Through the art of ikebana, designers commune with nature by creating seasonal flower arrangements.
By Laura A. Brandt | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Adherents of the Ohara school generally use low, flat arrangements called moribana (“piled-up flowers”) to represent landscapes. Although still considered formal, the style features shorter-stemmed Western plants set in shallow containers. The design above, by Mayumi Goto-Sutton, blends Japanese iris, hydrangea, and red dahlia blooms with blueberry and hosta foliage in a long, narrow, and rectangular ceramic vessel.
Ikebana—roughly translated to mean “bringing flowers to life”—is a Japanese form of flower arranging that dates back about 1,500 years, to the floral offerings that ornamented sixth-century Buddhist shrines. While Western and European floral designs often showcase symmetrical masses and colorful shapes, ikebana uses blossoms, branches, grasses, and leaves to represent seasonal beauty. Minimalism is a characteristic of ikebana, and in some cases a single branch can be the entire arrangement.
In the 15th century, ikebana shifted from its original religious function to a more domestic practice, as people began adorning the alcoves of their homes with seasonal flowers. The spirituality with which this art originated, however, continues today: Ikebana artists strive to deepen their relationships with nature as they work to transfer outdoor beauty to indoor spaces.
Lynn J. Lee, who holds a teaching certificate in ikebana while continuing to study with more-experienced practitioners, considers this mode of arranging to be a form of meditation. “It helps you connect with nature and communicate with flowers,” she says. “Life is short, and ikebana teaches us to cherish every moment.”
One formal style within the Ikenobo school—the oldest and most traditional of ikebana schools—is characterized by a strong vertical leading line, such as a main branch that may symbolize heaven. Patrice Smith’s arrangement includes bird of paradise with a hosta leaf and St. John’s wort in a ceramic Ikenobo container.
Three Schools, Many Styles
Although ikebana encompasses more than 3,000 design schools, or philosophies of arranging, three major styles predominate: Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu. Each school of ikebana has distinct rules that determine the placement of plants. The angles, lengths, and heights differ, as do the containers used.
The following arrangements, representing the three predominant styles, were photographed in August 2015 at the fourth annual summer exhibition of Ikebana International Philadelphia Chapter 71, held at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.
Sogetsu, a more modern, abstract, freestyle approach to ikebana, emphasizes line, color, and mass and the use of seasonal materials. The design may include any plant material in any container. In Lynn J. Lee’s freestyle arrangement above, bright lilies and mums are complemented by philodendron leaves, crabapple stems, and driftwood branches in a tall ceramic container.
Five Steps to Sogetsu
Lynn J. Lee, a teacher and follower of the Sogetsu school of ikebana, offers these general hints drawn from her practice.
1. Include three basic elements in an arrangement: line (which guides the viewer’s eye; can be either straight or curved), mass (the grouping of flowers), and color.
2. Study color theory to discover pleasing combinations and contrasts. A design can be one color or multicolored.
3. Use seasonal materials. Dried and bleached materials, berries, and even imperfect leaves can be included in winter. The beauty is in the balance and harmony of the arrangement.
4. Be creative with containers. You don’t need to spend a lot; flea market finds and household items, such as teapots, bowls, glass bottles, and baskets, can work.
5. Embrace minimalism and negative space. In the design philosophy of ikebana—and in life—less is more.