Christian Tortu has been called many things: designer, painter, decorator, even magician. Anything, really, but florist. The bouquets he's been arranging for more than 20 years explain the desperate search for a definition: There are branches of ripe raspberries intertwined with garden roses; zucchini flowers surrounded by wild jasmine; green almonds, red poppies, and silver thistle all merging into still lifes seemingly sprung from the wildest dreams of some 18th-century Dutch artist.
The man behind these revolutionary compositions, though, argues that they're really based on one simple philosophy. "I place everything that nature produces on exactly the same level," the 46-year-old Tortu says. "I don't differentiate between a flower, a piece of wood, or a fruit. And this creates a sense of freedom in my bouquets." Of course, before Tortu arrived sur scène in the world of Parisian floral design, calling a vine of green tomatoes arranged with basil leaves a "bouquet" was unheard of. "But nature creates the same images," explains Tortu. "When you look at a landscape, you see all these elements: the different shades of green, the colorful flowers, and as you get closer you notice the small details on the ground." Tortu reproduces the subtleties and complexity of an entire landscape on a miniature scale.
Born in a small town on the bank of the Loire River in Angevin (a region known as the "gardens of France"), Tortu gained a deep respect for nature from his parents, market gardeners by profession, and from his surroundings. Those colors, scents, and textures inspire him still. "I never wanted to come to Paris," he confesses, "but then I realized that I could bring something to the people who lived in this city, something that was missing in their lives." Namely, something green. In the artist's quarter of St.-Germain-des-Prés, Tortu bought a little flower show on the Carrefour de l'Odéon when he was only 22 years old. His unprecedented bouquets were an overnight sensation.
Today Christian Tortu designs are available as far away as Italy (Milan) and Japan (Tokyo). In France, he decorates the runways of Dior, Chanel, and Lacroix, as well as the Cannes Film Festival. "Most of my time, though," says Tortu, "is spent with private clients." (Some of them even have a "subscription," meaning Tortu decorates their homes every week.) To ensure that the authenticity of his style arrives intact even in California, Tortu insists on training each new employee personally in Paris. Nature herself has some input too. "She does most of the work for us," he says; "you have to be attuned to the rhythms of seasons, the changing colors."
Some of the more extravagant Tortu creations can be seen in his new book, Au-Delà des Fleurs, which Abrams is releasing as Sensational Bouquets in April. The gorgeous photographs capture his intensely creative, often playful style.
Tortu started designing his own vases five years ago; this led to a new line of merchandise, including candles, soap, and eau-de-toilette sprays—all, of course, scented with "the odors of my garden in Angevin." Christian Tortu product are available in more than 40 American boutiques, including Takashimaya in New York City and nationwide at Saks Fifth Avenue.