A TEXTILE designer who turned her creative eye to flowers has established a flourishing business which offers brides the wow factor in Ripon

FORMER textile designer Joanna Cairns had a lifestyle most people could only dream of, regularly flying to Paris and New York where she worked for top fashion houses including Ralph Lauren. She enjoyed all the perks of a top flight career, but she longed to run her own business, doing something she felt truly passionate about.

Her ‘lightbulb moment’ came when a colleague suggested Joanna, who had grown her own plants in a corner of the family garden since she was a child, should take up floristry. It took a leap of faith to give up a good salary, pension and all the associated benefits that came with her jet-setting job. But it paid off.

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Today, Joanna’s Twisted Willow floristry business, which she launched from a workshop in the shadow of Ripon Cathedral, with the aim of bringing a touch of London flair to Yorkshire flower design, is thriving. Specialising in weddings and events, her years of training in design, colour, proportions and texture certainly makes her work stand out from the crowd. Joanna clearly excels at the sort of classic, timeless arrangements which most brides tend to go for, but there is also a touch of the catwalk-style ‘wow factor’ about her designs. She uses her artistic flair to create breath-taking theatrical showstoppers, including everything from huge, foliage chandeliers and full-sized trees, dressed with candles and lanterns, to circus and wizardry themed creations.

And she particularly enjoys surprising clients with inventive, fun elements, such as confetti-filled waffle cones, distributed in cinema-style interval sellers’ trays, for a couple who worked in the ice cream industry. “It’s about understanding personalities,” she says. “I don’t like themes, but prefer to discuss what inspires someone. Sometimes people need encouragement to explore different things and not go for the obvious. It’s about giving people confidence.”

She created a giant nest, complete with moss, twigs and eggs, for the top table of another couple who enjoy bird watching. “People sometimes come and say they have what they think is a silly idea, and I love that.” She likes to push boundaries where she can: “We tend to get more unusual requests on the corporate side, the bigger and wackier the better. Nothing fazes me.”

Her workshop is a visual showcase. “People planning their wedding can listen to the music, taste the food and try on the dress beforehand. But they won’t see their flowers until 9am on the morning of the big day. We have doctors, lawyers and computer programmers, people who don’t necessarily have a visual aspect to their working lives, coming to us to guide them. So we like to add that little bit more, above and beyond what they are expecting.”

Joanna, 44, was born in Lancashire but her parents eventually settled in North Yorkshire. Joanna went to art college and worked for a textile company in the Scottish borders before eventually landing a job with the prestigious Stephen Walters silk mill in Suffolk. She travelled to New York four times a year to meet with clients and designers, but the pull to return to Yorkshire was always strong. “I’ve been to New York 34 times," she says. "We ate in lovely places with clients, we were spoilt, travelling on someone else’s credit card. It was fun.”

After ten years, she yearned to return home and set up her own business. She spent more than three years gaining the valuable experience she needed, including working in Chelsea for leading florist Mary Jane Vaughan and then for the more contemporary Soho-based McQueens. “I had an amazing time and it was everything I had dreamt of. I loved the insane hours, the chaos, the fabulous teamwork and the scale and drama of everything we created,” she says.

Back in Yorkshire, she worked with other florists before setting up Twisted Willow ten years ago. The business evolved and it was her future husband, painter and decorator Graeme, who persuaded her to move to Ripon eight years ago. The number of weddings Twisted Willow caters for has grown from 11 back in 2008, to 100 this year and the business looks set to continue growing. Although most people spend an average of around £2,000 on wedding flowers, Joanna is increasingly taking on jobs of between £3,000 and £10,000.

Many of her brides are based in far-flung places like Dubai and Geneva, but want to return home for a Yorkshire-themed wedding. Joanna’s initial bridal consultations take about an hour and a half. “There is a huge trend for British-grown flowers and I have small independent growers from round the UK who supply white Yorkshire roses for button holes and Yorkshire flowers for tables. We put Yorkshire tea bags on place settings for a bride other day and I do a lot with pheasant feathers. Another thing that’s very popular is gin. Brides are moving away from rustic jam jars with twine and asking for flowers in local gin bottles instead.”

Hedgerow chic is increasingly popular too. “People want rustic elegance, loose and overgrown, but with high quality flowers like roses and hydrangea and scented stocks.”

The hours can be demanding. “During our busiest times in July and August, we often don’t have a day off for 12 days in a row,” she says. “I’m aiming for more of a work life balance now, which is challenging with two young children but worth striving for.”

Their family home, a modern three-bedroom detached house, reflects her artistic flair and love of colour, particularly her use of a bold, Fired Earth See in the Dark orange in the kitchen, paired with cool Modernist White. “I used to have an orange kitchen growing up and didn’t want beige everywhere,” she says. Elsewhere Joanna has dipped into the Farrow & Ball colour palette: “I enjoy colour, it’s so important and makes a real difference to a room.”

Farrow & Ball’s Mouse’s Back on the stairway has special significance. When they first got together, Graeme painted a screen this colour for one of Joanna’s floristry jobs. “At our wedding, we had a Farrow & Ball Mouse’s Back tester pot filled with flowers on top of our wedding cake. It’s been an important colour in our lives,” she says.

Her own bouquet was filled with long stemmed French tulips, dusty pink roses, burgundy ranunculus, plum hellebores, broom and contorted willow. “It had lots of lovely things, everything I liked. I made all the flowers the day before and we got up on the morning of our wedding day and went for a walk. We broke the rules,” she laughs.

W: twistedwillowfloristry.co.uk

Joanna’s top tips for planning your wedding flowers

1. Start a Pinterest board, it’s a useful tool.

2. Sit down with your partner and a bottle of wine and write down what you want from your wedding day separately. My husband was about the party and I was about the church.

3. Find three keys words to describe the look you’re after – for example, romantic, classic, candlelit, loose , natural, elegant and compact or fairylit

4. Think about your favourite flower, what you do or don’t want included. Did your mum or grandma have flowers in their bouquets you would like to replicate?

5. Don’t finalise colours too soon – prepare to be open-minded. Consider grey or neutral colours for your bridesmaids so that colour can come through in the flowers and other aspects.

6. Don’t get hung up on themes.

7. Choosing flowers is like buying a car – decide on the basics, then wish-list add-ons if you can afford it.

8. Find suppliers you have a good rapport with and can easily talk to.

9. Choose local and understand what works well and what you can get away with at your venue.

10. Enjoy planning your flowers. It’s your chance to add an important layer of romance and prettiness on your big day.