New president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Drew Becher, had some large and magical shoes to fill—those of Jane Pepper, who transformed the PHS, both its annual indoor flower show and its urban horticulture project, into the nation’s largest and most effective. Jane Pepper’s leadership was also larger than life and spanned most of her adulthood until she retired last year. So far, the smart and hard-charging Becher has acquitted himself admirably in the tough twin arenas of continuity and innovation. The PHS board of trustees should be thanked for making the bold decision in favor of the latter, which the previous board did when it hired the utterly remarkable Mrs. Pepper.
On with the Show. Its director, Sam Lemhenny, gets better and better making improvements with the challenging space and inherent difficulties of a dark, cavernous interior, since the show is entirely indoors. We aren’t talking glass here, either. This year, Lemhenny exceeded even my infamous expectations everywhere, but especially around the main display, a recreation of the foundation of the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower posed a problem: its aesthetic value is the tower, not the bottom. Thus, it looked remarkably as much like the Thames Tower Bridge as the base of the Eiffel Tower. The structure was handsome and the lighting was magnificently done. The distinctive lattice-like ironwork of the Paris landmark was itself beautifully spot-lit, but the triumph was the colored spots that bathed the convention floor in a dynamic criss-cross of spectacular, tasteful flower-colored tones.
While the grand entrance peacock did not look much like a peacock, and the lion had no face—odd as could be—the giant cricket and especially the ostrich were quite striking and great crowd-pleasers. There were many tulips (which caused some gossip, but, as Lee Dorsey sang, ‘People Will Talk’). The tsk-tsk about the dominance of tulips was entirely wrong. The French adore tulips more than any other nation and Paris in spring is cheerfully festooned with elegant beds of them in virtually every park, large or small. However, the French plant more diverse spring annuals among them to a confetti-like effect. Yet tulips dominate, so their use at the PHS show was both lovely and horticulturally pitch-perfect. I might have wished for more variety—myosotis and chieranthus—but I’m not in Paris. Also, the “French painting” display—complete with painters painting “en plein air” was a big hit, as was Le Salon des Fleurs, full of huge extravagant floral displays, an opulent interior setting and timeless French furniture. The French invented style.
The next staged area after the Eiffel was a seemingly enormous carousel stage—well designed since it was actually rather small. Another popular exhibit, it featured periodic performances of an ensemble doing modern traditional French songs. The lovely chanteuse had a gorgeous voice and a classic female Gallic nose. The guitarist played hot, but wasn’t mic’d high enough. The floral carousel animals were “genial”, a superbly crafted snail, dragonfly and rabbit.
I found it very interesting that, as I walked around the show, the soft background music—all French recordings—sounded curiously like either Dolly Parton or Hank Williams. I was amused. Both Parton and Williams grew up in and around Louisiana, singing and being sung to by Cajuns—more French than the French. Check it out sometime.
The nearby “Timeless Paris” exhibit was intentionally dark and therefore dull. Plus, its design seemed to result from a struggle between light and dark as well. The allegedly timeless sculptures were drab repros of banal figurative marbles and stone. However, since they had no texture, their gray color was flat. Also, the blue tone chosen for the vertical columns was oddly garish, too bright and not sufficiently suggestive of “French blue”. With the water pools and channel the darkness was reflected and the result was a bit depressing. Perhaps the design was too ambitious. Nice try!
Across the path, the French flower market, while welcome, was too small and suffered from having no credit given to the great painter, Alphonse Mucha, whose iconic panel designs and female portrait atop the display was its most attractive—and historically important—feature. Mucha! Mucha! Mucha!
