Jillian Elliott is a New York based floral designer and artist with a penchant for traveling. She speaks with us about how her love for nature evolved into her craft, how this has taken her near and far over the last few years and what she's learned along the way.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how that's led you down the path you're on now?
I am from the Michiana region (Southern MI and Northern IN) about 1.5 hours east of Chicago. It’s a gorgeous area full of rivers, lakes, forests, farmland, sand dunes, and of course Lake Michigan. I grew up with hiking, camping, and fishing as our main familial pass times which instilled in me a love of the natural world. Nature is where I find most of my inspiration and I feel most at peace when I’m surrounded by it. I’ve been an artist my entire life and tried out many different mediums but it makes sense that I’ve landed on floral as my main squeeze for the last 5 years after moving to NYC. If I can’t be out in nature on a regular basis, I’ll bring nature to me.
You’ve been working in floral design, but you initially studied Apparel Merchandising and Fashion Design. How did you end up making the transition from fashion into floristry?
I moved to New York with the intention of doing visual merchandising full time but fell in the the trap of working retail because I just needed to cover the rent and buy my rice and beans. I loved studying fashion but when it comes to the work environment, it was never my favorite and after 10 years in retail I was a bit burnt out. Thus in the hustle of working 3 or 4 jobs to make ends meet that new transplants to New York often go through, I was fortunate enough for one of them to be at a florist and plant shop in Williamsburg called Rose Red and Lavender which recently relocated to Industry City. The owner Kimberly gave me a chance with no experience, I fell in love, and the rest is history.
You go by the moniker Perennial Vagrant. How did you come up with this name and what is the meaning behind it? How would you describe the Perennial Vagrant style?
The name is something that I came up with a couple years ago and I think I’ll keep it around for awhile at least. I chose it because of the botanical meaning of perennial (plants that return year after year and my preferred kind of gardens) combined with the primary definitions and meaning of the words. Perennial means enduring or continually recurring and a vagrant is one that wanders from place to place. Thus, a perennial vagrant would be someone that is continually wandering. Which most people that know me well would say is an incredibly apt description. I also have a dream of specializing in florals for destination weddings around the world and thought the name Perennial Vagrant would be perfect for that niche.
The Perennial Vagrant style is very natural and organic, allowing each ingredient to show off it’s unique beauty rather than forcing them into unnatural shapes or arrangements. I like for things to look as though they could just as easily be growing outside in the garden as in a vase on your table.
You’ve been fortunate enough to live and work in many different cities and countries. You’ve visited 32 countries, lived in four, and counting. Where have your travels taken you and what inspired you to travel so far and wide?
I have been fabulously fortunate to have been able to see as much of the world as I have so early in life. Traveling is something that I’ve always felt a strong need for and I’ve made it a high priority. I am an individual that is almost never content and I become restless very easily. Traveling calms my soul a bit and I love immersing myself in other cultures. It’s an amazing thing because the more you travel the easier it gets to do so because you make friends all over the world that you can only see by visiting each other. I suppose I caught the travel bug early as growing up we would drive to various national parks and go camping as far north as parts of Ontario and as far south as Florida. I was then lucky for my high school to have summer school programs where after a couple of weeks in the classroom we would take a school bus traveling to and camping in relevant areas where we would have field classes for another one or two weeks. I was able to see the majority of the US this way. As an adult, I’ve spent most of my time traveling within Europe because of it’s accessibility and the ability to travel within it on a very small budget. I spent all of 2016 and part of 2017 traveling solo after having saved money for several years to finance the trip. I started in Europe and ended up working in Australia with pit stops in Asia on the way to and fro. It was a phenomenal experience although one I’m not likely to repeat as it’s really hard on the body. I’m hoping to be able to do more small trips in the future and keep New York as my home base.
