seen enough of me and my floral achievements, I still have a base to fall back on.”
In addition to teaching, demonstrations, and his shop, Stef and Katrien have two schools in Belgium and are presently teaching Advanced Floral Arrangements at Sikastone in Beijing, China.
In April 2017, Stef has an introduction class to a brand new education program planned. He and Katrien plan to set up a 2-year modular system. The first year will educate interested students from level 0 to fully trained florists. The second level will educate the successful students as top floral business managers and top designers who will create organise and execute their own big projects. After finishing the complete course, the florists will be able to attend and even win international competitions and set up big floral projects. Stef is extremely excited to implement this completely new floral education program that will be the only one of its kind in the world.
Latest news tells us that in November 2018 there will be a sequel to the Beyond Imagination project in Lier. The city will participate together with the cultural highlights of the city. Promising project!
But that isn’t all Stef has in the works! “My wildest dream is to setup a branch-wide floral project, which combines the beauty of and the passion for FLOWERS together with earning a decent living,” said Stef, who has already begun creation of the ambitious project. “The plan is so big it is applicable to the large potential markets like China, Russia or the USA. The plans are already finished; we just need an investor who believes in it. Return on investment guaranteed.” To learn more about Stef and his upcoming projects, visit his website: floristiek.com and follow him on social media.