Flower Powers: Putnam & Putnam
No civilized home or fete would be complete without something in bloom. Enter Putnam & Putnam, a studio charming its way through the privileged interiors of New York.
On a frigid January morning in a gritty warehouse building in the scruffy Bushwick section of Brooklyn, Mike Putnam is assembling 15 centerpieces for a private 40th-birthday party in a marble-walled mansion on the Upper East Side. At the same time, he is tweaking the prototype for this year’s Valentine’s Day arrangement, an asymmetrical tangle of sweet peas, ranunculuses, anemones, sage, privet berries, and his favorite, antique-pink Café Latte roses. When it’s finished, his husband, Darroch Putnam, photographs it for their social media feeds. Within minutes, more than a thousand of their 251,000 Instagram followers have “liked” it.
The men behind Putnam & Putnam are indisputably Instagram stars, but their becoming the most buzzed-about New York florists is also due to old-fashioned word of mouth. Ask some New York style mavens—such as Estée Lauder group president Jane Hudis, former Georg Jensen creative director Marcus Teo, and Cafe Clover owner and man-about-town Kyle Hotchkiss Carone—and they’ll all tell you that the Putnams are the florists of the moment. So will fashion designer Adam Lippes, who is one of their most faithful and enthusiastic clients. Lippes discovered their work at a small dinner party at the home of socialite and food blogger Elettra Wiedemann (the daughter of actress Isabella Rossellini). “There was something about the looseness and romanticism—almost Victorian—that was different from anything I had seen,” Lippes says. “It was so counterintuitive to what was going on.”
New York has long been a hothouse of floral creativity and competition. Flowers are the lingua franca of fashion designers, magazine editors, beauty executives, and socialites whose reputations depend on being à la mode. In the go-go 1980s, when newspapers and magazines rhapsodized over the lush hyperbolic style of nouvelle society hostesses and their interior decorators, a few well-connected florists were celebrated too. Manhattan floral designer Marlo Phillips boasted to the Washington Post in 1985 that she demanded carte blanche from her handpicked clientele, which included Jackie Onassis, Candice Bergen, and Oscar de la Renta. “I am devoted to working for the special few who are totally appreciative,” she has said. “The flowers in their home are equally as important as their art.”
Putnam & Putnam creates artwork too but without the attitude. Most weekday mornings, the couple can be found shopping on the single Chelsea block known as New York’s flower district, searching for blossoms, foliage, branches, stems of fruit, and bunches of herbs to create lyrical arrangements that are multidimensional and poetic.
Unlike most other in-demand New York florists, Putnam & Putnam does not make overstuffed arrangements bursting with bright blooms, nor does it cram several dozen roses into a vase for a splashy impact that looks best in traditionally decorated homes with antique English and French furniture. The florists do not make architectural arrangements that are befitting of high-ceilinged lofts or modernist apartments. Rather, their designs are elegant and ethereal—think Brooklyn brownstone or coastal-Maine cottage. Their palette is as nuanced as Farrow & Ball house paints. Their inspiration is often Old Master paintings. “I’m always aiming for gesture, interesting texture, things spilling out and falling onto the table,” Mike says.
Developing their signature style has been an organic process. The business began unexpectedly three years ago after they moved to the East Coast from Santa Barbara, California, where they’d met waiting in line at a Trader Joe’s. They rented an apartment in Clifton, New Jersey, because Darroch got a full-time job photographing clothes at a nearby warehouse for the Barneys New York website. Mike commuted to Manhattan, where he studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked for the interior design firm run by the singer-songwriter Lenny Kravitz.
When he was home in New Jersey, Mike began “messing around with flowers,” he recalls. “I would go into the woods and forage—any way I could get green matter. I used to go into a city park, and though it was illegal I would cut flowering branches.” Darroch would take pictures and post them on social media. Suddenly magazine editors were calling, and soon they realized they had begun a business. So they moved to a small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Putnam & Putnam’s couture approach resonates with the fashion flock. Lippes, who became a flower connoisseur when he worked as global creative director for the garden-loving Oscar de la Renta, recalls the first time he hired Putnam & Putnam to do the flowers for his namesake label’s fashion presentation, which he holds at his apartment in a 19th-century townhouse on Washington Square in Greenwich Village. “They stole the show,” Lippes says. “I think people took more pictures of their flowers than my clothes!”
