story by Sue Kiyabu
photo by Chris McDonough
Hitomi Gilliam takes a wide view of the narrow rules of traditional flower design. She’ll shower a green bamboo trellis with orchids. She’ll slice dragonfruit into a clear vase. She’ll weave banyan roots into the shape of a basket. With innovations like extra-tall vases and pliable cubes, and with tropical foliage from liliko‘i vines to pincushion protea, Gilliam is radically reinterpreting classic tropical flower arrangements. And she’s from … Vancouver?
True, eh, but this internationally renowned Japanese-Canadian designer is nonetheless on a mission to show the world that Hawai‘i’s flowers can—and should—be thought of in a whole new way. “She’s something of an ambassador,” says Eric Tanouye, who at his place on the Big Island, Green Point Nurseries, grows many of the flowers Hitomi uses. Tanouye and Gilliam met at a trade show over a decade ago, when Martha Stewart’s empire ruled and pastel colors and English roses were de rigeur. They’ve worked together to promote tropicals ever since. Now, says Tanouye, “Hitomi gives workshops and talks about Hawai‘i’s flowers to people all over the world.”
And to people in the Islands, too. In September, in a room adjacent to Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room restaurant at Ala Moana, she walked onto the makeshift stage with the verve of a motivational speaker and spent the next three hours showing the 100 local flower designers in attendance how to put a new spin on their work. Gilliam is passionate about changing the ways people think about our vivid flora.
“When we see heliconia on the Mainland, for example, we see this gigantic material with a thick, heavy stem,” she says. “But when you see it actually growing, it has a canopy over it that provides a little shelter and has a softness about it. When I design with tropicals, it’s about the softness and the nature of things here.” Her fresh perspectives often lead to the unexpected. That liliko‘i vine, for instance.
“I’ll see something like that and ask Eric, ‘What is that?’” she laughs, “and he’ll say,
‘Oh that, that’s just a weed.’ And I’ll tell him,
‘Oh, but it’s beautiful. I want to use that.’” HH