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AIS Exibition Toolbox/Design Tutorial

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Design Tutorial

Iris Designs - Fun, Easy and Worth the Effort - by Jean E. Morris


Part I - Introduction and Design Instructions


I believe most people don't attempt making a design because they have never been given clear, simple instructions on how to do so and therefore, are afraid to try. Without instructions a person may not feel comfortable creating their first design and may even be fearful of criticism. Also, perhaps the effort spent entering their stalks in the Horticulture Division leaves them very little extra time and energy on the morning of the show.

Well, yes; but with a bit of planning, some inexpensive equipment and a simple method of building a design, you can still participate with little time to do so. I remember making four designs in twenty minutes and they were all presentable. A beginner might require fifteen minutes per design if the needed materials and equipment are at hand.

While there is enough written about design to keep one reading for a lifetime, let's jump in feet first, put the cart before the horse and learn to do a "line-mass" design (the traditional type seen at iris shows) in Four Easy Steps.

But first, a word about equipment, as this will be necessary for your success. You will need a container, easily found at garage sales for a dollar or two. If the container is deep you will need a block of Oasis (brand name). If your container is shallow you will need a pin holder (also called needlepoint holder) and some Stickum (brand name) to secure it in your container. Stickum has a bubble-gum consistency and comes in a coil, but if you don't want the whole package, a florist will sell you a foot of it. Buy Oasis (be careful not to get the harder foam used for artificial flower arranging by mistake), a couple of pin holders (about $3 each) and your Stickum at a store such as Michaels or Hobby Lobby. I prefer Stickum over "florist's clay" as it is more dependable and does not release its grip. Some people refer to a pin holder as a "frog." This is not technically correct as a true frog is made of glass and is not at all useful in this type of flower arranging. You truly need Oasis, or a pin holder with Stickum.

Stickum is inexpensive and reusable. To use it, pinch off four or five inches and make a donut of it along the outer underside of your pin holder. Place in a clean, dry container, push down and twist slightly. This will set your pin holder securely in your shallow container. Now add water. To use Oasis, cut to fit your deep container snugly, push in and add water.

It might be easier for beginners in your club if someone were assigned to purchase a box of design equipment in advance of your show and have it available for club members to use. Why not spend $20 to ease the way for some new designers? Also, designers need not have grown the irises they use in design (as with Horticulture entries) so perhaps club members could donate a few extra iris stalks for the designers.


And now, let us continue with "How to do a Line-Mass Design in Four Easy Steps." Begin with step 1 and complete each step in order. *Line material should be vertical, for the most part as horizontal lines interfere with "rhythm" (the ability of your eye to flow through the design unimpeded). If there are horizontal branches or leaves on your line materials, use scissors to trim them off or shorten them.

STEP 1 - Put in 3 pieces of "line material." *Line material can be branches, stiff greenery or even a non-plant item such as metal wire, fairly vertical in nature but not ram-rod straight as a rule. Have a yardstick on hand and carefully cut each piece of line material before placing it in your container. Too much sticking and unsticking can loosen your pin holder or put too many holes in your Oasis, so think before placing. To help determine length of your line material, pay attention to your background (if any) and the maximum height called for in your show schedule.

Papa Bear (or "sky") is the name of your tallest piece of line material. It is usually 1 ½ times the height or width of your container, whichever is greater. But if there is a background, cut the tallest piece of line material so the tip will end up about an inch down from the top of your background once you have inserted it in your container. Place "Papa Bear" in the center and a little toward the back of your pin holder or Oasis. You may want to use a pencil or other stiff object to poke the initial holes in your Oasis and then insert your line materials. Stand "Papa Bear" up nice and straight, though your line may curve slightly to the left or right.

Mama Bear (or "man") is the name of your second-tallest piece of line material. It is usually 2/3 the height of the first piece of line material and placed so it curves in the same direction. Place it beside "Papa Bear," either on the left or right but very close, almost as if it is "growing" out of the same point (this is important).