One of the guests was Linda Fargo, senior vice president of fashion and store presentation director at Bergdorf Goodman, who was smitten with Putnam & Putnam’s extravagant yet unpretentious arrangements. “Their work is almost like modern Flemish paintings—wild yet formal,” she says. “There’s this incredible push and pull of color, depth, and lightness. It’s the terminology you might use to talk about paintings.” Last fall, she hired them to construct a monumental archway for the unveiling of Bergdorf ’s newly renovated entrance on 58th Street. “It was a big moment historically for the store,” she says. “They created this beautiful, asymmetrical wild thing with snaggles of wisteria and tentacles moving up the building. As they installed it, I didn’t want them to stop. They definitely overdelivered.”
Compared with a previous generation of New York status florists, who cultivated a mystique about their artistry or boasted about their genius, Darroch and Mike are humble and transparent. When they started, one of their first editorial projects was a step-by-step slide show for Vogue’s website on how to assemble a Thanksgiving centerpiece. They showed how to form a base with foliage, place fruit and berries around the rim of a vase or vessel, add larger flowers like roses while keeping the colors separate rather than dotting them evenly throughout, and create depth with smaller flowers such as anemones and lisianthuses followed by long gestural, textural, and whimsical elements like smilax vine and grass. In December’s Martha Stewart Living, they offered Christmas decorating tips for the tree, mantel, and dining table.
They are willing to share their methods and expertise because they are confident that their artistry cannot be easily duplicated. They give classes when their schedule allows. Last year, they taught a three-day workshop in Mexico City. “We used a lot of fruit and outdoor plant material and clipped flowers off them,” Mike says. This spring, they are giving a one-day workshop in New Jersey that costs $1,250. “We put it on social media, and it sold out immediately,” Darroch says.
Like many millennial entrepreneurs, the Putnams use social media in lieu of a publicist. Since they started their company, they’ve posted more than 1,800 photos (or about two a day), and their fans can’t seem to get enough of them. It doesn’t hurt that the tattooed pair—who are both 30 years old and have been married for seven years—are extremely photogenic. Their hipster Brooklyn personae bestow a cachet that’s appreciated by even the most hidebound Manhattan clients.
Colleen Tierney, head of special events at the Frick Collection, the Fifth Avenue mansion turned museum, discovered Putnam & Putnam on a friend’s Instagram feed. “I Googled them, went on their website, and sent them an email,” says Tierney, who has hired them twice for the Frick’s annual Autumn Dinner, which is held in galleries hung with Old Master paintings. Putnam & Putnam was stoked by the project. “Setting down arrangements in front of Vermeers is the coolest experience,” Mike says.
Galas and weddings are their main revenue stream. “We started out with $2,000 budgets, and now the weddings average $30,000,” Darroch says. But they also offer home and office deliveries from the small boutique they have at the Club Monaco flagship store on Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron district. Sharing space with a branch of the Strand bookstore that looks like the library in a Nancy Meyers movie, their shop-within-a-shop resembles a potting shed you might see in World of Interiors or an old issue of Town & Country featuring high-society gardeners like Bunny Mellon or C. Z. Guest. Their standard arrangements range in price from $88 to $248, and one of the most popular is the $98 bud vase and scented candle combination. Packaged in a simple mauve box with understated rose-gold graphics, their signature candles took a year to perfect. “We wanted scents to be unique, bold, and really fill a room,” Darroch says. The fragrances have names like Amnesia, Mythos, and Quicksand. “Early Grey is our best seller. It’s more masculine, with notes of liquid amber, Virginia cedar, fig leaf, and fine-aged patchouli.”
Now, after a manic three years, they still seem surprised by their success and the way they’ve been embraced by the most discriminating New Yorkers. “Good news travels fast, and they are a good thing,” says Fargo, who is in discussions with the two about having a pop-up shop in Bergdorf ’s lavish seventh-floor home department. “They are absolutely darling. Any excuse I have to work with them again, I will take it.”
And so will Bettina Prentice, founder of Prentice Cultural Communications, which “curates” top-tier special events in New York. She has worked with Mike and Darroch on both lavish private parties and charity galas. “I think they are representative of a new generation,” she says. “Their work is a celebration of nature and a celebration of life. Their flowers cut through the noise, ground you in the moment, and allow people to be present. For them, flowers are a medium of expression and not just mere decoration.”