When customers walk into Chris Geoghegan’s Moss Modern Flowers for the first time, they may well ask, “Where are the flowers?”
The flowers are there, in a cooler towards the back of the store, but what greets the eye of customers when they first enter are things like weathered antlers, porcupine quills, pheasant feathers, moss, a coil of rope in a glass jar, a wasp nest, sea shells, buffalo teeth, a wild boar’s tusk, pine cones, a cash box from India and a German missionary cross.
These “elements,” as Geoghegan calls them, have several things in common. She might sell them individually or may use them in one of her floral arrangements. Almost all of the elements are old, worn and marred in one way or another. Most are in hues of gray or brown or tan.
Customers will not see row after row of uniform, brightly colored flowers. Instead, what is on display are such elements as a 2-foot, partly decomposed, gnarly piece of wood which she picked up in the woods somewhere. The whole store has an understated feel to it.
The reason Moss doesn’t look like your average flower shop is because Geoghegan practices an aesthetic called Wabi-Sabi. Leonard Koren, who wrote the book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, explained it this way:
“Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional. …”
The word “Wabi,” he writes, denotes a kind of beauty that is “seemingly-paradoxically caused by just the right kind of imperfection, such as an asymmetry in a ceramic bowl, which reflects the handmade craftsmanship, as opposed to another bowl which is perfect, but soul-less and machine-made. ‘Sabi’ is the kind of beauty that can come only with age, such as the patina on a very old bronze statue.”
“When I’m making a flower arrangement,” said Geoghegan, “I want it to look like I had just picked the flowers from the garden. Flowers aren’t perfect. It won’t look contrived or symmetrical or forced. We don’t do symmetrical well at Moss. I don’t think anything in life is that symmetrical. Nature is never contrived.”
Unlike in the West, she said, where florists tend to make an arrangement conform to their plans, “When I’m making an arrangement, I let the flowers kind of speak to me. I work very intuitively. Even if we had to make 20 arrangements for an event, none of them would be cookie-cutter copies of the others. They would complement each other but each one would flow and be its own entity.”
Instead of trying to hide asymmetry in a flower or a scratch in a piece of wood, the owner of Moss tries to find the beauty in the flaw and celebrate it in her arrangement.
That is often also the aesthetic of her regular customers.
“They are drawn to the very primal things in my store,” she said, “like a rock or a stick in their simplicity without me changing them. They embrace the Wabi-Sabi lifestyle.”
She also applies Wabi-Sabi principles to the small-scale landscaping work she does outside the store.
“When I do small landscape design for people,” she explained, “it’s never forced. It’s always the way it would have grown in nature. I would never plant a garden in straight little beds but rather sort of throw the plants out to the wind and plant them wherever they land.”
She demonstrated by taking a piece of moss from the cooler. “Moss,” she said, “is one of the oldest pieces of floral in the world. It’s so simple, yet so beautiful, but we often take it for granted and dismiss it.”
We dismiss it, she contends, because it is so simple, so everyday. It’s like an acoustic guitar compared to one that’s amplified. On a crowded thoroughfare like Madison Street, you have to be paying attention to notice and appreciate moss growing in a crack in the sidewalk.
“I think a lot of customers who ‘get me’ are not walking around with blinders on,” she said. “Their eyes are wide open, grasping all the simplicity and nuance around them. In Western culture, people are so frantic and in a frenzy with everyday activities that we don’t stop and pause and just take note of the wonderful things that are around us — something like your child’s smile or tears or your neighbor waving to you.”
Sometimes people come into her store for the first time and ask if she just opened recently.
“I tell them I’ve been in this same location for seven years,” she said. “The point is that people are so involved with their technology these days, but when you are receptive and open your eyes, you begin to notice things in your own neighborhood, which you might have walked by in the past.”
Wabi-Sabi for Geoghegan is not just an aesthetic but also a philosophy of living. To honor and appreciate the kinds of things in her shop as well as her floral arrangements, therefore, people have to be able to see the beauty in things that are flawed. The beauty is in the imperfection.
“Let’s face it,” she said, “people are always trying to change their appearance. I’ve had gray hair since I was in my early 20s, and I have never colored it. Rather, I’ve embraced it and see my gray hair as beautiful. I don’t want to change myself like I change clothes or disguise the way I am. I want to celebrate and embrace the way things truly are.”
The music collection at Moss Modern Flowers is another window into the “spirituality,” if you will, of Geoghegan’s approach. The CDs she plays include the music of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century mystic, sacred chants of India, an album by Amy Winehouse, Gregorian chant, and Beethoven. “We do not play heavy metal here,” she said with a laugh.
Geoghegan thinks it’s “pretty cool” that she has been able to stay in business for 10 years, the last seven at her present location, 7405 Madison St., which she bought when Quitsch Florist closed. She’s thankful for more than simply surviving in an economy that challenges all small business owners, however.
“I have a certain point of view that I want to share with people,” she said, “as a subtle reminder to bring them back in and appreciate the simplicity of the world.”