Maurice Harris Is a Superstar

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Every few days, the florist Maurice Harris goes to his local Home Depot in Los Angeles to get supplies for renovation projects that rarely have anything to do with flowers. “I have a bachelor’s degree from YouTube University,” he joked, of the how-to videos that taught him to install a kitchen sink and pound decomposed granite into the ground.

He has rented an Echo Park house for 16 years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that he actually spent much time in it, and improvements, and the Home Depot trips, were necessary. So much felt heavy, and he wanted his space to feel good.

Mr. Harris, 38, is the founder of Bloom & Plume, a luxury floral studio that has become a springboard for him as a multidisciplinary artist, businessman and entertainer. He designs floral installations and arrangements for global brands and high-profile clientele; runs a community coffee shop; and is, most recently, the creator, producer and witty star of a new Quibi show, “Centerpiece,” in which he interviews black multidisciplinary artists, including Maya Rudolph and Jeremy O. Harris, and then interprets their creative processes as floral installations.

Image“Beauty is one of the communicating tools that allures people to think about something differently,” Mr. Harris said.
Credit…Samuel Trotter for The New York Times

Mr. Harris calls his aesthetic “natural opulence.” His floral arrangements are characterized by elements that don’t make obvious company (a pine next to an anthurium, for example) and they look as if held together by magic. Though the high-end flower landscape is dominated by muted palettes, Mr. Harris works with colors that are unapologetically bright — sometimes neon — popping through layers that evoke something different every time.

The undone quality of his work — what he calls a “wild” contrast to pavé arrangements that dominated floral design until the early 2010s — was not in vogue when Mr. Harris started a decade ago.

“I grew up in L.A., there are florists everywhere,” Ms. Jones said in a phone interview. “They’re all kind of the same. So I took a deep breath when I saw an arrangement from him, because I’d just never seen anything like it before. He’s not trying to fit into anybody’s idea of what that aesthetic is supposed to be.”

Bloom & Plume was born in 2010 after Mr. Harris was laid off from a job dressing windows at Juicy Couture. He had graduated from Otis College of Art and Design and grown up in Stockton, Calif., one of four children.

He always wanted to be a designer and started rearranging his mother’s furniture at age 7. “I’ve always been trying to make spaces more beautiful,” Mr. Harris said. “I went with flowers because it was an untapped medium.”

He met the clothing designer Jenni Kayne in 2009 and eventually started arranging her brand’s window dressings and her home florals. She introduced him to a circle of connected women in Los Angeles who became his clients. “I think there’s a movement to his florals that most don’t people have,” Ms. Kayne said. “They feel sculptural, almost like they’re dancing.”

That’s intentional. “It wasn’t until I took a dance class that I understood what it meant when someone gets the Holy Ghost,” said Mr. Harris, who once taught at the Sweat Spot dance studio in Los Angeles.

His father is a Baptist pastor, and church still informs Mr. Harris’s work. “My black identity was basically developed in church,” he said. “I would get buried in gospel music. I love it so much.”

But, Mr. Harris said, he has spent much of his life as a gay man at odds with that music’s greater institution. “It was very clear to me, very young, that my parents weren’t here for it, my community wasn’t here for it,” he said. Many of his family relationships have since evolved. (His mother, a former minister of music at his childhood church, plays a gospel organ on “Centerpiece.”)

After working with Ms. Kayne and her friends, Mr. Harris started attracting celebrity clients, though he balks at the suggestion that his proximity to fame is the most interesting thing about him. “I was talented before Beyoncé sat on my sofa,” he said, when asked about the star, who posed with his florals at the “Queen & Slim” premiere last year.

But with the growth of Mr. Harris’s business came an uncomfortable tension. “I’m making these beautiful things that I couldn’t afford myself, and there’s something weird here,” Mr. Harris said. “Capitalism and creativity and who owns it.”

“I’ve been keenly aware of me failing to be a rich person,” he said, laughing. “I’m in all these homes, and at a certain point I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can merchandise my refrigerator and go to the farmers’ market and get all these cute little ceramic bowls to put my fruits and vegetables in.’ And then I was like, wait — what?”

The act of negotiating multiple realms meant finding mediums for expressing himself. “I don’t have a lot of clients of color, but a lot of people of color follow me on Instagram,” Mr. Harris said of the platform, where he is known to anthropomorphize his arrangements. “People were interested in what was going on here, but don’t necessarily have access. I’ve tried to find ways to give entry points for people to feel comfortable. I’ve always thought that beauty is one of the communicating tools that allures people to think about something differently.”

His thoughts around access to creativity led to the 2019 opening of Bloom & Plume Coffee, a bright, color-drenched cafe next to his floral studio in Filipinotown. “I wanted to create a transformative space that gave people access to the magic that we create,” he said of the business, which features community programming like dialogues about the George Floyd protests.

“Maybe you can’t afford one of our arrangements, but you can come and see the beautiful flowers in our space, and coffee is a luxurious experience,” he said.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the shop waits in takeout-and-delivery limbo. With his brother, the shop’s co-owner, Mr. Harris applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans and was approved for $25,000, which he stretched to pay his staff of seven. Because of the recent surge in support for black-owned businesses, the shop had seen the number of people served daily jump from about 90 to 300, a shift Mr. Harris hopes isn’t a short-lived trend.

But the business has little savings and “our space is set up for people to be in community,” Mr. Harris said in an interview in May. “For people to connect. For people to feel seen and be seen. And now is not the time for that.”

“The way that capitalism is structured is not made for small businesses to win,” Mr. Harris said. “It’s not made for people who don’t come from money to win — which in turn usually means people of color, black people, are not set up to be successful.”

Credit…Samuel Trotter for The New York Times

In 2015, Mr. Harris started a photography series called “The Color of Fear” that grew from his attempts to process the volume of black people who die at the hands of police.

“Mind you, I’m in all these crazy 1 percent homes and I don’t know how to negotiate what I do versus how I operate in the world,” he said in our first interview, in February. “I was raised around a lot of white people, so I know how to code switch in a seamless way. And it was an interesting moment for me to be like: I feel like if I saw a black dude in a black hoodie, I would cross the street, too. Because I’m gay, and I feel like the only people who have been overtly mean to me were black people. I had to question my own prejudice against myself, my own homophobia, all these different things.”

By May, when we spoke again, protests were erupting across the country over the killing of George Floyd. “It’s hard not to feel like my existence doesn’t matter,” Mr. Harris said, sitting in his car in the Home Depot parking lot. “Taking a pick, violently driving it into the ground and digging ditches was a productive way to deal with my rage.”

Control and impermanence were concepts he’d been thinking a lot about lately. (Flowers’ short life spans had prepared him somewhat for this.) Ten years of dogged work had produced a small staff for his studio, a robust clientele, a creative space and a TV show.

Now, the future was in question, and the fragile balance of creativity and commerce with which he’d always grappled had come to the fore. “It’s heartbreaking because I feel like we were on the brink of something quite magical,” he said.

He could build a sought-after brand, but that didn’t mean his business would necessarily weather an unprecedented health crisis. He could devote his creative platforms to celebrating blackness, but he couldn’t stop the murder of black people.

“I can’t control that people think my life is less valuable than theirs,” Mr. Harris said. “So I try to counter that reality with letting go. And flowers are such a beautiful expression of that — they aren’t forever, you can’t hoard them, so you have to be in a constant state of evolution and letting go.”

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