Baby Bear (or "earth") is the name of your shortest piece of line material. It is usually 1/3 the height of the first piece of line material and turned so it curves in the opposite direction. Place it on the other side of "Papa Bear", again real close at the bottom, as if it is "growing" out of the same point. *Line material should be vertical, for the most part as horizontal lines interfere with "rhythm" (the ability of your eye to flow through the design unimpeded). If there are horizontal branches or leaves on your line materials, use scissors to trim them off or shorten them. Bareket

STEP 2 - Repeat that line with irises, using a tall bud or smaller flower for "Papa Bear," a medium sized flower of medium height for "Mama Bear" and a large short flower for "Baby Bear." Be sure to make your "Baby Bear" iris quite short with very little stem showing once it is inserted in your container. These three irises should be quite a bit shorter than the line material and placed just in front of each corresponding line material, "Papa Bear" in front of "Papa Bear," "Mama Bear" in front of "Mama Bear," and "Baby Bear" in front of "Baby Bear." This is what is meant by "repeating the line." If the design is very tall, 5 irises may be used. Place the first 3 irises as directed above, then turn your container around and place the other 2 irises on the other side of your design. Turn your container to its original position and continue with the next step.

STEP 3 - Add additional flowers (not irises) if desired. This step is optional. Look for empty spaces and add the flowers there. To add depth to your design, face some of these flowers sideways and toward the back.

STEP 4 - Add several (or in some cases one or two) leaves around the bottom of your design to hide your mechanics (Oasis or pin holder). Hosta is good. Sedum works well. Some ferns are good but others wilt. Magnolia leaves hold up. These materials should be picked in advance and soaked ("hardened") in a bucketful of water overnight.

That's it. You are done! Don't forget to fill out an entry tag. With practice, you will learn to throw together a respectable design in five minutes flat!


Part II - Judging Particulars (also update in Judges Handbook 2021)


All art depends on the "Principles of Design." Flower arranging is an art, so a designer will need to study and follow these principles. Adherence to the Principles of Design accounts for 35 of the 100 points that can be awarded by the Judges. The Principles of Design are as follows:

1) Balance - The look of stability. To achieve balance, imagine a vertical axis and place an equal amount of visual weight on either side. Then your design will not be top-heavy, one-sided, bottom-heavy or lop-sided. Balance may be symmetrical or asymmetrical.

2) Proportion - The total amount of plant material in height, width and depth used in relationship to the container and design placement. One-third container to two-thirds plant material is considered pleasing. Proportion also relates to the harmonious relationship between colors, shapes and textures in the design.

3) Scale - The size relationship of individual parts of the design to each other. This means the flowers and other plant material should be of relative size to each other and with the container. Also any accessory should not be too large or small in relationship to the design itself.

4) Rhythm - The presence of a dominate path which your eye follows unimpeded, when you look at the design. This may be achieved by repeating a shape, color or line direction. Using small to medium to large, or light shade to medium shade to dark shade of the same basic color, creates rhythm.

5) Dominance - The use of more of one kind of color, line, shape or texture than another. Keeping your design simple usually makes one thing stand out. This is dominance.

6) Contrast - The use of difference. This can be light and dark, large and small, rough and smooth. Contrast is needed, but be careful of too much contrast as it can be overdone.

7) Unity - This is an additional principle included in the AIS Judges Handbook. To create unity, try to make your design express one dominate idea. Reading your show schedule will help you decide how to accomplish this.

Following is the complete scale of points used by the AIS for judging designs:

Conformance to Schedule …... 10 points Design
  • A) Balance …......... 5
  • B) Proportion …..... 5
  • C) Scale …............. 5
  • D) Rhythm …......... 5
  • E) Dominance …... 5
  • F) Contrast …......... 5
  • G) Unity ….............. 5

subtotal …......................................... 35 points

Color Use …..................................... 20 points

Creative Expression (originality) ….. 20 points

Distinction ….................................... 15 points

Total …........................................... 100 points

Conformance to schedule is important. Read your design schedule carefully paying close attention to the design rules. Remember to provide the requirements called for in the class. If the class has several requirements and you fail to meet one or more, some points will be deducted for this.

Creative expression includes originality in the interpretation of the class and also in the use of materials by the designer. The clear communication of an idea to the viewer of the design, rates high. The use of a 3" X 5" card to explain your design, will help the Judges with interpretation. A list of the materials used in the design may also be written on this card.

Distinction includes condition of materials, marked superiority and a neat, clean effect. The successful control of your mechanics also adds to your design's distinction.


Part III - Hints and Suggestions


1) Don't keep adding, adding, adding to your design. Keep it simple.

2) Containers often help carry out the theme of a design. However, they should not be too "busy" or overly decorated. White containers should be avoided in most cases as one's eye tends to go straight to them. This is not good as it is the design itself we want people to look at. If you must use a white container, always use some white flowers or other white materials in it. Avoid shiny containers (silver or polished brass) though pewter and antique brass are fine. If a container is decorated on one side, turn the decoration toward the back before making your design. Crystal containers should be avoided (except for "underwater" designs) as the stems will show and are unattractive. Expensive or irreplaceable antiques should not be used.

