It's not a particularly busy day for Jeune Jaffe. The phone rings only every four or five minutes, instead of continually. The floor of the floral designer's garage workshop is nearly covered by vases full of flowers, but there is, after all, room to walk.
If their schedule for the week included two Virginia dinner parties, a fund-raiser for Middle Eastern refugees, a luncheon and three weddings, many people might consider themselves not only busy but swamped. But for Ms. Jaffe, who works seven days a week at her Bethesda business, Jeune Jaffe Flowers Ltd., the afternoon is relaxed enough that she has leisure not only to talk to a visitor, but to demonstrate some of her creative methods.
With no preparation, using only items at hand and her imagination -- designing by the seat of her pants, so to speak -- the petite, energetic florist puts together several arrangements, all of which seem both loose and spontaneous and as superbly composed as an old master painting.
Edible elements are a Jaffe signature, and to one natural grapevine wreath she adds a bounty of fruits and vegetables: apples and pomegranates, nubbly prickly pears and shaggy artichokes, falls of red and green grapes accenting the dusky purples of passion fruit and baby eggplant. Spiky protea flowers and blowzy hydrangea heads add different floral notes, and clusters of cinnamon sticks, wired into the voluptuous mass of fruit, suggest the autumnal scents of hot mulled cider and pumpkin pie. The arrangement has a warm, sensuous Renaissance flavor, part Flemish still life, part Della Robbia.
Another wreath is decked with hydrangea, white with tinges of pink and green; that fall garden favorite, dark-pink sedum; dried pink roses; purplish nigella seed pods; and delicate sprays of wild yellow aster. A few blushing lady apples nestle in the flowers. As a finishing touch, the designer weaves in a few strands of ivy, which twine out of the wreath as naturally as if they had taken root there. The results this time are romantic and Baroque.
At the center of a table, surrounding a candelabrum perhaps, either of these very different arrangements would be a beautiful, appropriate fall centerpiece. Both use seasonal flowers, dried plant material and seeds for a properly poignant autumn mood, and fresh produce to suggest the earthly plenty of what Keats called "the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." Best of all, Ms. Jaffe's arrangements do this while avoiding cliches. Chrysanthemums, apples and earth tones are all very well, but her dappled mauves and celadon greens, and her uncommon or old-fashioned choice of produce conveys the spirit of the season in a subtler, more sophisticated way.
Jeune (pronounced "June") Jaffe's talent is innate, her knowledgeability the result of extensive training, and the flowers she works with are the best the globe has to offer. But her loose, natural style can be easily adapted by the amateur, she says.
In the fall, her centerpieces often have a "harvest home" look, even when the occasion isn't Thanksgiving dinner. It is the best of all times for incorporating edibles into the design scheme, mixing an abundance of fruits, nuts and vegetables with seasonal flowers, as well as such "found items" from the roadway or woods as autumn leaves, seed pods, pine cones, grapevine and bittersweet. Ms. Jaffe chooses her fruits for their color compatibility, creating a subtle blend of muted greens with artichokes, grapes and figs, or perhaps compiling a lively assortment of apricots, cherries, red and yellow peppers, and other bounty from the warm side of the palette.
The design for any centerpiece is suggested by a number of factors, including the color and style of the dinnerware and tablecloth, the formality of the room and of the occasion, and even the food itself. She might even cue her choice of flowers to the hues or the mood of what's being served -- cool blue irises with seafood, for instance.
For inspiration, anyone can do as she does and seek out the
Dutch and Flemish painters who captured such luscious still lives in paint.
"Anybody can go to a museum and see these pictures," Ms. Jaffe says, taking a book from her shelves, and pointing out paintings by the likes of Rachel Ruysch, Jan van Kessel and Jan Brueghel the Elder. "It can be very simple. It's just getting the textures," she continues, turning pages that display a colorful profusion of full-blown flowers, ripe fruits and vegetables, and, repeatedly, a partially peeled lemon.
Many of these paintings have something else in common, too: bugs, from beetles to bumblebees, looking as realistic as possible. These are not, to be sure, to be found among Jeune Jaffe's neo-old master arrangements. "I don't go as far as that," ,, she says with a laugh.
The designer developed her painterly style through a mixture of training, which gave her discipline and encyclopedic knowledge, and travel, which introduced her to new influences.