Turning nature into art

For Minoo Hersini, owner of Au Ciel Flowers & More in Irvington, floral design offers solace as well as the opportunity for artistry.

Floral designer Minoo Hersini believes in following where the eye leads and at Au Ciel Flowers & More in Irvington — situated in the Beaux Arts-style former Cosmopolitan Building, high above the Hudson — the eye leads, well, everywhere. As you enter the 3,000-square-foot, terra cotta-colored space, which is girded by a series of Romanesque arches, a round rack of kimono-style baby wear greets you on the right. Farther along, a $600 pink princess plant — so-called for its wide, pink-tinged leaves — holds pride of place on a table filled with succulents. As you circle around the room, the eye falls hungrily on ceramic bowls as delicate as eggshells, leafy necklaces from Portugal and subtly printed yoga mats, bolsters and wellness beads from Yogamere, a company created by Irvington designer Amy Ormond.

“It’s highly curated,” says Niliou Safinya, Au Ciel’s development director and Hersini’s niece.

The door in the floor

One of the most fascinating objects in the boutique is not for sale:  A green door in the floor leads through a tunnel to the Irvington Metro-North station. It’s how Cosmopolitan magazine would get printed copies to the outside world, Hersini says. The domed, colonnaded building was designed by Stanford White for Irvington automobile pioneer John Brisbane Walker, who acquired the magazine in 1889. In 1905, he sold it to William Randolph Hearst, who moved the publication back to Manhattan. The Cosmopolitan Building, as it was known, still stands, however, flanked by a brick addition that obscures its stucco east façade. Also called the Trent Building, for the family who purchased it, the structure is home to a number of artistically inclined businesses, including Au Ciel, which has been at that location for 27 years. (The business began in Scarsdale and remained there for 15 years, overlapping the Irvington site for about eight.) 

While “Au Ciel is known for flowers,” as Hersini says, the lifestyle boutique, which opened in November, was its “Covid pivot,” Safinya adds.

Along with everyone and everything else, the women and their high-end floral design business have had to adapt to the pandemic.

“It’s changed a lot,” Hersini says, referring to event planning, which is closely allied to their work. “It’s one of those industries in which people don’t talk a lot about how much it has changed….There are fewer parties.” 

As we visit at a long table, which appears to be converted from a door, in the office area of the fluid space, the excited eye again begins to wander from a narrow bookcase filled with design books for inspiration to a circular tiered rack teeming with teacups. They were to be used in the Au Ciel display for the 2020 Lyndhurst Flower & Antiques Show, which never took place. The women invite us to take a teacup or two. We select two pale pink, floral-decorated beauties. Later, the women will present us with a bouquet that gracefully illustrates why Hersini has what she calls a “huge following.” The tribute consists of a variety of roses and other flowers in sherbet hues. (Hersini might work with many species of one flower, like the rose, or many shades of one color.) 

There are no fillers — unless you consider the filigree loveliness of hydrangeas to be filler — no foam base. Rather, Au Ciel builds the bases for its arrangements from plant materials. (Some of the centerpieces have even been made entirely of vegetables.) The results are as beautifully, naturally constructed as birds’ nests.

Persian days

For Hersini, flower arranging has a calming, nourishing effect — see sidebar — one that enables her to be a true plant parent.  “I like to see my flowers happy in our place,” she says. It has been this way ever since she was a child growing up in Tehran. There she would gather muscari, the genus name for the conical, purple-blue grape hyacinth that grew by the stream that ran along her house, and bring the flowers into her room. Hersini’s family is Persian, its members’ followers of Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra), whose ancient teachings on monotheism, messianism, the ultimate triumph of good over evil, judgment in the afterlife and free will have influenced other faiths. She remembers celebrating the New Year’s festival of Nowruz — which occurs on the vernal equinox, this year March 20 — “the very moment when the season changes to spring. We leave the doors open, the lights on and the family gathers ’round the table — first the elderly, then the young — for 13 days.”

Persian gardens — based on the idea of paradise, itself a Persian word — are justly famous, their walled, geometric, symmetrical designs, characterized by rilles and pools, having influenced sites ranging from the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain, to the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. (A superb example locally is the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy in Yonkers, home to a Mehregan harvest festival in the fall of recent years.)

It’s not surprising then that Hersini would gravitate to floral design. She left Iran right before the Cultural Revolution (1980-83), which purged the country of Western and non-Islamic influences. An interior designer by trade, she was asked by the wife of an African chief living in Greenwich to design a flower shop for her. Hersini ended up designing flower arrangements as well. Going into business for herself would prove a solace when her mother died in Iran some 38 years ago.

That was the beginning. The future, says Safinya — the go-getting yang to her aunt’s tender, soft-spoken yin — lies in tutorials and other outreach, like Au Ciel’s collaboration with the resourcED flower box program at Blue Hills at Stone Barns in neighboring Pocantico Hills. The business continues to bloom with Valentine’s Day orders having blossomed well ahead of time.

But Hersini looks beyond that: “I wish for flower design to become an art.”

In her hands and with her eye, it already has.

Tips for flower arranging

We can’t all be floral artists like Minoo Hersini. But we can create arrangements that last longer, she says, giving us added pleasure:

  1. Cut the stems on an angle under running water so the stalks will absorb the moisture. 
  2. In placing flowers in a vase of water, “follow your eye and see where the flower needs to be.” If you have a variety of flowers, you might want to place them individually rather than grouping like blooms together.
  3. Make sure to change the water every other day or so, recutting the stems under running water. Instead of five days, you’ll have a bouquet that lasts 10 to 12.

For more, see her tutorials here:

  • Floral Centerpiece Tutorial
  • All-Green Centerpiece Tutorial
  • Centerpieces Made Entirely of Veggies from your Local Store!
  • Floral Statement Piece Tutorial

Au Ciel Flowers & More is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays at 50 S. Buckout St., Suite G105, in Irvington. For more, call 914-591-1136 or visit au-ciel.com.

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