3) If the schedule says "feature water," use a low, flat container and devote 2/3 of the surface area to water. The design may be placed to the side or in the corner of the container if you like. Stage your design, then fill the container to the brim with clean water. A spotlessly clean container eliminates floating debris which is unattractive to Judges.

4) If the schedule calls for fruits and/or vegetables in or with the design, do not cut them. Doing so might attract flying insects, so this is a good rule.

5) If the schedule calls for a table design, your tablecloth should be wrinkle-free. One fold, lengthwise is allowed. Roll your tablecloth over a thick tube or hang on a suitable hanger to transport to the show. Tablecloth overlap should be 12" to 18". Use no flatware in functional tables, just plates, glasses or cups, napkins (with or without napkin rings) and perhaps another functional item. Your design may be placed in the center or corner of the table. Check your show schedule to see if height requirements differ for the two placements.

6) If the schedule says "show motion," this may be achieved with line material that sweeps to one side, with a vine that twists, with curvy branches, etc. While there is no actual motion in these designs, motion is inferred by the materials used, causing the viewer to imagine "twirling dancers" or "a windswept valley" or whatever the designer is striving to convey as he or she interprets the class.

7) Remember, artificial flowers or greenery (even fake berries) are forbidden. The emphasis is on fresh plant materials. Some classes call for dried materials and they are permitted unless otherwise specified. Dried materials may be dyed or painted but fresh materials may not be treated, dyed or painted. This means no "green" carnations like you see on St. Pat's day, as these have been sprayed or dyed. Also, do not place dye in the water you use if any fresh plant materials are in it.

8) Don't use endangered plants in your design (the National Garden Club Judges keep a list). Also, no taxidermy specimens or actual live animals (such as goldfish) to help carry out a theme. This is considered "cruelty to animals."

9) While you should make an attempt to hide your mechanics (Oasis or pin holder) don't overdo with too many leaves around the bottom. Painting your pin holder to match the inside of your container makes it less obvious. Cutting your Oasis shorter than the lip of your container makes covering it easier, however if desiring to insert plant material downward, you must bring your Oasis up high enough to do so.

10) An accessory is something used in a design other than plant material, that plays a supporting role. Remember, accessories must not dominate. They are permitted in any design unless the schedule states otherwise. If you use an accessory, make sure it adds to the design. Put it in a place where it will help the rhythm if possible. Don't place it in a front, center location; place it to the side. It should fit in with the mood or help carry out the theme of the design. Accessories should not be over 1/3 the size of the arrangement. On the other hand, don't use a tiny, tiny accessory. Either situation would be an error in scale.

11) Placing your design on a base can add visual weight to the bottom and help the rhythm. This is especially beneficial if your container is thin. Wooden bases are available in several styles and colors at Michaels and Hobby Lobby for $5 to $10. A tile, tree slice or piece of slate may also serve as a base. Mats made of various materials may also be placed under a design if the schedule allows them.

12) Avoid placing a big, round flower (such as a zinnia or mum) in the front, center of your design as it looks like a bull's eye. Judges consider this a major fault.

13) If the schedule calls for a "Line Design" or a "Design in the Oriental Manner," use fewer materials. Follow the "Four Easy Steps" as above, but reduce the number of irises used. You may choose to skip step 3 and use only 1 or 2 leaves in step 4. Your design will appear "skimpy" and the line will stand out. Choose an Oriental style container or just one with clean lines.

14) If the schedule calls for a "Mass Design" use more materials. Follow the "Four Easy Steps" as above, but build the design with height, width and depth. Group colors (important) and 3 to 4 kinds of plant materials to create rhythm, keeping darker colors lower and to the middle of the design. Leave only a few small spaces in the design.

16) As you become experienced, try making a "Creative Design" which is sometimes called for in your show schedule. These designs are more advanced and sometimes the container is dominant over the plant materials. Creative designs allow the designer more leeway with the placement of the materials. The design may have more than one focal point, and usually less plant material is used. Consider how to use your design space in a new way. Experiment and have fun. Your imagination is a key ingredient.

17) If you have a patriotic theme or your schedule names a certain country, resist the temptation to use a flag in your design. It is not allowed. Carry out the theme some other way. You might want to use the flag's colors in your design.

18) In most cases, the irises in your design should be all of the same variety. If this is not possible, use colors as nearly alike as available. The exception would be when your schedule states otherwise.

19) If you use a big, bold piece of decorative wood, use big, bold irises in the design. Don't use small delicate flowers with something so heavy looking.

