Former White House floral designer to give talk on Wednesday

October 19, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Cathy Miller, a former White House floral designer, stands with a replica of one of her White House designs. She'll be at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts to share her floral knowledge.
Submitted photo

For almost 30 years, Cathy Miller walked the halls of one of the most famous residences in the world — the White House.

She met presidents and first ladies and knew many staffers by their first names.

She made her way through most of the 100-plus rooms and left a lasting impression everywhere she went.

You could say she brought her own sense of power to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Flower power, that is.

During the course of five administrations, beginning with Jimmy Carter and ending with George W. Bush, Miller served as a dried floral designer.

Completely self-taught, the New Jersey resident never imagined that she would land such a prestigious job.

But after winning several top gardening awards, she was featured in a six-page spread in a magazine, which caught the eye of the chief floral designer at the White House.

He had been looking for a more efficient way to decorate the many rooms throughout The White House and, in 1979, invited Miller to create several dried arrangements.

He liked what he saw and the rest is history.

After several decades of working in Washington, D.C., Miller is now back in the private sector, writing books and presenting flower arranging demonstrations across the country.

She will be sharing her talents, along with some of her memories of the five presidents and first ladies she worked for, when the Hagerstown Garden Club presents a champagne reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

There also will be a raffle of one of Miller's award-winning arrangements.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the museum.

As a child, Miller said she never would have predicted a career centered around flowers.

Instead, many thought she would be a musician, following in the footsteps of her mother, who was a concert pianist.

She played in her first recital at the age of 7 1/2 and continued performing on stage into her late teens.

But, besides music, Miller had another love: flowers.

"My mother loved to garden, so I was exposed to this at an early age," she said. "In addition, my Grandma Catherine was a super gardener and I loved spending time with her in her garden. She would teach me the names of the many flowers that she grew."

Miller's interest in flowers continued to flourish into adulthood, especially after she married and settled in Wyckoff, N.J., where she joined the garden club.

 "To my amazement, I found I had a natural ability to win blue ribbons for my floral arrangements," she said. "The big payoff came when I entered the New Jersey State Flower Show and won the show's creativity award for my own homegrown dried flower design."

That creation caught the eye of the garden editor of Family Circle Magazine, Miller said, and, "accordingly, I was signed to prepare an article on the art of drying your garden flowers, including samples of dried arrangements.  This article was seen by the then-White House flower designer, who asked me to come to Washington, D.C., with two sample dried arrangements."

Miller said he was delighted with her work and "told me they looked just like real flowers. In addition, since my arrangements would last for five or more years, they could help fill up all the many rooms in The White House."

This would be the first time that dried flowers were used so extensively in The White House.

"They provided me vases and pointed out the places I was to fill with my dried designs," she recalled. "I completed some 62 creations for five presidents — from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush."

After decades of working in The White House, it's only natural that Miller would have stories to share.

While she created many arrangements, "two of my largest and most striking designs flanked the entrance to the Oval Office during the Reagan administration," she said.

Bill Clinton had many allergies, Miller noted, including one to all flowers. So she sealed her arrangements under glass to prevent reactions.

But when it came to White House residents who really knew their flowers, Miller said it had to be Barbara Bush.

"She was the best gardener. She also had large gardens at their Maine home," Miller said. "In addition, since we shared the love of gardening, she loved my book, 'Harvesting, Preserving and Arranging Dried Flowers,' and endorsed it."

Working in The White House has given Miller a touch of celebrity, and, to date, she has been featured in 49 magazines and has made 32 television appearances, including the Discovery Channel.

But she especially enjoys meeting other flower lovers and sharing ideas.

Her program at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts will include fresh fruit, vegetables and fresh flower designs, including a fall arrangement, she said. The event will conclude with a replica of one of her White House dried flower arrangements.

Miller often escapes to her 33-acre upstate New York farm near Coopers-town, where she grows all of her own flowers, enabling her to recommend the best varieties for successful drying.

Regardless of whether you have a talent for floral design, Miller said, she encourages people to enjoy the beauty of Mother Nature as often as possible.  And if you listen to a little music while you're outdoors, all the better.

"I firmly believe that flower and music lovers live fuller and happier lives," she said.

If you go ...

What: Champagne reception and floral demonstration featuring former White House floral designer Cathy Miller

When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24

Where:  Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, City Park, off Virginia Avenue, Hagerstown

Cost: Tickets are $30 and include champagne, heavy hors d'ouevres and the floral presentation. 

CONTACT: To purchase tickets, call 301-739-5727

Submitted photo

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