Floral legends

From left: Thitiwat Thanonnawanan; Pirun Ngamjunud. (Photos: Pornprom Satrabhaya)

Ken: My father had a small flower nursery, where he grew all kinds of orchids. As a child, I would sneak into the garden and often cut the orchids I liked and arranged them in a vase for the house.

If you've ever wondered who creates the magnificent floral displays, meet the men behind these floral wonders — Thitiwat "Ken" Thanonnawanan and Pirun "Jimmy" Ngamjunud. From gorgeous orchids to seasonal flowers, Ken, Jimmy and their team create bouquets for special occasions, stylised arrangements for your home or stunning floral designs for parties or weddings. Guru speaks to them about their flower power.

When did your interest in flowers and everything floral begin?

Jimmy: My parents owned a beauty salon in Korat, Nakhon Ratchasima. I hated the smell of hairspray and smell of the chemicals used to perm hair. To escape it, I used to go to my aunt's house, from where she ran a small florist shop. Since then I have embraced flowers and their fragrance.

How did you become floral designers for the Mandarin Oriental?

Ken: I started at the age of 19 and I always freelanced. I never wanted to be a full-time employee as I liked the freedom. When I was asked to do an event at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok 12 years ago, I just came to observe and help. However, I enjoyed working here so much that 12 years have passed without me knowing when I became a full-time employee.

I met Jimmy when we worked together at the closing event of the Siam Intercontinental Bangkok, around 18 years ago.

Jimmy: I was a student at Suan Dusit university and I was a freelance and part-time florist at that time. Ken asked me to join the Mandarin Oriental nine years ago.

What inspires these arrangements?

Ken: The lobby flower installation begins with a drawing and a quotation of how much it is going to cost, which is sent for approval to the general manager. Once approved, I have to send a notice, usually two months in advance, to our florists so they can begin growing the flowers or source the flowers for us. The design changes every three months and is inspired by the seasons and its flowers. In the summer, we get a lot of purple lotus, during the monsoons it is cucumber, etc.

I almost always use local flowers like the orchid because the core concept of the lobby installation has to depict the word 'oriental', which is the key element of the centrepiece. I always present only one concept and so far, none have been rejected. I use local florists and flowers from the Royal Project. For our Christmas installation, I usually request the florists to grow the flowers two months in advance.

How long does it take you to create one floral arrangement, especially the one in the lobby? How often do they change?

Ken: We only have five hours to change the lobby installation as the lobby is always busy. Me and Jimmy, with two helpers, work between midnight and 5am to change the installation completely. Though every week, the centrepiece is checked and refreshed, between these hours, too. In 12 years, there has been only one time when we couldn't finish the installation and had to be done the next night.

In normal times, the Mandarin Oriental has 64 weddings a month, especially during wedding season or the 'Golden Month'. That is 2.5 weddings a day at all the venues of the hotel, including the restaurants. Sometimes there are four weddings a day. The Author's Lounge is popular for events and sometimes has two events on the same day.

Jimmy: On such days, we have an hour to change the floral décor, depending on the requests. Since we are just four people, we get help from other departments when the décor is elaborate.

Ken: We do the flowers throughout the hotel, including outdoor catering and events where people want us to supply the flowers.

Where does your inspiration for the installations come from?

Ken: I go through a lot of magazines and annually, Jimmy and I go to the London Flower School to do a course and find out what's new in our field of work. We also learn new techniques. I studied at the Manako Flower Academy where I learnt Japanese, Thai and international flower styles. But that was long ago and since then I have changed my style and am always learning new things.

Jimmy: While at Suan Dusit university, which is known for Thai arts and crafts, I learnt the art of traditional Thai flower arrangements, like the garlands and the krathong using banana leaf. Those are my strengths. We make all the krathongs for the Loy Krathong festival.

What are your favourite flowers?

Ken: I like all kinds of flowers, don't really have a favourite colour either.

Jimmy: My favourite is the lotus, especially the pink or purple ones, mostly because it is my mother's name. The lotus stands for peace, serenity and calmness. The flower, used mainly for praying, can be used in a simple arrangement or in an extravagant one. Also, I can use every part of the lotus in the arrangement.

What are your plans for the new Mandarin Oriental flower shop?

Ken: We get daily requests for flowers, even for small bouquets when husbands want to surprise the wives, etc. We have never had a proper shop where people can come and buy a flower arrangement. This is why we decided to open a retail flower shop. But we are also going to focus on the online platform, as well. We also have many overseas guests who request for flowers to send to their friends in Thailand and this will cater to their needs. They can also pair them with gifts from our gift shop and send them as a package. We also we a lot of requests for funeral wreaths and we shall be offering those, too on the website.

The Oriental Flower Shop is open daily from 10am-8pm. Visit bangkok.mandarinorientalshop.com/collections/the-mandarin-oriental-flower-shop.