20) If your container is a bit too tall for the design in it (remember, 1/3 container, 2/3 design) and your proportion is thrown off, try placing some of your material so it hangs over the edge of the container, drawing the eye down.

21) Conditioning (hardening) your plant material so it doesn't wilt at judging time is very important. Carry a bucket of warm (yes, warm) water out in the garden with you when you select greenery. Cut materials and immediately plunge them into the water. Fill the bucket full and place it in a cool, dark draft-free place for 12 hours or overnight. Cut materials in the late evening or early morning. Some plants don't condition well. You will learn which plants are dependable.

22) Handle all irises very carefully. Don't lay them down or bump them. The materials in your design should be fresh, clean and in good condition.

23) If you want to use a container that does not hold water or if you use decorative wood or rocks and want your design to appear as if it is "growing" out of your staging space, purchase an "aqua cup." They are available at some florists and at most botanical garden gift shops. They can cost $10 - $25 depending on the size and consist of a heavy weighted cup with a built-in pin holder. You can make your design right in the aqua cup and "hide" it behind your wood or rocks, or place in inside your "leaky" container. If you do not want to spend the required amount for an aqua cup, a good substitute may be made with a pin holder stuck inside a tuna can. It won't be as easy to use as it is not weighted, but you will find it very useful. The tuna can may be spray painted if it is very shiny or another color is desired.

24) A few weeks before your iris show, wash and air dry your containers and locate and clean all of your design equipment. Make certain your pin holders are securely stuck in your containers. Pack everything in a box so it is ready to go - containers, extra pin holders, Stickum, Oasis, small wood picks, thin wire, orchid tubes, scissors, pruning shears, knife, 3" X 5" cards, entry tags, decorative wood and rocks if called for, and any accessories you plan to use. Tour your garden and make a list of materials you plan to cut for your designs.

25) Study your show schedule very carefully. Note the height of your design backgrounds, if your club uses them. The tallest thing in your design may come down ½" to 1" from the top of the background for every foot of background height. Pay attention to the width of the background as well, or the staging space allowed for your design. Do not exceed your space.

26Try out a new product called '3-D Memory Zots,' available at Hobby Lobby for less that $5. The half-inch size works well for sticking down various design items. Aqua cups can be stuck to a table with these. They even work in the place of Stickum. Use three on the underside of a pin holder. Remember, your container must be dry for them to stick, so add the water later.


Part IV - Writing a Design Schedule

This task is pure fun! It's even more enjoyable if you have a friend to bounce ideas off of. Almost any theme can be carried out with success so ideas are unlimited. Before you list the main theme title and the classes in your show schedule, you need to list the "Rules for the Design Division" and also the "Design Awards." Include trophy names and qualifications if your club awards design trophies.

Following is a list of design rules and awards. Your club may have a shorter or longer list as everyone does things differently. However, keep in mind that certain information is vital to your designers.

For preset show schedules and an extensive list of design theme ideas please Click Here

Rules for the Design Division

The theme of the show is "________________________."

One or more irises must be used in each design and the iris or irises must provide the dominant interest. Irises and other materials used, need not have been grown by the exhibitor. There should be emphasis on fresh plant material in each design. Each design must be the work of one individual. Only one entry is permitted to an exhibitor in each class. *Entries are limited to four (4) each in Class 1, 2 and 3. Youth classes (4 & 5) may have 6 entries or until backgrounds run out. Youth classes may be divided by age. Entries should be registered in advance with (Design Chairman's name) by calling (telephone number) or by e-mailing him/her at <________________> by (specified date). If not registered in advance, entries will be accepted if space is available and in the order of arrival. No use of artificial/plastic flowers or foliage is permitted. Accessories are permitted unless otherwise stated. Dried or other natural materials (rocks, shells, etc.) may be used in all classes. Bases, mats, drapes or underlays are permitted but must be furnished by the exhibitor. Backgrounds, pedestals, tables and other staging equipment will be furnished by the club. Every effort will be made to protect the property of those entering designs. However, the ___________ Iris Society will not be held responsible for any loss or breakage. Entries will be accepted from _ PM to _ PM (evening before the show) and from _AM to _ AM (morning of show). National Garden Club Judges will judge the Design Division and the decision of the Judges is final. Awards will be withheld if not merited. Judging is from _ AM until __AM on (day of show). The show will be open from _ PM until __ PM on (day of show) and entries must remain in place until (close of show - list exact time). Exhibitors (must/may) list on a 3" X 5" card the plant materials used in design along with a brief statement of interpretation to assist the Judges in their understanding of the design.

