A STEP down into Ronaldo Maia's floral design shop is an escape from a bustling city street to a garden-like haven. Spring flowers - colorful stems of primrose, anemone, daffodil, tulip, ranunculus, orchid - are sheathed by galax leaves and bits of moss. The balmy scent permeating the room is his potpourri fragrance of the day - Judith Garden. "Mystery of the African queen of the Nile lily," the plaque describing this scent reads.
Mr. Maia is finishing a consultation with two elegantly dressed clients, who have been discussing decorating their Manhattan apartment. The ladies come from Spain where artificial or dried flowers are in vogue.
"For me, it's hard to imagine a home without fresh flowers," says Maia. "That is a home without a soul."
Born and raised in Brazil, Maia has been in New York creating and setting flower trends for more than 20 years. He's published two books that most professionals, novices, and students of the art rely upon. His clientele consists of many of the city's most famous hostesses and celebrities, and he frequently travels to Europe and South America for special weddings or parties.
Maia feels his greatest accomplishment has been to change the trend in flower arranging to more natural-looking creations. Mechanical, stiff, wired flower arrangements - where the flowers don't budge no matter how rough you are with them - and arrangements that are "mashed instead of massed" are thorns in his side, he says.
He draws inspiration from nature and spends a lot of time watching the way flowers grow in gardens, in the wild, watching how trees and bushes form and grow, and how flowers act once they've been cut and placed in water. His design philosophy is simplicity with an element of surprise. With a puckish smile, he says, "It's exciting to present something unexpected that causes you to look again for things you did not see at first."
This all helps in choosing the proper flower and the container. "A tall flower like a sunflower or delphinium looks better in a tall vase," he explains. "Flowers that have short stems, such as lilies of the valley, look better in smaller containers. Massive flowers like cockscombs require a deep bowl or basket to balance the weight.
"I think that an arrangement is a marriage between the flowers and the container. If you have your own container, you should find the perfect flower for that container. That means that as well as look good, that flower will have the proper amount of water to live in. For example, you cannot give a one-inch container to a tulip, because it will drink the water in two minutes and a tulip will grow even after it's been cut."
Maia says that decorating a home or creating arrangements for a party of two or a party of 2,000 demands the same amount of attention. He usually holds two preliminary meetings with clients just to get the mood of what the client wants. Then, he considers many elements: the period design of the home, the space, and the colors and textures the flowers will blend with. Does the space call for a tall vase or a low bowl, something long and low, or something above eye level so it doesn't interfere with conver sation?
Sometimes one needs to balance a piece of art with an arrangement of flowers, he says, or a client may have an antique piece they'd like to display flowers in.
Maia's all-time favorite arrangement is a single flower in a vase. It affordably offers many possibilities for people to have flowers in every room of their homes, if they wish.
"Often small gestures open large doors of feeling. Sometimes in the morning we feel blue, but not for long if there's a flower on the night table or next to the bathtub to look at you when you wake up. And one flower on a breakfast table - or tray if we are very lucky - will warm up the heart and fill the eyes with beauty," he writes in his latest book, "More Decorating With Flowers" (Henry N. Abrams Inc.).
He also has strong feelings about what he doesn't like or flowers he considers to be cliche in the business. "Gladioluses I don't like very much. I look at them and there is nothing to do. Cala lily - a flower that I find so boring, a disaster. Carnation - I sometimes use, but it's difficult." And, rather than use the standard leather leaf fern that every florist includes with a purchase of two roses, Maia makes use of greens like bear grass and galax leaves.
Maia's signature is the galax leaf. It is an almost round, shiny leaf about the size of a gardenia, with a fairly long shelf life. Maia uses them to separate the flower from the container. Gesturing with his gold-ringed fingers, he says, "Galax is a part of me, like your fingers, your nails, they are part of you. If I don't use them in an arrangement, something is wrong for me. If I need to do a large party, I fly with them in my pockets."
For table arrangements, Maia often clusters vases containing only one flower, or staggers them with votive candles wrapped in galax leaves down the center of the table.
Another effect he likes for tables is combining fruit with flowers or placing stems of flowers inside fruit or vegetables. An example would be to place a single rose or freesia in a pear; a daffodil or amaryllis in an eggplant, a nosegay of roses in an acorn squash, primroses in a head of cabbage, or as shown in his book - lace flowers inserted in moss-covered test tubes and poked into artichokes and apples.
One thing Maia can't abide is a candle stuck in a floral arrangement. He says it's his practice to have 10 inches of space between the flowers and candles. "If I am sitting at a table, and I see a flower burning, I have to go. It's a disaster to see that poor thing cooking and dying."
Maia says he's happy to see his natural style catching on and that people are using his books. Inspiration can be found almost anywhere, he adds.
"I can use the same vase for 20 years and I can do 20 different arrangements. There's no same flower; no same stems; never two things alike. That's the beauty of the work I do."
Maia advises would-be arrangers to observe nature and study art books and beautiful works of art in museums. "The key that turns inspiration into creation," he writes, "is to do better something that was done before...."