A lot of my travel in recent years has been funded by my floristry. It’s been a really amazing thing that has opened a lot of doors for me. I relocated to Bermuda for a position for 3 months a few years ago. I was able to work with a large events florist for 6 months while living in Melbourne that sustained my Donut Shop addiction. I’ve worked in France at the most beautiful chateau in Le Loir Valley. At each position, I’ve been able to gain more botanical knowledge, broaden my skill set, work with new plants that I’ve never seen before and it’s made me appreciate what I do even more.
What kind of pieces would we find packed in your travel bag?
I travel very light, often with carry-on only. I will always have my basic toiletries- contacts, solution, face wash and cream, soap, body moisturizer, and rose water toner because nothing is more refreshing after a long flight. A nice water bottle, vitamin C, headphones, charging cube, eye mask, travel pillow, book, backpack, tripod and remote shutter for my phone, and snacks are essential. For clothing, I make sure everything is able to mix and match. I’ve dragged my 7115 linen reversible maxi all over the world because it is so versatile and it is one of my favorite travel pieces by far. On the plane I wear my glasses, comfortable linen pants, either sneakers or boots, a tank top, tshirt or button up, cozy sweater, big scarf that can be used as a blanket, and jacket. I have to layer like crazy because around security I will always be burning up and then freezing once we get in the air. In my luggage, depending on the season, I’ll have another pair of pants or shorts, a dress, sandals, more underwear and socks than necessary, sleep/athletic shorts, sleep/athletic tshirt, leggings, sports bra, baseball cap, swim suit, and a few shirts of varying styles. I always use packing cubes to keep things organized, they’re life changing. When I check baggage, I make sure to always have my floral shears with me.
You’re back in New York now. What draws you back to the city?
New York is a funny place. It’s a hard place to live but simultaneously offers so many opportunities. It’s somewhere that I have missed while I’ve been gone and I’ve certainly put down some roots while I’ve lived here. It’s an easy place to come back to and I think that I always intended to return for awhile if not not forever. It’s been my home for the majority of my adult life and feels like the right place to be for now. I love Brooklyn and Queens specifically because of the energy. It’s not as frantic as Manhattan and there is a great community of artists. My favorite neighborhood that I’ve lived in was Ridgewood Queens because of it’s warm, neighborhood feeling, mature trees, and clean streets. I’ve moved close to it again but just over the Brooklyn border.
How have you implemented your learnings from your travels into your practice?
I try to be more mindful and intentional with my designs. I take things slower try not to rush. I’ve learned that I need to take time for myself and to be in nature on a regular basis in order to recharge and renew my creativity. I try to push designs to the outer, weirder edges of what they can be and then reign them in when necessary. I do my best to show clients my ideal version of their inspiration so that it’s clear in my work that I loved creating it for them. I believe you can always tell when someone’s heart isn’t in the design and neither the designer or client is pleased with the end product. I try to avoid that at all costs.
Jillian wears the Signature Long Wool Coat
Can you tell us about your work process? How do you begin conceptualizing, designing, and putting together a piece?
When creating things for myself, typically a vessel, venue, flower, or foliage will inspire me. I’ll be taken by a certain branch or vine and the way it grows and want to build an entire piece highlighting it. Or, I will see a vessel and think of the flowers that would perfectly compliment it. Or, I will step into a space and want to create things to highlight the architecture or completely transform it into another world. I’ve always been one to be rather spontaneously inspired.
When creating things for clients, they often come to you with certain inspiration. You then roll with their ideas, the venue, and budget that they have to come up with designs that you both can be excited about.
What is one unexpected item, plant or flower that you’ve included in a floral arrangement?
I love using herbs and fruits! One of my favorites is to use mint as the greenery. It smells so so so goooood! Plus it always looks fresh and jaunty. I also love to wire succulents and air plants into arrangements. It’s a fun way to have something in there that will actually last and grow long term.
Do you have any clever tips on how someone can put together a floral arrangement with a tight time frame or on a small budget?