*Filling adult design classes with 4 entries in 3 classes is needed to qualify as a NGC "Small Standard Flower Show." When a club offers 3 adult design classes with 4 designs in each (for a total of 12 designs) NGC Judges receive "credit" for judging your show. It is a courtesy to NGC Judges to meet these minimum requirements, but this is not an AIS rule. If your club does not pre-register designers, omit this information in your design rules. Clubs may offer more than 3 adult design classes, if desired. Limiting designs to 4 in each class has advantages. It expedites design set-up, and improves background and staging management. It also gives the show a neat, balanced look.

>Design Awards - AIS ribbons will be used.
  • Class Awards - One first, one second, one third and one honorable mention will be given in each class, if merited.
  • Best Design of Show - Large rosette awarded. Note: A "Best Design of the Show" award will be given if there is a first place ribbon in the Design Division in classes that are qualified.
  • Design Sweepstakes - Large rosette awarded to the exhibitor with the most first place ribbons. Note: "Design Sweepstakes" is awarded to an exhibitor who has won at least two first place ribbons. In the event that two or more exhibitors are tied, ties will be resolved on the basis of second place ribbons won, and if necessary, upon the basis of third place ribbons won.
  • Best Youth Design - Small rosette awarded.
  • Youth Design Sweepstakes - Awarded to youth with most first place ribbons in Design Division (at least two first place ribbons must have been won for small rosette to be awarded.).
  • "_______________ Trophy" - Awarded for Best Design (or other) by a _ Iris Club member at the (early or midseason or late) Show. This is a traveling (or keeper) trophy.
"Popularity Award" (as voted by show visitors). Awarded to designer with most votes from show visitors (list award/trophy/other prize).



Part V - Examples of Materials and Staging Ideas

As mentioned earlier, line materials may consist of branches, stiff greenery or non-plant items such as wire. Most people will be making their designs in the spring as designs at fall shows are rare. Greenery in your spring garden may be putting up new growth and may not yet have attained suitable height for line material. This is certainly the case at the time of early shows.

Forsythia, certain magnolias, spirea, red bud and other flowering shrubs or tree branches work well as line materials. If you feel the branches have too many flowers on them, remove some of them. Evergreen branches and holly may be used if they fit your theme, but they usually need some pruning and clipping. Decorative wood and dry tree branches can be reused each year if you handle and store them carefully. Wood can be found along streams and lakes or in other outdoor areas. It sometimes needs to be cut and mounted on a base so it is free-standing. Pussy willow, corkscrew willow, Harry Lauder Walking Stick, bamboo and ginko limbs make nicely shaped line materials. Cut a cross at the bottom of the branches so you can insert them more easily into your pin holder, or wrap a wad of hardware cloth around the bottom if the wood is too hard to cut. The hardware cloth should fit in the pin holder. Turning an additional pin holder upside down on a portion of the hardware cloth may help anchor a "difficult" branch. This is called counter-balance. Branches can also be mounted on a base. Various seed pods can work well for line. Even gourds can be used, especially those with long necks.

If you vacation in tropical areas, look for palm spaths or other interesting materials to bring home (as long as it is legal). Certain tropical materials are sold at florists and hobby shops. Be careful to purchase only natural materials (nothing artificial). Vines such as wisteria and thornless blackberry can be very useful in designs.

My favorite green line material is spuria iris foliage. While it has not yet grown to sufficient height for most iris shows, it is excellent for late shows. Bearded iris foliage, and also that of Siberian, Japanese and Iris pseudacorus make very good line materials. Most daffodil foliage is stiff enough to use and it often has a lovely twist to it. Cutting a small amount of it will not harm the bulbs.

Certain decorative grasses work well. Other ideas are peony bloom stalks with most of the leaves trimmed off, leucojum (snow flakes) and "winter onions." Horsetail fern (Equisetum), if you can find it, is very interesting. Vegetables or fruits, if they fit the theme, may be used (remember, no fake ones). Fruits (such as lemons) may be elevated to various heights by using skewers.

Don't forget house plants. I was never fond of mother-in-law tongue (Sansevaria) until I discovered how nicely it can work in designs. The same pieces can be used for several shows in a season if it is kept in water in between. When the iris show season is over, root the pieces in a little water and replant them in soil. Mother-in-law tongue is rather heavy-looking so use larger irises with it. Eucalyptus (fresh or dried) makes nice line and many types of palm leaves are lovely if clipped. As a last resort, line materials are available at the florist. Gladiolus are beautifully shaped (with or without the flowers), liatris is nice and the deep green of Scotch broom is useful against lighter backgrounds.

