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In Full Flower

Belgian floral designer Daniël Ost creates drama out of blossoms, twigs, even a single leaf.

At his studio in Sint-Niklaas, a town 20 minutes from Antwerp, floral designer Daniël Ost takes a moment to contemplate 17th-century Flemish flower painting. He considers the way all sorts of flowers—roses, tulips, bluebells, narcissus, peonies—swell in impossible profusion from their container, even though many bloom months apart. "Anyone who knows flowers knows that these arrangements never existed," he says. As it happens, they could exist today. "Now we can do such arrangements," says Ost, who in September will open a second shop in a historic Art Nouveau building in Brussels. "I can buy the Christmas rose from New Zealand in June." He can, but that doesn't mean he will. The artist who once wired 500 Japanese fruits together into a hollow cube and created a huge mandala out of autumn-hued leaves has no intention of re-creating the visions of old masters.

Instead, he has concocted his own world of astonishing floral designs, which have earned him a devoted international clientele. Many of Ost's best creations are included in the books Leafing Through Flowers (Callaway Editions, 2000) and Invitations (Lannoo, 2002). This modern-day Belgian has inverted the old masters' logic. These arrangements seem impossible, and yet they actually did exist.

Ost, who is 48 years old, has been passionate about flowers for as long as he can remember. He says his fate was sealed at the age of three one hot summer's day when he visited his grandfather's farm in Sint-Niklaas. As little Daniël reached up to collect a rose from a bush, he slipped and fell into an open cow-manure pit. "I still had my hand up," he recalls. "The gases knocked me out. But my grandfather saw me and pulled me out by my hair. Then you know—you have to be in flowers. It's not an accident."

Ost says that his father considered floral design a female occupation. "He wanted to cure his son, so he sent me to military school." Ost nevertheless persisted. During those years, he began to collect and artistically combine all kinds of natural objects: shells, mushrooms, butterflies. At 21 he began an apprenticeship at the shop of a well-trained, artistic florist in Sint-Niklaas, and two years later went to Holland to take master classes.

In 1983, Ost made what was to be the defining trip of his life. He went to Japan with an American ballooning company (Sint-Niklaas is a center for hot-air balloonists) that hoped to combine flowers and ballooning as a party gimmick. There he met Noboru Kurisaki, a tea-ceremony master and art-scene club owner who had published a book of his own flower arrangements. Ost was captivated by Kurisaki's work and by the designer's opulent, hyperaestheticized living quarters beneath his club. "I had never seen so many Art Nouveau containers and pieces of furniture in my life," he recalls. "It was full of flowers and fruit. It was bacchanalian and very erotic." Kurisaki's reception of Ost was chilly, until he recognized how serious Ost was about flowers. They soon struck up a friendship. "I was overwhelmed by the contact with Japan and the East," Ost says, "and by the idea of wabe sabe, which embraces the beauty of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete." Ost says Kurisaki opened his eyes and helped him develop his own broad design vocabulary. "Noboru once said to me: 'Daniël-san, sometimes one flower can say as much as ten-thousand flowers.' "

Today Ost's work is more like sculpture than what we typically imagine as floral arrangements. (His teacher in Sint-Niklaas once told him, "Most florists use a container to express a theme, and the flowers as decoration. You must change this and express yourself with flowers.") He has no interest in creating the impression that "you have been walking in the garden and come in with all these flowers, and you have made a big composition," he says. Instead, Ost ties thin green bamboo into sheaves that undulate at the bottom and fan out flat on top. Or he may decide to layer hundreds of leaves like so many pastry sheets in a giant, tilted mille-feuille. Twenty years after he first met Kurisaki his approach is a balance of Flemish sumptuousness and Eastern, Zen-like simplicity. "I'm working toward the moment of ultimate beauty," he says, "waiting for that moment."

Ost's arrangements demonstrate an uncanny sensitivity to the form, color, and texture of both the flowers and the containers that hold them. Seeing the best of his work, you may wonder whether the vase dictated the choice of plant materials, or whether the leaves, stems, and flowers somehow conjured up their receptacle. He can look at a vase and immediately visualize how to fill it; he especially enjoys the challenge of a container with a particularly difficult color and shape. "When I know I need something, I don't compromise," he says, recalling the time he once had a driver take him 300 miles (he does not drive) to procure orchids from a German nursery. "The difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is in the details. I see one color in the glaze that my staff did not see, and I say, 'We must add this to the arrangement.' "

When he receives a commission, usually to decorate lavish parties, Ost begins by making sketches of his ideas in watercolor. After the client chooses a design, he prepares a proposal and drawings with the precision of an engineer. At the time of my visit, he was planning the decorations for an upcoming charity auction in Brussels. Using only orange-red flowering spikes of euphorbia and red bromeliads, he designed towering forms that would spray like fireworks up to the room's 22-foot-high ceilings. "I wanted one mass of red in the sky," he says.

