The duo behind MartinRoberts Design split their time between studios in Kauai, Hawaii, and San Francisco, California, creating modern weddings by the sea. Casey Sparks and Dode Martin greeted Kirk Reed Forrester with a warm “Aloha!” from their studio in Hawaii and treated her to a peek at the mechanics behind their floral magic.
flower: How did you both get into the flower business?
Dode Martin: I’ve always been interested in flowers, but I went to school for business. Once I got out in the business world, I realized I’m not a suit-and-tie kind of guy. I had a friend who worked in [floral design] and he asked if I wanted to help him work on a wedding one weekend. I ended up helping him and it snowballed from there. I got my start working for him in Dallas, and then I went to Chicago. After a few years, the business world started tugging at me again, so I moved to San Francisco and started my own design company. I traveled to Hawaii to do a friend’s wedding a few years ago. I’d never been there and I fell in love with it immediately. That’s what happens in Hawaii. Then I worked for eight years cultivating the business so that I could keep the San Francisco office open and start the studio in Hawaii. I love everything about the business, but what I still enjoy most is the time spent alone in the studio making something beautiful.
Casey Sparks: Fortunately, Dode was taught by some of the best florists in America, and when I joined the firm six years ago, he taught me everything he knew. Dode and I make a good team; we work off of each other and expand each other’s creativity. We have a great group of freelancers who work with us as well.
Do you have a particular philosophy or approach to floral design?
CASEY: Whenever we talk to a client, we like to listen to what their goals are first, understand the basics, and find out whether they have flower likes and dislikes. Once we understand their needs, we come up with a plan. That usually involves getting creative, looking out for trends in the flower world and, of course, figuring out a color palette. That’s where our strengths lie. When we’re given a vision, we’re really able to make things pop. As far as design philosophy, I’d say it’s very involved and absolutely collaborative. The first step is having a great conversation with a client and finding out what really inspires them.
DODE: I grew up in Texas, surrounded by wildflowers, so I’ve always approached design from a natural standpoint. I like to let the flower speak for itself. There’s a deliberate, considered approach to my work, but it’s natural.
As florists working in Hawaii, you have amazing flowers growing literally right outside your door. What are some of your favorites that you find yourself using again and again?
DODE: There are some things that have become signatures in our studios. We all gravitate toward a flower called Tropic Fleur—little parrot beak, orange and pink heliconias. We keep them around the studio like other florists keep greenery!
CASEY: I like the more exotic types like Cymbidium and Lady Slipper orchids. Dode loves classically romantic flowers—roses, hydrangeas, and tulips, though he also loves Anthurium, which grows wild here. It’s interesting because people comment quite often on how we mix our arrangements of tropicals like orchids andAnthuriums with more traditional flowers like roses. It’s surprising to them, but it’s elementary to us. As far as we’re concerned, if it looks good, use it.
When you’re designing for a wedding, how do you begin?
CASEY: Because we’re in Hawaii, a lot of the brides don’t have the luxury to pop into the studio, so the first meeting is usually over the phone. We try to get an understanding of how big the wedding is going to be. Is the wedding formal or casual? Color is a very important question because you can go in several directions based on color. Some people might not have the color scheme picked out, but they give us little pieces of information. They like bling—glass, crystals, and precious stones—or they like natural materials like raffia, lahala (a tropical version of flax leaf), and bamboo. We take that and run with it.
DODE: I think I start with their style. Do you like tropical flowers? Do you like roses? You can narrow it down real quick from there. After getting a feel for their style, I’ll ask about colors and specific kinds of flowers. I spend a lot of time finding out what flowers they don’t like. To me, that’s just as important as finding out what they love.
Now, tell me about this wedding in particular.
CASEY: The wedding took place in June. The bride was from California, so most of our conversations were over the phone until she arrived for the wedding weekend. It was an intimate destination wedding – just under 50 guests. The bride knew she wanted pinks and greens, which we introduced in bouquets, centerpieces, boutonnières, and on the bamboo arch. She also wanted to define the spot on the lawn where she and her fiancé would take their vows, so we created a bamboo arch with chiffon draping.
It’s a gorgeous spot for a wedding.
CASEY: Yes. It’s a popular venue called the Hawaiian Romantic Cottage, a beautiful piece of property on two tiers of land. There’s a massive upper lawn with a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Then you take a curvy staircase made of lava rock to the lower lawn where the ceremony was held. We’ve done quite a few weddings there.
Tell me about your designs for the reception.
CASEY: After the ceremony, guests walked up the stairs to the upper lawn into a big tent. We did a long, banquet-style table with fine linens and used our Chiavari chairs. We arranged river rocks down the center of the table in a natural pattern that ran much the way a river would. Candlelight was important to the bride, and we also wanted to pull in water elements, so we floated a number of candles in vessels and dotted the table with loose orchids. We hung large Japanese lanterns throughout the tent in the bride’s chosen colors, so the whole look was natural yet really pulled together.
What are the challenges of outdoor weddings and how do you plan in advance for them?
CASEY: I have to say that, with most outdoor weddings (and I’d say 97% of our weddings are outdoors) even if there is a chance of rain, in the tropical climate the rain comes and then, after three minutes, it passes. We rarely have to move a wedding inside – fortunately! With this wedding, the bride wanted a tent for the reception just in case. In fact, during the reception it did start to drizzle, but the sound of the rain on the tent ended up being very romantic and calm. And after a few minutes the drizzle stopped and the most gorgeous rainbow showed up, right over the ocean.
Are you noticing any emerging trends in floral design over the last year or so?
CASEY: In the last few years, people wanted color and boldness, but recently we’ve seen a return to white.
DODE: I also think people are getting a little bored with the “roundy –moundy,” perfectly symmetrical look. People have a desire for change and so they’re going back to a more geometric, high-style look from the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s more architectural, more striking. Instead of a little round, perfectly even arrangement, they’ll want something with depth and strong lines. I say lets add some spikiness; let’s add some interest. I’ve always leaned toward doing flowers with depth, using different heights and lengths. It gives an arrangement a greater sense of color and shape. It’s like I’m going for the contours of the moon versus the contours of a ball bearing.
What makes Hawaii such a special place and why do you think so many people choose it for weddings?
CASEY: There’s just a natural beauty to this place. Everywhere you go it’s green. That’s why it’s called the “garden island.” You have all the beautiful flowers you want and everywhere you turn, you’re within moments of white sandy beaches and beautiful water. The weather is almost always 80 degrees, and you see a rainbow at least once a week.
DODE: I think there’s a certain romanticism about the South Pacific. And in today’s world, it’s a safe, yet exotic place. There’s a real allure to the islands too, especially for weddings. But for me, it’s the blue ocean. And, of course, you can’t beat the flowers. Literally you just stick something outside here and it grows.