Speaker Profile: Max Gill
Meet floral artist Max Gill, who will join our Slow Flowers Summit as a guest floral designer. Our contributor Myriah Towner shares this fascinating profile
Max Gill is a Berkeley, California-based floral designer and artist. His botanically-inspired aesthetic informs his designs at Max Gill Design where he offers full floral services for weddings, special events and private clients such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and Lauren McIntosh. Inspired by what he observes in the natural world, Max’s practice is distinguished by his reliance on specialty blooms and botanical rarities gleaned from local growers and nurseries, and his own cut flower garden in North Berkeley.
“I’m largely inspired by what I see taking place in the natural world, be it in my own garden, out on hikes or any time I’m in nature when I see how the little botanical dramas are unfolding around me.”
Max is a talented artist recognized for his work at famed Chez Panisse where he has designed flowers for more than 10 years. His studio Max Gill Design, which he launched in 2005, has since blossomed into a successful business with notable clients and includes a portfolio of both weddings and editorial work. With a background in sculpture, painting and art and theater history—it is easy to see how Max weaves these varied disciplines that take the stage together in his floral design artistry. His career in flowers began unexpectedly, though, when a friend asked him to do flowers for a wedding.
“It was a heartfelt coming together,” says Max as he describes the wedding that got him his start in the industry. “I had a whole lot of fun and I was super compelled by doing the flowers. I should also say I had no idea what I was doing; it was horribly underbought and I had to run around the neighborhood cutting fennel fronds under the highway. But I found my spot, you know.”
At the time, Max was a Chemical Engineering major at UC Berkeley, and also was unsure of his future but this experience with flowers eventually led to him meeting his first floral mentor. “I had been wondering where I was going to put myself. I was bartending at the time and mentioned the [wedding design] experience to a bar customer and he introduced me to my first mentor, Ariella Chezar, who is one of the best,” says Max. He adds: “After meeting Ariella and being introduced to her staff, all the freelancers and other flower people—I could see flowers being my potential career and my community, too. They are like-minded people and there seems to be a through-line in my experience. Ariella also made me aware of the apprenticeship at Chez Panisse and I worked for three years under the house florist, Carrie Glenn, who designed the restaurant's flowers for 34 years. I inherited the account after she retired and that was 15 to 16 years ago.”
Max’s style, which he continues to refine, is deeply influenced by his practice of taking cues from natural process. “I’m largely inspired by what I see taking place in the natural world, be it in my own garden, out on hikes or any time I’m in nature when I see how the little botanical dramas are unfolding around me,” says Max. “I’m particularly drawn to this when I see the struggle for resources, be it a vine wrapping up a branch to reach the light or how a steady constant wind affects a tree’s growth habit. I appreciate how a plant fights for survival, which creates its character. I try to emulate those overall silhouettes or how parallel lines are created in that effort — in my arrangements. In placing my materials, I try to honor the way that they occur in nature. So I rarely place branches upside down, I keep them rightside up. Wedding work is a different creature, but left to my own devices, I like to minimize the elements and colors I use in my arrangements. I find the most compelling work to be one where I get to explore different spatial relationships between fewer items. Similar to nature in any vignette you don’t see 15 different things growing in one place, so I try to capture a moment in time in my arrangement.”
Drawing inspiration from photography, painting, dance, theater and set design–Max’s style is certainly informed by his creative process which begins with a similar minimalistic approach and the main goal of telling a story with the flowers. “Very often it begins with one element,” says Max. “I have to make a distinction between what I do for myself and what I do for private clients and weddings. More and more these days, I am not necessarily asked to come up with an overall wedding design as much as I'm contributing the vision of either the client directly or the planner indirectly who approaches me with a moodboard with a particular theme or sensibility. For clients or personal work, it very often starts with one element that is having a moment; something that gets my attention, be it a bucket of flowers at the farmers market that is particularly perky, or something happening in my garden that’s super beautiful, such as one of my clematis starting to open up. Or, if I’m at a nursery and I discover a new varietal or color that I’ve never seen before, I’ll grab that. I’ll then think about what role that element plays in an arrangement and the other components that I need to include and what’s available to me that creates the same feeling as the initial inspired moment. I keep my palettes in a pretty narrow range unless it’s wedding work. I like there to be super subtle transitions.”
Max also informs his work by seasonality and what is available locally as much as he can in both his work with private clients and for weddings. He sources local around 70 to 80 percent for his client work and 100 percent from his own garden and beyond for his personal inquiries. This philosophy will be reflected in some of his upcoming projects that are bringing him joy right now including a collaboration with local ceramicists for a new collection for his inventory, and an installation with a local shop owner. “I get to play with achingly beautiful pieces and with what’s seasonally and locally available and curate it through the space and I’m excited to think about how people will experience a space overall, so that’s fun.”
As for advice for newcomers into the industry, Max encourages them to be kind and self supportive. “First of all congratulations. There’s a through line of people who do this work and are compelled by this work and there’s a lot of bravery and indifference between doing this in your kitchen and doing it to share with people in a broader context, and it’s a really vulnerable place,” says Max. “So I really applaud anyone who is willing to take that risk and have their own back when they’re going into this. My advice is not to underestimate what a profound thing it is to share this gift with others where people will walk by and have opinions about it all day. Be kind, and be self supportive around that and make yourself wide open in that way.”
Slow Flowers welcomes our 2021 Summit contributor Myriah Towner. Myriah is a storyteller and producer. Her work has supported the production of virtual reality storytelling and nonfiction shorts for African/American: Making the Nation's Table - the nation's first major exhibition to celebrate Black farmers, chefs, food and drink producers and their contributions to American cuisine. As director/producer, she is leading a legacy project, Black Farmer Stories, which leverages multimedia storytelling to document and preserve the history, legacy, cultural heritage and agricultural knowledge of Black farmers across the U.S. through storytelling. She has developed and produced podcasts for the Emmett Till Project and the Schomburg-Mellon Humanities Summer Institute series. Her editorial work has been published in Street Fight, The Content Strategist, The Newcastle Chronicle & Journal, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail and Mail Online.