THE POWER OF THE FLOWER.
Artist Ruby Barber creates enchantingly surreal worlds with plants. Now she has transformed a MINI Convertible into a floral artwork.
A convertible can be very handy if you have leaves the size of elephant ears to transport. Admittedly, that is not a problem most people have to contend with very often. If you are Ruby Barber, though – one of the most sought-after floral designers in the world, whose creations have included arrangements resembling stalactites dripping from the ceiling of the Grand Palais in Paris, for instance – you will find yourself occasionally having to cope with challenges that are easier to meet with an open-top car.
On this particular morning, it’s some gigantic Alocasia gageana leaves. Along with orchids and roses, they are destined to become elements in an artwork that will grace the cover of the MINI Insider. The leaves are on their way from Barber’s workshop in Berlin to the photo studio, where the orchids have already been acclimatising for a few days. The roses, on the other hand, come straight from the 34-year-old’s flat, where they have gradually come into bloom and now look exactly as native Australian Barber intended. “Many people think I just play around with flowers all day long,” she says. “The truth is that 90 per cent of my work consists of rummaging in the soil, carrying heavy buckets around, working out when which plant will reach perfection – and finding out how I can get hold of it. But I also love being out and about in the car. Every trip into the countryside gives me new ideas – and in an open top, the experience is special because it puts me in touch with nature.”
For her artwork for the convertible, Barber begins by shaping an opulent, upward-surging jungle of amaranth, grapes and foliage on the tailgate of the MINI Cooper S. Then, much like a sculptor with her chosen medium, she imbues it with movement and drama – “chiselling” such a wealth of detail that onlookers can lose themselves in it for minutes at a time. What holds the whole thing together? Plain chicken wire, for one thing, which is used to create the more complex cascades. Time and again, Barber picks up her mobile to check whether her creation looks sufficiently harmonious and photogenic, adjusting a tendril here and pulling a few blossoms into place there until the flowers and fruits appear to take on a life of their own; cease to be mere biomass and become a kind of irrepressible being which first starts to overrun the MINI and then spills out into the remaining space.
As with many of her works, the floral artist allows nature to take its own path. In Barber’s creations, the plants wend their way across rooms, around corners and up walls, first appearing to mock gravity only to be tamed by it in the end and gather in dense living clouds to emerge as something dramatically beautiful. It’s a kind of old-world romance reminiscent of the Dutch still lifes of the 17th century. And just like those paintings, Barber’s works also remind us of life’s transience.
A glimpse at Barber’s biography easily explains her artistic approach to nature. Born in Sydney to a gallerist mother and a still-life photographer father, her parents had an instinct and an eye for texture, form and colours. Barber grew up in a house full of art and design objects. Her favourite book is The Secret Garden, in which the main character, Mary Lennox, lovingly tends an overgrown garden and restores it to life. From then on, the garden delights not only Mary, but also everyone else who sees it. “The healing power of nature central to the book – that is something I firmly believe in,” says Barber. “And I liked Mary straight off. She’s a bit grumpy to start with, but the garden helps her to find herself. When I was at primary school, I became Mary myself during book week every year and listened to her story every night at bedtime. Much later on, when my father moved into his studio on the corner of Mary Street and Lennox Street in Sydney and I was looking for a name for my own business, it came back to me.” And so Studio Mary Lennox was born and remains Barber‘s trademark to this day.
At that time, Barber was still studying architecture and interior design in Sydney and only used to buy exotic flowers, branches and grasses at the Flemington Markets for pleasure, to transform them into bouquets for friends and family. Her hobby grew into a flower delivery service, and she ultimately trained with florists, first in Sydney, then in New York. Because the man she has been with since her teenage days and who is now her husband, is originally from Germany – although he did grow up in Australia – the couple ended up moving to Berlin in 2012. There Barber made a new start, with no connections or even a business plan. Soon, she began selling her creations from The Store at Soho House. In 2014, she received her first large commission: an arrangement for the Berlin headquarters of a major carmaker.
Today, she has seven permanent employees on her team as well as freelancers all over the world; Barber herself regularly travels to drape her famous floral clouds in Venice’s St. Regis art hotel, for instance, or to plant a maze of roses for Milan Design Week. She has almost 200,000 followers on Instagram – and so owes it chiefly to the internet that her creations live on even after they have long since landed on the compost heap. Barber’s approach to her work hasn’t changed since the early days, only preparing drawings or plans for a project if a client insists. Otherwise, she just follows her eyes, nose and gut feeling as she wanders around a wholesale market, through a wood or a farmer’s magically overgrown, 100-year-old greenhouse. For her, seeing a plant in its natural environment is inspiring – and anyway, she prefers to cut the materials for her works herself. To do this, she travels all over Europe and has a card index of sources and producers for her purposes. In it, she keeps a record of the country tracks on Majorca where palm fronds dried golden by the sun can be found in late summer; where to find the most luxuriant brambles in Brandenburg, and which Italian lemon groves produce perfect fruits. Or she will drive around the Netherlands, tracking down garden roses so intensely fragrant you would think they’d been perfumed.
The more our world becomes digital, the stronger our need for nature seems to be; for rubbing herbs between our fingers and then breathing in their aroma, growing tomatoes, driving out into the country, jumping into a lake and being surprised by a summer thunderstorm. Nature isn’t only beautiful, and it certainly isn’t perfect; it is life in all its impermanence. And it’s that life which Barber breathes into the campaigns of brands such as Versace, Gucci and Hermès with her art.
It’s also why she uses insect-nibbled leaves and raindrop-flecked blooms or places the emphasis on leaves or stems instead of on the flowers themselves.
Surprisingly, at the flower virtuosa’s home there are... no flowers. There is a lone cactus in her kitchen, a skinny, tough old thing her husband insists on keeping, says Barber: as long as there’s life in the pile of prickles, it must not be thrown on the compost. The roses on the long dining table are here only for our photo shoot. And yet her lovely, spacious Art Nouveau apartment in Schöneberg with its ceilings three and a half meters high could almost have been made for Barber’s floral clouds.
Vases are in plentiful supply. There are 20 on the table and some 15 more on a shelf. Everything else on the shelf revolves exclusively around the plant world, including the standard reference work The Art of Making Gardens by landscape designer Luciano Giubbilei, for example, and books by Piet Oudolf. who transformed the New York High Line, an elevated freight rail track, into a park. Its sustainable landscapes have a wild and untamed feel to them, despite their urban surroundings. Another is an illustrated book about all the floral artists who have been setting the tone for some years now. Barber also features in it with a still life that looks almost too succulent to be real. Yet how can someone work with dahlias the size of plates, and with roses and orchids in such unusual colours that ordinary mortals would never find them in a shop, but never want to see them in their own four walls? “There would be too much here to take attention away from them,” is Barber’s answer, “flowers simply need a white room.”
Despite her success, Barber is modest about her work. “It’s my job to show nature in her best light. Nature is the artist; I am merely her intermediary. My wish is for us to understand that people, animals and plants are all equal parts of an ecosystem and that we must live in harmony together. No matter how magnificent and extravagant a flower, there is always a modesty to it as well. We humans could do with a bit more of that.” Perhaps that attitude is the reason Ruby Barber chooses to work in XXL format so often: the opulence of her works, the abundance of natural beauty she offers up puts us humans in our place.