When Remco Van Vliet and his half brother, Cas Trap, moved to New York from the Netherlands 19 years ago, one custom that confused them was that dinner guests were expected to bring a bottle of wine. "In Holland, we come with a bouquet, something gorgeous and natural," says van Vliet, 34.
If the Dutch duo have their way, that's one American habit that they hope will change. The brothers' dream is to spread a northern European floral sensibility the way French couturiers revolutionized fashion in the 1940s. "We want to show people that they shouldn't be intimidated by flowers, that having living things in your house isn't just a luxury. Its crucial," says Trap, 40.
Such aspirations are more than just talk. Their company, Van Vliet & Trap, which has the contract to create event designs for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the New York Philharmonic, creates cascading arrangements that often attract nearly as much attention as the art or music. The brothers' influence is everywhere in Manhattan, from the floral displays that dominate stylish downtown restaurants to the striking arrangements in the lobbies of Park Avenue apartment buildings.
While they admire Americans' natural exuberance, they note a tendency here to overload arrangements with garishly colored flowers. (As for grouping a single type of flower, they advise against it, except for tulips, which are naturally massed in the meadows of the Netherlands.)
Instead they suggest a more monochromatic palette with an emphasis on contrasting textures that can be brought in with elements such as seedpods, bold foliage, herbs, berries, and even twisted vines. These, they say, set off treats such as pale-green roses or burgundy peonies.
While they have the luxury of using some of the best stems flown in from exotic locales for their clients, they insist that their look can be achieved easily by anyone. "If you have imagination, your best resources can be the local market, nursery, or Home Depot," Trap says.
For spring, they mix sprigs of mint and rosemary with branches of unripe, green blackberries. For small centerpieces, they pierce a fresh orange and stick in a few Creamsicle-colored poppies. "Flowers love the sugar, and the smell is fantastic," Trap says.
Foliage is key, especially in spring, they advise. "To us, the color of the season is yellow-green, so fresh and new," Trap says. The brothers love the leaves of lemon geraniums, available at virtually any garden center. "And one of our favorite tricks is to use black basil we get from the farmers' market," he says. "It looks fantastic with soft-colored flowers, and it adds a scent as well."
Third-generation floral designers, the brothers want to move beyond arranging flowers in a vase. They recommend hand-tying, a classic European technique that involves building a bouquet in your palm and then tying the bunch with a rubber band. The band can be hidden by wrapping it with a single leaf or snipped, if the bouquet is put in a glass vessel. "After you get the hang of it, you never go back to arranging flowers in a vase," Trap says. "It gives you far more control. You can readjust the height of everything to get balance, and then, when you're done, you just cut off the ends all at once." Van Vliet agrees: "Worry about what vessel you're going to use later. What's important is learning to feel, really feel, what is going into it."