Coils of wire, strips of gutter guard, springs, wrought iron, swirls of conduit, embroidery hoops, telephone cord, copper pipe, rope (natural or synthetic), even Slinky toys can be placed artistically in your design to create a line. Experiment in advance of your shows.

Leaves around the bottom of your design may include anything that conditions well. Check out your garden and your house plants. Hosta leaves come in all sizes and in many colors, so you can choose a variety that is just perfect. Almost all hostas condition well. Look for the ones with good substance. Magnolia and camellia leaves hold up. Euonymus, sedums, ivy, lily-of-the-valley, even the smaller tulip leaves can be used.

From your house plants or the florist you may find leaves from calla lilies, dieffenbachia, monstera, philodendron, angel-wing and rex begonias, croton, lemon leaf and leather-leaf fern. To avoid errors in scale, choose leaves that are the right size for your design. Many more materials are sure to be available in your local area.

The members of the design committee should visit the facility where the iris show will be held, if they are not already familiar with it. You must know about the space available if you are to set up the staging properly. Consult with the Show Chairman to see where he or she plans to stage the Horticulture and Educational Divisions. Then plan the best way to stage the design classes.

If you set up classes in order, starting with Class 1, it will allow show visitors to follow the show schedule as they view the designs. Also, the Judges will be able to move quickly from class to class as they evaluate the designs. However, you may need to stage some classes in a particular way to aid traffic flow or to give the show a balanced look. Space functional tables so show visitors have enough room to see them, and make sure tall pedestals or columns are positioned where they are least likely to be tipped over.

Before your designers arrive, use 3" X 5" cards to clearly mark the location for each design class. These same cards will guide show visitors and Judges to the various classes later on.

It is possible to set up the design portion of a show by simply placing rectangular tables along a wall. You can mark off 20 inches of space (or a similar area) for each designer to use, and the wall behind the table becomes a "background" for the designs. If you do this, perhaps you should indicate a minimum height in your schedule, say 25" for an early show and 35" (or even taller) for a midseason or late show. You should indicate the color of the wall so designers can plan the colors in their design to best advantage.

At some point, your club should think about providing backgrounds. They will make a dramatic and positive difference in the appearance of the designs in your iris shows.

Blocks and shims Backgrounds are easily made from Masonite cut into rectangles. They may be arched slightly at the top or cut straight across. Spray paint them the colors of your choice making certain you use a matte-finish paint. Shiny paint ruins photographs. It is possible to paint each side a different color, but if you do this, it is very difficult to get the edges even. Traditionally, four of each color are built. To make them stand up, cut 7" lengths of two-by-four wood and cut notches at the center point, one on either side. The notches should be sized so the backgrounds fit snugly into them. Important: Also make a couple dozen "shims" (small wedge-shaped wood pieces about ½" X 2"). The shims straighten the backgrounds when they are inserted into the notches. Do not lose the shims. Store them in a zip-lock bag to make keeping track of them easier. The two-by-fours and the shims may be painted black or a neutral color.

If you make the backgrounds for your adult designs 32" tall X 22" wide, you can place four of them side by side down the middle of an 8' table. If you "shotgun" the table out from a wall, you can then stage four designs on each side of the table, thus staging two classes (eight designs). This is good use of space if your show venue is on the small side. More experienced designers may want larger backgrounds, perhaps 48" tall X 22" wide. Consult with the designers in your club before constructing backgrounds. Important: Masonite backgrounds should be stored flat and in a dry place to prevent warping.

For youth backgrounds, Masonite can be cut 20" tall X 14" wide and painted as above. Use the same system with the two-by-fours for standing the backgrounds up. For a different look, Masonite circles (anywhere from 16" to 20" in diameter) may be cut for youth backgrounds. They are more difficult to stand up, but cutting a deep slit in the top of a 10" piece of a two-by-four and using shims, should suffice.

For economy, freestanding poster board with fold-out "wings" may be purchased at office supply stores and used for adult backgrounds. Look for the kind that is black on one side. The other side will be a tan (cardboard) color and will likely have writing on it. This side can be covered with fabric or even spray painted in a different color. The poster boards are 36" tall X 24" wide so you could not place four on an 8' table ­ but placing two each on 6' tables would work well. Because of the "wings," one side of these poster boards is technically called a "niche" and the other side a "background panel." This is not a problem, and designs can be staged on both sides as long as you describe them properly in your schedule.