The arch, minimalist designs by Moda Botanica, so cherished by showgoers during the past three years, left me a bit cold. I confess that I do not like minimalism or archness, so perhaps I should “recuse” myself from reviewing this year’s strange exhibit. I think I understood the erotic, lozenge-shaped glass “spectacles” as well as voyeurism suggested. It felt a little like I was looking at a “cage” of the sort they used in early 20th century Paris bordellos. (Brassai photographed them.) But why “gild the rose”, so to speak? White roses mainly. “I got it, I got it”, I said to myself. But its edginess was spooky and disconcerting like the last scenes of the astronaut in ‘2011 A Space Odyssey’—all white and sterile. Perhaps that was the point—to deconstruct beauty. It was very compelling, but incomplete and unresolved. The designers designed a design, so to speak. To their credit, this is an element of French philosophy and aesthetics. And this one was certainly ambitious. I can’t wait to see what Moda Botanica does to Hawaii, next year’s extremely challenging show theme.
Suddenly, amidst the mild boredom, there appeared the best exhibit of the show. It was wonderful how it crept toward me as I approached it. The hands-down best display in every conceivable sense—amidst some tough competition—was Flowers By David’s enchanting French “dream catchers” exhibit. A lavish and inviting double bed, off to one corner, was both eerily and elegantly surrounded in a wide foreground space and sides by gently rotating and utterly inspired French style Native American dream catchers, those popular ‘90s car windshield mirror and female bedroom items woven with yarn and feathers. But Robin Heller of F.B.D., a true genius, reimagined them, enlarged them, hybridized Native American forms with French style, and made them slightly deceptive by hanging them at odd angles (12°, 30°, 45°, et al). The effect was, literally, dream-like. The exhibit stood unique in both space and time. No joke! Lyrical and narrative at once, and understated yet oddly lush, it was perfect.
Other highlights included a “Chef’s Garden”, which was less garden and more kitchen, but was one of the phenomenal crowd-pleasers. The lighting in the kitchen display was excellent and the espaliers were attractive and well made. I’m not a “foodie”, yet I found it inviting. Kudos to Stoney Bank Nurseries. Well done!
I wish the QVC people would disappear. But I do not watch television so I suppose I should “ferme la bouche”. In fact, there was too much branding in general this year—too many large logos. In this matter of the show I’m a purist’s purist. I don’t think there should be any logos within sight of the exhibits, but there were several this year and the effect was distasteful. Garden designs and logo designs do not mix. There was nothing wrong except the proximity. I admit the Convention Center is a tough space. And the logos certainly bring in money. But I suggest that PHS push them away from the artistic endeavors.
Also, I know that blueberry devices, cell phones, mini-cameras, et al, are becoming pervasive. But they destroy public space, interpersonal dynamics of crowds, and negate the beauty of the human figure. However, the telecom lobby is so powerful, they will resist more regulation of their use. On the other hand cell phone cameras create memorable souvenirs of the show. So I guess nothing is thoroughly negative, even the annoyance of people unconsciously playing “bumper cars” with their bodies.
The American Orchid Society made a shockingly good, four square display that was well designed—variable and textured—and full of a wide assortment of truly gorgeous exotic as well as common orchids. It was a small exhibit that I spent about 20 minutes inspecting, which is an extraordinary amount of time at the show. And I wasn’t alone.
In conclusion, the 2011 Philadelphia Flower Show was more interactive everywhere you turned. Demos were emphasized. And the main PHS area where they feature their charitable work in the city and state seemed larger and more attractive. Great PHS signage with witty and exciting messages hung overhead. They grew a lot more vegetables to promote the City Harvest program. They even grew a block of sweet corn, first I’ve seen at any flower show.
I got to say hello to our good friends at Cobrahead. Noel, Geoff and the spritely Annaliese had a booth 50% larger than last year, promoting their excellent tools. I got to see my Ethiopian Christian parking lot attendants again, since I never go to conventions at other times of the year. They work at the first $25.00 per car lot on the corner off the expressway. I think an Albanian owns it. I got to say hello to my friend at the small Chinese Christian Church a block down from the parking lot. This is a great country, isn’t it?
Finally, the PHS gave both Heronswood and Burpee a few opportunities to promote our new items in concert with Tourism Ireland, and in the lecture series I even got laughs at my speech. So “everyone was zoomin”, as we used to say. The show was “up”. I’m sure Jane is proud of the continuation of her legacy.