Before we know it, it'll be cool enough in our homes to have dinner parties and invite people over for the Holidays. But even if you
live in a shoebox just want to dress up your apartment for your most hygge/lagom/ikigai life, flowers help. We spoke to Brooklyn-based ceramist and floral arrangement whiz Linda Bui, the brains and the hands behind ma đam, about how to dress up even the most basic, store-bought bouquets—and how to stay inspired while working a 9 to 5.
Food52: First things first: How are you dressing up your apartment this autumn?
Linda Bui: Fall is my favorite season, so my home tends to naturally lean on an autumnal palette. But with the (hopefully) cooler weather arriving, I am seeing more dahlias, cock’s combs, berries, and artichokes (!) at the flower market. I also like to use dried flowers or plants, as it creates a rustic look (and lasts a lot longer). We have lots of pampas grass all over the apartment. Grass is very easy to work with, and you can just throw it in a vase and place it in your entrance way, in a room's corner, or as a centerpiece.
I dabble in candle making, so I’ve created some soy candles with scents like fig leaves, sandalwood, and firewood. I’m also planning to look for more woven textiles for my walls, table settings, napkins, and runners. More bourbon and whiskey have been added to the bar collection, too. I can’t forget that.
Food52: If you could nail down 3 essential tips for arranging flowers beautifully, what would they be?
LB: 1. Pick or buy fresh flowers, and make sure to change the water every day to keep bacteria from forming. This helps your arrangement last longer.
2. Experiment with different structures and shapes. Just because you see perfectly organized arrangements, doesn’t mean that it’s the “right” way to create a beautiful arrangement. I love organic, alien-looking structures that are a bit messy but still beautiful—things that do not go together at first but suddenly do. [Use] lots of textures and colors that aren't just flowers—grass, fruits, dead or dried flowers and leaves.
3. Don’t take it too seriously. Beauty is so subjective, and tastes changes from person to person. My arrangement might seem strange to some and beautiful to others. I’m happy as long as it’s interesting to me.
F52: How would you dress up your typical bouquet of roses, say one from a bodega or a grocery store?
LB: I would advise you to grab some greens or foliage off the street to add a little “oomph” to the arrangement. It makes everything look fuller and more filled out. My favorite is using eucalyptus because it smells so great and does well with almost anything. You might find some great things in your kitchen as well. Sometimes I like to add rosemary, sage, or mint in my arrangements. They can act as beautiful greenery, and smell so delicious!
F52: What inspires you?
LB: Being outdoors and in other cultures. My husband and I love traveling; since we live in New York, we try to stay away from major cities. Whenever we get a chance, we love going upstate and being surrounded by plants. Iceland was one of the best [places we traveled]; the textures and colors were amazing, [like] we were on another planet. I lived in a small prefecture in Yamanashi, Japan, for a while, and appreciate the deliberate methods in Japanese culture.
F52: Why the name ma đam?
LB: The name ma đam is a French-influenced word that the Vietnamese borrowed. I chose it because I wanted to use a word that is relevant to my culture and represents something for me. The word can be used as a title of respect when speaking to an older woman, especially one of distinction. There's a stereotype that women hate getting older, but to me, getting older means that you become more confident, know who you are, and stop worrying about the little stuff. The word could also be interpreted as a title for a woman in an artistic occupation.
F52: How did you become interested in juxtaposing ceramics and flowers?
I’ve always been interested in greenery, so I had an apartment full of plants. When I ran out of space, I started to look at flowers. To learn, I took some classes on floral arranging and worked at a flower shop on the weekends. And then one day, I attempted it on my own. After I started working in the real world, I found myself missing a creative outlet, so I signed up for pottery classes and it really took a hold on me. I fell in love with the process of creating something tangible.
As to marrying the ceramics and flowers together, I thought to myself: For an arrangement to be a piece of art, it needs a great vessel, not just a glass jar (though there is nothing wrong with a glass jar). Plus, a ceramic vase lives forever, even when your stems have moved on, and you can always add more florals. I really like the idea of presenting and gifting something both ephemeral and permanent.
F52: Tell us about how ma đam started.
It wasn’t really planned. I was making arrangements and vases for myself, posted some photos, and friends started to ask me to make some for them as gifts. I got questions about selling my ceramics and I always thought, “No, this is just a hobby.” Once enough people were asking about it, I thought maybe I should actually try this. So I created a website on my spare time, and now I guess it’s a business!
F52: What advice do you have for folks trying to start or maintain their artistic pursuits while juggling a 9-to-5?
Don’t be discouraged to take on a little more, especially if it’s something that might improve your life. I love working in supply chain [management], as my mind tends to be more logical and operational, but having [this] creative outlet makes me feel more fulfilled. Without both, I would always feel like there is something missing. It’s definitely challenging at times to balance both, [but] just keep pushing through. If you're truly passionate, you'll find that time. Plus, there is something about building something that is your own that drives [you] a little more. I’ve really learned that with this particular project.