For economy, youth backgrounds can be made from flat, cardboard "cake rounds" available at cake-decorating shops. They can be covered with fabric or even spray painted. Placing them down the center of a table allows for staging on both sides. The 20" X 14" rectangular youth backgrounds could be cut from corrugated cardboard using an Exacto knife. Paint or cover them as above.

If your club is dedicated to early shows, you might want to offer a "small design" class at these shows. Designs in this class may be no more than 8" in any direction. Therefore, MDBs, SDBs and some of the small species irises should be used in these designs. Larger irises and any other large components would be out of scale. Backgrounds for these designs can be easily made in 9" X 9" dimensions from scrapbooking card stock glued together on three outside edges. Leave the center and the bottom edge unglued so the backgrounds can be slipped over a steel bookend for straight standing. Bookends (usually black or gray) are inexpensive and available at office supply stores. If a selection of cardstock colors is used, you may state in your schedule that "designer may choose background from several colors on a first-come, first-served basis." If possible, stage these designs on something diminutive. New designers feel less intimidated creating a "small design," so you may win some new people for the Design Division. Also, show visitors admire this class a great deal.

To add staging variety to your shows, wire floral stands of various heights can be purchased from floral supply companies. They are durable and stack, so are easy to transport. Since the surface area of their tops is small (only 8" - 10"), placing a flat 16" Masonitecircle (painted or fabric-covered) or a 16" cake round covered with fabric (to add strength) is necessary to provide more staging space.

Backless bar stools, bought unfinished or used, make fine pedestals for staging designs. Add a flat disc as above, if the surface area is small. Plaster columns provide elegant staging but be prepared to transport them with care as they are fragile. Roll each one in a blanket to cushion them for the ride to and from the show. Again, a flat disc will be needed atop each one to increase the area where the design will be placed.

It is best if the club provides the bridge tables if your club offers "functional tables for two" classes. Designers may be more willing to participate if you do so, but it is all right to require the designer to provide his/her own. In any event, they should all be of like size (and square). Indicate in your show schedule who is to provide the tables. If your club offers "exhibition tables" classes, read all of the information on this in the NGC Handbook for Flower Shows and proceed accordingly.

It is fun and easy to have a "breakfast tray" or "snack tray" class in your show. A set of four old metal TV trays may be purchased, refurbished and used for staging. Or buy a set of the new wood ones if your iris club is generous. Note: The wood trays are quite heavy. For these trays, the exhibitor provides a placemat, small plate or bowl, mug or juice glass and a napkin (with or without napkin ring). Everything on the tray, including the design must be stable, as trays are "carried" for serving. Don't use anything "footed," for example. An appropriate height limit for the design would be about 14". Cheerful colors and fresh materials are important.

If there are experienced designers in your club, they might want to make a creative design using a "frame." Perhaps a club member enjoys power tools and woodworking and would be willing to build several of these if the materials were paid for by the designers or the club. Frames are free-standing units, quite large and are formed into rectangles and other geometric shapes. Creative design components are displayed inside the frame. The design does not move, but motion is implied. The frames can also be used for "hanging designs." These designs are suspended within the frame by fishing line or thread and actually do move. The frames can be used to stage "exhibition tables" as well, so are valuable staging devices for clubs with more advanced designers. They certainly add excitement to creative designs in iris shows.

"Tall designs" are appropriate at midseason and late shows. They are staged on the floor and should have no height restrictions. A set amount of space is assigned (perhaps 30" X 30") and noted in the show schedule. Mats in the size of the allowed space may be provided for staging, or the space may simply be marked on the floor. Since this design will originate from the floor, tall materials will be needed and design components should be in proportion to the assigned area.

If you are just beginning a Design Division in your club, it is not necessary to have backgrounds and other innovative staging the first year or two. (Remember I urged you to jump in feet first.) Just try to add backgrounds as soon as you can; then add some other form of staging as time and budget allow.

Sometimes club members will donate items that work well for staging. Other times someone will volunteer to build suitable items such as pedestals or cubes. Try improvisation. One club in our area turned sturdy baskets upside down and placed flat discs on top. This provided nice staging and the cost was next to nothing. The inexpensive plastic cube tables so popular in the 1980s are the perfect size for staging designs if you can find a set of them. Your club will come up with good staging if you talk about it and share ideas. I encourage you to include a Design Division in your iris shows no matter how inexperienced your members are, and even if your staging properties total zero at this time.


Part VI - Pep Talk and Conclusion

Including a Design Division in your iris show can be a way to attract new members for your club. I believe those impressed by designs at your iris show are often younger people and folks with families - just the type of new members clubs need the most. So why not bring up the subject of adding (or keeping) a Design Division in your iris shows, and take steps to improve participation.

