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Zen and the Art of Flowers

Clarendon's Michael Volanni named one of top floral designers in the country.

Art comes in all forms; brushed paint on canvas, molded clay, Alexander Calder’s dangling mobiles, Warhol’s can of Campbell’s Soup or the ceremonial butter sculptures fashioned by Buddhist monks. For Michael Volanni, the language of expression is flowers.

Named by “Elegant Bride” magazine this month as one of the top floral designers in the country, Volanni has an approach more like sculpting than simply arranging petals and stems.

“I don’t really think of myself as a florist,” Volanni said in his Clarendon boutique, Volanni for Vesta, attached to the Vesta Homes store on Wilson Boulevard. “It’s more like being a flower artist, diving into the moment, working with the different forms and colors in each piece.”

A FORMER STUDENT of Italian Renaissance art, Volanni blends eastern design concepts with a western cultural aesthetic, what he calls “Asian-French fusion.” The result is floral arrangements that look more like samples from a Zen garden. Volanni's work is highly influenced by that of landscape artists, taking the stylistic elements they put forth and mingling them with his own creative touches.

“I just studied landscapes, interiors and traditional gardens from different places, and I try to incorporate the ideas you see there into my work,” he said. “Some of it comes from Japanese ikebana designs — charachterized by balancing nature with form, some from English gardens and other European ideas.”

Selecting flowers for his clients is the first step in his creative process. His small studio in the back of the shop is stocked with petals and seed pods, each one with a different form and texture that Volanni uses to bring his designs to life.

“It’s mostly about conveying love,” he said, twirling a long-stemmed Lilly pod in his hand. “The hope is that the designs will carry over into the event where they’ll be displayed. The philosophy and the signature of this work is about trying to capture the beauty in each changing moment.”

WHEN CREATING DESIGNS for events, Volanni will also work with caterers and other event staff to match his work with the surrounding environment.

“You’d think that with an urban center like Washington nearby, you find more contemporary designers like him but there aren’t many,” said Carrie Young, his assistant.

In the midst of preparing designs for a National Public Radio banquet in Washington, D.C., he created square grids fashioned from flower stems. The grids are placed over a bowl of water. The flowers are placed with their stems running through the grids and down into the water, creating a design of straight and orderly lines that accentuates the flowers’ natural symmetry.

“It’s floral sculpture,” Volanni said. “The sense of the work depends on the environment so we can fit the designs for almost any kind of event or client, but there’s a definite Zen approach that comes along with each part. It’s about diving into the moment, seeing how the design is constantly changing as it is made and understanding the lines and the movement. It’s something you have to love.”