Anyone can easily have flowers on both a tight time frame and small budget. If you’re in New York, the floral market is open to the general public. Go around 6:30am for a broad selection or later at 9 or 10 for a much lesser selection but some good deals. If heading to the city that early in the morning sounds like too much, swing by your closest bodega that has flowers. At either place, choosing two or 3 bunches of flowers will easily get you 3+ small to medium arrangements. At the bodega, be sure to check the bottoms of the stems to make sure they’re not slimy. They won’t last long if they are. When choosing flowers for mixed bouquets, be sure each variety has a different sized head or texture with at least one large headed statement flower. Also consider choosing three statement flowers that coordinate well for mono botanical arrangements, the easiest and fastest option of the lot. When choosing mono botanical arrangements just be sure to have interesting vases to balance the simplicity of the arrangements.
If you have a local flower shop that sells by the stem, head there for a more sophisticated arrangement. Your florist can help you choose a greater variety of flowers within the bouquet and things that compliment each other well. They can also consult on the amount of flowers and foliage needed for different sized vessels. We love talking about flowers and sharing knowledge with everyone!
In both the city and the countryside, check out your local farmers market. They will always have the freshest, healthiest, and most sustainable seasonal flowers, often in adorable premade bouquets. If they don’t have anything premade, follow the same rule of grabbing a few different bunches of various sizes and textures. Don’t be afraid to use herbs, fruits and vegetables in your arrangements either! It can be a great conversation starter and people love the fragrance of fresh herbs on the table (but be sure the scent will complement what you’re cooking). Farmers markets have gorgeous and interesting produce that should be shown off whether as a centerpiece or in your food. Focus on the weird and heirloom varieties. Things like garlic scape, and on the vine tomatoes add beautiful touches to mixed arrangements.
If you’re not in New York or a big city, walk down your street or drive through the countryside with your shears and stop along the road to pick flowers from the shoulders or public lands. Just be sure to not pick from people’s property without permission or from your parks that are trying their best to preserve the natural ecosystem. Another great option for those with land is to start their own cutting garden filled with their favorite flowers! It’s really satisfying to harvest what you’ve grown yourself.
Imagine your dream dinner set up. What would the theme be? Describe to us the table scene and what the floral centerpiece would look like?
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. The theme would simply be decadence. I’d have a long farm table set up in a field or forest but under a large tree regardless with swagged bistro lights above. There would be mismatched black chairs along each side, the ends unseated. The center of the table will be filled with groupings of tobacco colored taper candles in brass candleholders of mixed heights interspersed with clusters of varying hues of honey and amber naked pillar candles so the wax can run freely throughout the night. I find dripping wax to be very decadent and romantic. There would be gold trimmed black dishes with honey linen napkins, brass flatware, a small raspberry branch on each place setting. There would be several different sized gold bowls of florals, the arrangements spilling out of them in the style of the dutch masters. I would use brambles, dark, deep burgundies, black, amber, and dark ivory flowers highlighting them with black and gold raspberries, grapes, white and red currants, figs, and pomegranates mixed in the arrangements and scattered along the table at the bases of the candles, some of the figs cut open to show their fruit. Everything would be sumptuous and appetizing, the guests unsure of whether they should be eating the decor but certainly wanting to.
If you could invite five guests to the dinner who would they be?
I would invite my mother, sisters, partner, and best friend. I love to cook for those I love but am rarely able to as we don’t live in the same cities. My partner is my amazing sous chef and we love getting creative together especially in the kitchen. Even more so when we make a full dinner party. He and I both highly value aesthetics as we are both designers. I’m happiest when I’m with those five people and can’t imagine a better table full of more laughter.
Spend an evening with us learning how to craft a unique and stunning holiday floral arrangement out of fruits and vegetables. The workshop will be taught by this month's clever crafter, floral designer Jillian Elliott. No prior experience with floral design is necessary. All participants take home a completed arrangement and a kit to continue developing their skills. Limited number of tickets available here.
You can learn more about Jillian by visiting her website or following her on Instagram @perennialvagrant.