“The Work We Do” is an interview series that asks creatives with daydream-worthy jobs how they got where they are—and what it’s like to live a day in their shoes. Today, I’m speaking with my very talented friend, San Francisco floral designer, Natalie Brookshire of Natalie Bowen Designs.
Natalie and I first met in 2013 through mutual friends over a glass of Rosé on that most beautiful hillside at Scribe winery. And yet what I recall about the scene that day is that I couldn’t take my eyes off her sunglasses. She looked so cool! We talked about growing up in California (she’s from Chico) and our mutual love of traveling. And when I learned more about her business—and realized I’d probably admired her arrangements at Foreign Cinema in the past—I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that she was capable of making incredibly beautiful (and cool) things. Her arrangements are so fresh and lovely; I truly admire her work. I’m so glad she agreed to talk today about following her passion to create her own floral design studio.
Floral design runs in your family—tell us more about that.
My grandmother had a flower shop in San Francisco in the ’40s. Even after she sold the business, she retained a deep love for flowers, gardens, and her home state of California, so I grew up learning about flowers from a young age. I had my first flower arranging party when I was in the first grade, and always found myself fantasizing about having my own shop one day. In college, I studied industrial design, and as soon as I graduated, I got my first and only flower shop job. I quickly learned my fantasy wasn’t even close to the reality of the work, but I loved it anyway. That was in 2004, when Natalie Bowen Designs began.
What did your earlier vision of life as a career woman entail?
Growing up in the 80s, I imagined that I would work in an air-conditioned high-rise, and wear power suits and play tennis on the weekends. Clearly, that was not my path. I did always hope that I would find a career that connected me to people I admired, and that my life would be “fabulous” in some way. Those are goals I feel I’ve achieved and that I continue to strive for today.
What’s a typical day like for you?
My spirit animal is a hummingbird. I get up early and go non-stop—that’s the only thing that’s consistent about my schedule. Each day varies depending on whether we’re doing floral production or not. I go to the flower mart about three days a week, and those days start at 5 AM or earlier. I’ll shop the market and then head to my studio in SOMA to work from there after. And on Fridays, we have a pot-luck lunch together in the garden as a team.
One thing that’s consistent about my job that I don’t like is that I find myself driving a lot. I’m always headed somewhere, whether it’s a meeting, a site visit, or a delivery. When I’m not working, I fill my time socializing with friends. I don’t sit still—if I do, I crash. Kind of like a hummingbird.
What’s your process when you approach putting together an arrangement? Would you say you have a defined aesthetic?
It’s hard for me to describe my own style, since I’m so close to my work. I see it somewhere between purposeful and structured, and natural and organic. I love to create designs that feel effortless without getting too wild and unruly. My favorite arrangements include a beautiful blossom and some unexpected element. I also really love to play with color and am always pushing myself to come up with new palettes.
What challenges you the most, as both a designer and business owner?
I’m a creative person, so running a business can be hard. I hate anything having to do with tech or troubleshooting, or anything that requires quite a bit of patience—which is about 80% of my job. What I do enjoy is making sure that I don’t allow these challenges to hold me back from growing my business. I find managing people to be difficult—I want to be everyones friend, which isn’t the best model — but I’ve learned to like it. The most unexpected challenge of my job is working with perishable goods. From keeping flowers alive in the heat to composting your hard work after an event, it’s really a lesson in letting go and realizing nature has more control over things than I do. And, man do I love to be in control. Don’t most small business owners?
What do you think an outsider would find most surprising about your job? Is it as romantic as it seems?
My first day at the first floral job I had, the person training me said, ‘This job is not as romantic as it seems.’ I’ll never forget that, and it couldn’t be more true. I spend the majority of my time not doing flowers. Instead, I’m running a business, which means a lot of email and computer time. I don’t think people realize how many hours we work and how dirty our job can be—jumping in compost bins is a regular activity of mine.
Let’s say you’ve just met someone who’s interested in becoming a florist but doesn’t know where to start — what would you tell them?
I’d suggest working with different florists for at least a year or two before going out on your own. I think it’s important to really know what the job entails after the the fantasy goes away—for example, is jumping in said compost bins a key component of your dream job? I also think it’s great to work for different people in the same field. You’ll make more connections and have the opportunity to see how various designers conquer the same challenges in their own ways.
What’s the best part of being your own boss?
The very best thing about being my own boss is getting more than two weeks off a year. Granted, I work much more than 40 hours a week and don’t get paid vacation or sick days, but I love being in charge of my own schedule. I travel a lot for jobs, and love to tack on a little personal time after the work is done. My MO is work hard, play hard. In the past few years, my work has taken me to Tulum—four times!—Wyoming, Colorado, New York, and Big Sur.
Is travel part of what keeps the creative juices flowing? How do you stay inspired?
What inspires me most is knowing creative people. My husband is an architect, so a lot of our conversations and playtime revolve around design. I also gather my inspiration from nature, art, and fashion, but I find that new challenges and experiences ensure that I have the drive to create something I wouldn’t have before. Keeping my look fresh is one of my biggest goals.
Lastly, what are you most excited about in the months to come?
I’m planning a workshop in August that will take place on a flower farm in Half Moon Bay. The attendees will get to cut their own flowers from the farm, and after the workshop, we’ll all sit down and enjoy a shared meal amongst the flower fields. It’s a truly special opportunity, and I can’t wait to share it.
P.S. More inspiring creatives and the work they do.