In an important commission in 1995 from the Belgian consul general in Hong Kong, Ost was asked to use azaleas "on a grand scale." He accepted, but spurned the rare azalea branches he was offered. Instead, he transformed thousands of a much more common pink varietal into a colossal globe and a huge irregular frame on Victoria Peak, high above the city. "I wanted to use azaleas that anyone could buy in a shop and transform them into something totally new," he explains. "With flowers, it's all a question of whether you have seen it too much. It is not the flower itself that is beautiful or not. I once predicted that carnations will be forgotten in Europe, and the orchid will seem all too familiar. That has turned out to be true."

In the vestibule of Christie's New York auction house, surrounded by the undulating lines of a Sol LeWitt mural, Ost created two giant waves, each about ten by ten feet. Constructed with foam, the waves were covered in grass and spiked with brilliant blue delphiniums, myosotis, and campanulas. The night before, Ost decided the work needed more color. "He noticed a bright orange in the LeWitt, and said he thought a blast of that color would help, especially at night," says Lauren Shortt, director of special events at Christie's. He told her that he needed 600 oranges. "So my colleagues and I went to every possible bodega in the city and got every available orange. He and his staff spent the night peeling them." By the next day, the waves were finished off with orange-peel "whitecaps." Ost was satisfied.

Ost is more famous in Japan than anywhere else, as ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, is a well-established art form there. Still, he hasn't been ignored by his countrymen. Within five years of opening his shop in Sint-Niklaas in 1985, he was receiving orders from the Belgian royal family. But it's been a tough road to success. "I can't believe my wife hasn't left me," he says. "She worked hard, and she never asked me to change." On the contrary, Marie-Anne—with whom Ost has a son, Maarten, and a daughter, Nele—is his business partner. Until recently, the two had resisted the temptation to open a shop in a big commercial European city. "It's a miracle she'll go to Brussels now," Ost says. "Twenty years ago, she told me that to leave would kill my creativity, that I am too much a dreamer and not a businessman. She said it is very costly and time-consuming to run a business in a big city, and that this town has allowed my creativity to develop in the way it should." The Osts' business is now better organized, they say, with a staff to help run the new shop. Ost will divide his time between the two shops (25 miles apart), but most of the assembly will continue to take place in Sint-Niklaas, as the building in Brussels is tight on space.

In contrast, the 23-room house in Sint-Niklaas where the Osts live and work is enormous—and exquisite. Built three centuries ago and remodeled in 1864 as a pharmacy by an Italian architect, the building was being used as a bicycle shop when Ost began renting space in it 17 years ago. Seven years later he bought the entire building, turning the upper two stories into a residence and the ground floor into his shop. Today, the home is a showplace of Ostian inspirations: Woven palm leaves from the Ivory Coast fill the spaces between the ceiling beams; a Japanese wasps' nest sits atop a gilded bentwood cage, home to a pet bird from Borneo. The garden is divided by a long rectangular pool, in which he's placed a lichen-covered centerpiece that, at first glance, looks like a piece of driftwood. It's the cheekbone of a whale. "It was in the garbage at the zoo, and I asked if I could have it," Ost says. "It makes me think of Henry Moore."

Gardens are Ost's latest endeavor. He's done six so far, and he hopes to do more. Like his floral arrangements, his gardens are sculptural: He says he respects nature too much to compete with it. Flower arranging in the West, as he sees it, began when pastures and meadows were first being covered with the brick and stone of modern life. "The first flower shop in Europe was opened in Paris in 1796," he says. "People were starting to become uprooted from nature. Before that, when a farmer opened his window and saw fifty-thousand poppies, he was not tempted to bring them inside for decoration." But today, even if you were surrounded by fields of flowers as far as the eye could see, you might still yearn for an arrangement by Daniël Ost.

Individual arrangements, $80-$300. Prices for other commissions vary. Daniël Ost can be reached at his shop at 26 Onze-Lieve-Vrouwplein, Sint-Niklaas, Belgium; 32-3-776-17-15. His Brussels shop opens in September at 13 Koningstraat.