The Dutch Florist behind the Met’s Grandiose Bouquets

Portrait of Remco van Vliet. Courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

Courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

When Remco van Vliet was just 11 years old, he took a risk that would set his illustrious career in motion.

His father ran a bustling flower shop in the city of Den Helder in the Netherlands, known for its sprawling tulip fields. Members of the Dutch royal family were regular clients, and on one fateful day, Queen Beatrix ordered a bouquet. Unbeknownst to her, it was Van Vliet—not his father—who created it.

Even at age 11, Van Vliet had strong opinions about flower arrangements—particularly the tiny, tight flower bundles known as “tussie mussies” that the queen usually carried. He was not a fan, believing that they did not live up to the monarch’s grand persona. So instead of the typical, small bouquet, he fashioned a wild, abundant arrangement, filled with sizable green leaves and unruly foliage. “Luckily, she loved it,” Van Vliet recently recalled from his floral studio in Manhattan’s flower district. “I wanted to be grandiose and show off a little bit—and it worked.”

Grandiose is a word that still accurately characterizes Van Vliet’s most celebrated arrangements. The Dutch florist, now in his forties, is best known as the man behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s famous (and immense) sprays of flowers. For almost 20 years, he’s finessed all manner of verdure—from quince branches dripping with heavy pink blossoms to craning, chartreuse palm fronds—into five stately urns in the museum’s entryway, known as the Great Hall.

Courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

On a given day at the Met, one of his arrangements is the centerpiece of the sprawling lobby, towering some 10 to 12 feet tall from its perch atop the information desk. Nearby, four other bouquets burst from sandstone alcoves. Sometimes, they are delicate, dotted with soft, feathery buds. Other times, they’re bold and profuse, punctuated with tropical, neon-bright seed pods. Often, they’re inspired by the very art housed in the museum’s galleries.

For as long as he can remember, Van Vliet’s life has been defined by a mix of flowers and art. Growing up in Holland, his family’s roots were firmly planted in the prosperous Dutch horticulture industry (famous for its tulips). His great-grandfather had grown flowers for a living, while his grandfather and father became florists. Van Vliet was raised in his father’s shop and began arranging flowers not by choice, but “out of obligation,” he remembered, with a laugh. “It’s kind of like being the son of a butcher or baker—you have to help out in the family business. So that’s what I did.”

He spent the majority of his young life in the family store, arranging as many as 40 to 50 bouquets per day for locals and the occasional royal. Each small-ish arrangement took him around 10 minutes to assemble; he plucked flowers from a patchwork of buckets behind the counter as he went.

When he wasn’t in the shop, Van Vliet immersed himself in art. (His grandfather, who’d painted and collected art on the side, had rubbed off on his grandson in this way, too.) In school, he learned painting, etching, watercolors, welding, and art history; he remembers at least two works from the Met’s collection showing up on his final exams.

Margareta Haverman, A Vase of Flowers, 1716. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Otto Marseus van Schrieck, Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles, ca. 1670. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It wasn’t until his twenties, though, that Van Vliet’s interests in art and arranging flowers began to merge. After moving to New York at 18, he had a job at his stepbrother’s flower-importing company, Dutch Flower Line, which set things in motion. Surrounded by the early-morning hustle of Midtown Manhattan’s flower district, he wore many hats in his role—from submerging flowers in water and ferrying them to clients’ cars, to arranging the shop’s displays to maximize the beauty of its wares.

He had a knack for making flowers look their best, and a regular client of Dutch Flower Line, Chris Giftos, took notice. Since 1970, Giftos had been the Met’s first in-house florist, a job created after the plant-obsessed co-founder of Reader’s Digest, Lila Acheson Wallace, gifted a robust fresh-flower endowment to the museum. After an almost 30-year run, Giftos (also a regular on Martha Stewart) was ready for retirement—and on the hunt for a protégé.

Courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

Courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

Courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

Courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

Courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

Van Vliet still remembers his virgin arrangement at the Met: a voluptuous thicket of of Dutch lilies, flowering branches, palm leaves, and five or six other plant varieties. He composed it in the wee hours of a Monday morning, under Giftos’s watchful, encouraging eye. Van Vliet went on to apprentice with Giftos for seven years, climbing tall ladders each week to arrange fresh flowering bursts in the Great Hall. (During this time, he also started his own floral and event design company, Van Vliet & Trap.) In 2003, when Giftos retired, Van Vliet’s studio took over the job, along with the role of preferred florist for the countless events (like exhibition openings, concerts, and weddings) that regularly animate the museum after closing time.

Van Vliet likes to compare his arrangements to those that fill Dutch still-life paintings, in the way that his flowers similarly appear to rise and tumble naturally from their vases. (If you take the museum’s audio tour, you’ll have the pleasure of hearing him describe two of of the museum’s still-lifes, painted by Margareta Haverman and Otto Marseus van Schrieck.) Van Vliet resists floral design trends that “force beautiful flowers into submission,” he explained. “My vision is more purist; I like to let flowers do what they want to do.”

Images courtesy of Van Vliet & Trap.

Instead, Van Vliet focuses on how different blossoms and branches compliment one another. His Great Hall bouquets shapeshift according to the turning of seasons and which flowers are available at a given moment. Tones, patterns, and shapes glimpsed in museum artworks inspire new directions, too (like a previously unexplored color combination, for instance).

Van Vliet describes his greatest pleasure as working with the Met’s curators. Before every opening, they give him a walkthrough of the exhibition, and, in turn, its themes and hues inevitably seep into future floral arrangements. While the connection between the art and Van Vliet’s creations is often subtle, sometimes it’s delightfully direct. For the reopening of the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries in 2007, for example, Van Vliet gathered deep crimson and rust-colored blossoms, inspired by the black-and-red amphora vases that decorate the galleries. Laurel garlands, like those awarded to the first Greek Olympians, also made appearances.

As he dreams up arrangements, Van Vliet also considers his audience. When we spoke, he was preparing for the following week’s Great Hall flowers: ecstatic tangles of quince blossom, California spiral eucalyptus, and pussy willow. And while he isn’t crafting them for a queen, his audience is just as impressive: some 100,000 visitors from across the globe who stream into the Met each week. Van Vliet’s goal, above all else, is to bring them joy. “Whenever you create something beautiful, people enjoy it,” he said. “You make people happy with flowers.”

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