In full bloom | For native Milwaukee floral designer Michael Gaffney, life is just a bed of roses

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

Michael Gaffney’s friends thought he was a little crazy when he wanted to stay in New York after visiting the city for only a few days. Gaffney was on a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee field trip at the time. He got off the bus with his fellow UWM students, but he never got back on.

“I had a duffle bag, $200 in my pocket and I didn’t know a soul,” says Gaffney, a West Allis native. “I thought I had landed in Oz.”

The year was 1980. Gaffney has gone on to make a big name for himself in the world of floral arrangement. Today he’s considered one of the country’s pre-eminent floral designers and teachers. His New York School of Floral Design at 131 W. 28th St. is one of eight schools that he runs nationwide. 

Gaffney has appeared on national television, including “The Today Show,” to demonstrate his celebrated skills. His designs were featured in the film “The Black Swan,” and he’s one of the authors of “Design Star: Lessons from the New York School of Flower Design.” 

Gaffney will soon begin a regular column on design and wedding planning for The Huffington Post. In July, he’s providing $8,000 in floral arrangements and bouquets for a Midtown wedding in a Fifth Avenue penthouse across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The blushing bride, he says, is a “Milwaukee girl.”

But Gaffney’s initial move to Oz was hardly a stroll through Central Park. He landed in the cubicle of a Wall Street commodities broker where he made daily calls to banks around the country, prodding them to wire money to cover their daily trades. He quickly found that even Oz has its share of drudgery.

After a few years, he returned to Milwaukee intent on finishing college at UWM, a process he’d begun in 1976. The plan was to obtain a degree in finance, then return to the Big Apple to continue his Wall Street career. But fate intervened.

As a part time job, Gaffney drove a delivery van for Baumgarten Krueger, one of Milwaukee’s premier florists. When he went to turn in his keys the day before leaving for New York, his employer presented him with a request that changed his course in life.

“They said, ‘OK, but help us with this floral design first,’” Gaffney says. “I said, “I’m not a floral designer,’ and they said, “You are now.’”

It only took a short time for Gaffney to realize how prescient the florist’s comment was. He stayed one extra day, then another six days. In the short space of that time, he became hooked on the career that has occupied him for the past 23 years.

“I realized that flower arranging was something that had a craft aspect, a learned technique and patterns,” Gaffney says. “It was something I could do and I didn’t have to be the most artistic person because it’s all technique.”

In fact, the majority of successful floral designs are based on one of 24 repetitive design patterns that occur again and again, no matter what the flowers, the design or the occasion, Gaffney says. Master those patterns and instant design expertise follows.

“There is very little creativity involved in our jobs,” Gaffney says. “Anyone can do this. That’s why my students never fail.”

The schools, which began in Milwaukee in 2003, grew out of repeated requests by garden clubs and other groups for lessons in floral design. His very first class, boosted by a full-page advance article in a local newspaper, was an immediate success.

“I had a sold-out crowd,” he says. “My only problem was that I didn’t have enough chairs. My friend said that was a nice problem to have.”

Schools were added in different cities at the rate of one per year. Gaffney’s biggest surprise was the kind of students who crowded his classes.

“I thought I was going to have groups of bored housewives wanting to make floral arrangements for dinner parties,” he says. “But I routinely got professionals who were tired of their jobs and said, ‘Now it’s time to do something I really want to do.’”

Gaffney, whose home base is his school at 1718 N. First St., travels regularly to teach at each of his schools, including locations in Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and Miami, as well as New York and Milwaukee. In June, he’ll appear at two different Hallmark Home & Garden Shows in L.A. to share the tricks of his trade.

Gaffney gets a thrill out of watching his students’ careers blossom. “My mother was a teacher and I have developed a real appreciation for it through what I do,” he says. “Teaching is an art form, a skill, a delicate walk in the park and a balancing act.”