116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
How does a girl from a small, rural town in the Pacific Northwest grow up to become the chief floral designer at the White House?
She works hard, does her homework and applies for a job she doesn’t think she has a chance of getting.
It’s a bit of a modern fairy tale, one with a happy ending, for Laura Dowling.
Dowling, who now lives in Old Town Alexandria, Va., will be talking about her career, her books on floral design and White House state dinners during a Friday, Sept. 10, program hosted by the Cedar Rapids Garden Club.
Only a few tickets remain for the lecture, luncheon and book signing at the Cedar Rapids Country Club, a fundraiser for the club and its civic endeavors. Dowling was to have been the speaker at last year’s luncheon, which was canceled by the pandemic.
Dowling’s floral designs show “an appreciation and understanding of nature,” Garden Club President Kathy Smith said. “To create her masterpieces, she incorporates fruits, vegetables, grasses, vines, pods and many other materials, not just flowers. We are thrilled to welcome her to Cedar Rapids.”
Dowling, who worked at the White House from 2009 to 2015, grew up in Chehalis, Wash., and earned degrees in political science and public administration at the University of Washington in Seattle. She worked as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill and then as a policy analyst at the Smithsonian Institution and The Nature Conservancy.
And then she went to Paris in 2000.
“I fell in love with the flowers there,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful, so put together with such panache and style and emotion. You could feel the poignancy, the power of the artistic touch. I decided I had to learn how to do this.”
Landing the job
Dowling kept her day job at The Nature Conservancy but spent her free time in Paris, taking flower classes, including ones at L'Ecole des Fleurs.
Back home, she was “dabbling” in the flower business, working out of her basement kitchen, creating occasional arrangements for weddings and for her friends when, in 2009, the job of chief floral designer at the White House opened.
“My husband said, ‘I think you should apply,’ ” she said in an August interview with The Gazette. “I discounted the idea. I had experience, but not at the level typical to apply for a job at the White House. I also thought those jobs are never ‘open,’ that you have to know someone. But my husband (Robert Weinhagen) kept pressing me, so I sent a letter, never expecting to hear back.”
In that letter, Dowling’s experience as a policy analyst was on display.
“I talked about the opportunity to connect flowers to Mrs. Obama’s policies, to connect to the White House kitchen garden she’d started, how flowers could be a strategic tool to communicate a new approach,” she said. “And, lo and behold, I was one of 17 finalists. It shocked me.”
Then came a round of grueling interviews at the White House, where Dowling said her main goal was not to faint.
She didn’t, instead becoming one of three finalists. She did her homework. She read President Barack Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” studied Michelle Obama’s style and read about how Jacqueline Kennedy, in her time as first lady, took European style and made it American — “a more casual, garden style.”
In October, she returned to the White House for a four-hour competition, where the three finalists had to design arrangements for a state dinner, the Oval Office and the Blue Room.
“It felt like a reality show,” Dowling said, with each finalist working in a separate room.
Dowling chose India for her state dinner. Inspired by the peacock’s significance in that culture, she designed a vivid green tablecloth with gold place settings and fuchsia flowers — and a small brochure explaining her use of colors and symbols.
At the end of the timed competition, the first lady came in with her entourage and a photographer.
“We had a lovely discussion about her style and the possibility of flowers,” Dowling said. “With the orange flowers in the Oval Office arrangement, I said if the president added some blue, it would be like the Chicago Bears were there. She said, ‘He would really like that.’
“We talked about how to use flowers to create a warm, welcoming ambience, which is what she wanted — for the White House to feel open to all, the people’s house.”
Dowling got the job — “I sometimes ask myself how did that happen” — and a heads-up that her first state dinner was in three weeks.
While in the White House, Dowling further developed her idea of “floral diplomacy” — the art of honoring visiting dignitaries through floral symbolism.
“Lots of people just think of flowers as decorative,” she said. “But if you look at how each culture uses flowers, what they mean — I saw the impact flowers could have on diplomacy, on personal relationships.”
She had three assistants to help her execute her designs at the White House and a host of volunteers, a program she expanded during her tenure. One year, the volunteers collected maple leaves in the fall to turn into rosettes.
“We were always on a budget, and flowers were repurposed from one event to another,” she said. “We tried to do more with less, use recycled items.
“Flowers are a luxury but a long-standing White House tradition, carrying out both diplomatic and strategic themes while adding beauty and style to the ‘People’s House.’ For the families who live there, the flowers help make the White House a home.”
After Dowling left the White House, she traveled and began writing books — “Floral Diplomacy at the White House” was followed by “A White House Christmas,” a holiday, she said, that is “a year-round proposition” there, with more than 50 trees to decorate.
Dowling’s latest two books have been “how-to” ones on wreaths and bouquets. Her next book, she’s thinking, may be on interior design and flowers.
Dowling also went through the five-year process of designing the 2019 holiday stamps — a series on wreaths — for the U.S. Postal Service.
The six years since her White House experience, she said, “have been really rewarding. What’s fun now for me is to share my story and allow people to think about what’s possible. I grew up in a Washington town of 5,000, very rural, with farming and logging.”
She also gets to share with her audiences the point she made in a 2016 TED talk:
“With beauty and optimism, … we can elevate our spirits with flowers, create a sense of optimism and hopefulness in very difficult times in a complex world. That’s the power of floral diplomacy.”
Purpose: Stimulate a love of gardening and restore, improve and protect the environment
Community projects supported: Indian Creek Nature Center, Monarch Research Project, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids Public Library Living Learning Roof, Connect CR at Cedar Lake, West Side Rising Memorial, The History Center, Mercy Hospice House, and Cedar Rapids city parks