With the new rules initiated in 2007 by the National Garden Clubs Inc. (the organization that supplies qualified Judges for design) an iris club need have only three adult classes in their design schedule to qualify as a "small standard flower show." With four entries in each of these three classes, that is only twelve designs needed to fill out the show. Other requirements to meet the "Small Standard Flower Show" rules are: 1) you are co-sponsoring with an NGC club; 2) fresh plant material must be emphasized; 3) a suitable schedule with design requirements and rules must be printed and available; 4) a Horticulture Division (in this case, for irises) and a Design Division must be designated in the schedule, and; 5) the Design Division must be judged by accredited NGC Judges. This will allow the NGC Judges credit for judging in this show and other Judges credit for entering the show. If you have questions about this, consult the NGC Handbook for Flower Shows, Chapter 1. This is available from the National Garden Clubs, Inc. (1-800-550-6007) and has a wealth of information on design work, staging, types of designs, and many other helps for having shows. Much of what is written on design in the AIS Handbook is based on this reference.

Please offer a couple of youth classes in your schedule as well, because iris clubs need to encourage youth participation in all areas. These youth classes may or may not have many (or any) entries, but clubs should still offer them each year. Youths may begin their iris interest by making a design, then move on to showing in the Horticulture Division, joining the AIS and making irises a lifelong hobby. Hint: When choosing youth classes it is best to avoid feminine-sounding titles as you do not want to make entering design unappealing to the young men in your iris club.

I hope that clubs which make an effort to begin, reinstate or improve participation in a Design Division will be rewarded with admiration from iris show visitors, and a few new club members. Do what you can to make this happen.

Perhaps after reading the above "Four Easy Steps" method of making a design, you are thinking the designs will all look alike. I do not find this to be the case. Containers and materials will no doubt be quite different and placement is never exactly the same from designer to designer. Using different materials, unique decorative wood, twisty vines, unusual seed pods, beautiful irises, exotic leaves - and color coordinating these, you will make your design stand out. And don't forget to follow the Principles of Design as this adds many points when the Judges consider your work.

Do not be afraid to cut your materials to the correct height, trim off unwanted branches, remove a leaf that detracts, etc. If the stems of any materials are thin or weak, wire them with a green "wooden pick" (sold in packages at hobby stores) to reinforce them before placing in your design. Or use a thin wire and a toothpick as a substitute.

Orchid tubes may be used to provide water for and to elevate a flower that is too short. Be sure to hide the tube behind a leaf or other component. Leaves may be trimmed, folded, placed upside down or curled for an effect that will carry out the theme. However, strive for simplicity and a clean look that expresses one idea. Most important, don't be afraid and don't give up! You will make mistakes, but consider them a learning experience.

Your Design Chairman should ask the show Judges to write comments on the back of your entry tags or on a 3" X 5" card. This way you will know the strengths and weaknesses of your design and be able to improve the next time.

Be a good sport and congratulate the winners. All four designs in a class might score 90 or more points which could merit a first place ribbon. But the Judges can award only one design a first place, and lesser ribbons to the others. Judges make difficult decisions, so do not feel badly about the color of ribbon you receive. Enjoy the beauty you have created and keep on designing. Be a good example for the youth members with your perseverance and positive attitude. The most important thing to know about design is YOU can do it!!!


I wish to thank National Garden Club member and Judge and AIS member and Judge, Carolyn Hawkins of Region 5 for her help and advice. This tutorial would not have been possible without her. Also, National Garden Club member and Judge, Roni Pidgeon was helpful with books, printed materials and answers to questions. My longtime mentor Louise Bellagamba, who passed away in 2007 at age 96, originally introduced me to the "Three Bears" and the 4 Easy Steps method of teaching design to youth members. JEM -- BobPries - 12 Feb 2019
I Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
design-6.jpgjpg design-6.jpg manage 15 K 05 Mar 2022 - 22:09 BobPries  
design-7.jpgjpg design-7.jpg manage 17 K 05 Mar 2022 - 21:06 BobPries  
design-8.jpgjpg design-8.jpg manage 15 K 06 Mar 2022 - 19:24 BobPries  
design-9.jpgjpg design-9.jpg manage 27 K 06 Mar 2022 - 19:26 BobPries  
design-materials.jpgjpg design-materials.jpg manage 24 K 05 Mar 2022 - 21:12 BobPries  
Topic revision: r8 - 07 Dec 2023, BobPries
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