We're excited to share our conversation with Nancy Liu Chin, owner of NANCY LIU CHIN FLORAL & EVENT DESIGN, who has recently been listed on the The Knot Wedding 100 List, which recognizes the best across all wedding industry categories. NLCD is a floral and event production studio based in the artistic neighborhood of Dogpatch in San Francisco. Nancy spent a summer under the tutelage of respected calligrapher Michelle Papinaeu and apprenticed with floral guru Pico Soriano. Encouraged by her mentors, she enrolled in a Horticulture program, where she studied the art of floral design. Today, Nancy is turning clients' inspirations into beautiful events and has been recognized as one of the leaders in the industry. During our sit-down, Nancy gave her expert advice on planning your big day and shares some savvy cost-saving tips!
TL: HOW DID YOU FIND YOURSELF IN THE FLORAL AND EVENT DESIGN INDUSTRY?
NLCD: That’s an amusing question because I originally wanted to be a wedding planner. And in fact, I had planned several weddings for friends and friends-of-friends after college for about half a dozen years. But it wasn’t until after our first year of marriage (btw: I’m married to SF wedding photographer husband, Kevin “KC” Chin ) that I recognized that what I truly wanted to do was work more creatively with my hands, especially in the wedding and events world.
I’m more of a doer - guess you could say a hands-on person who likes to dream and conjure up things. Naturally, event styling and event design was more my cup of tea. Not to knock down wedding planning, but logistics didn’t engage or inspire me. As the end of the 90’s drew closer, the idea of the event designer hadn’t really taken shape as much as wedding planning was starting to rise. So naturally I thought the best way to get into event design was to be a floral designer. Through interning, as well as going back to school for floral design, I became passionate about flowers. The deeper I got into floral design, the more I realized just how powerful and transformative flowers are when it came to wedding and event design - flowers when done correctly and well can transform a space and it can even bring up emotions. They are beautiful!
TL: WHAT IS THE AVERAGE COST OF YOUR SERVICES?
NLCD: The average cost of a wedding is a reflection of the growing details and larger scale events. I would say that what we do best are weddings in which the client budgets between $100 - $350 per person on flowers. We have a minimum of $6500 for floral services.
TL: HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE TO STAY WITHIN THE CLIENT'S BUDGET?
NLCD: Come up with logistically sound ideas. It’s one thing to talk fantasy, but you have to scale it appropriately for the venue, the time frame, and amount of labor it takes to create something. The more customized one goes, the higher the cost. If a design hasn’t ever been done in this region, one has to get the structure, the mechanics, the props made, and that’s going to raise the cost of the goods as well as the labor. When there is a budget challenge, it’s crucial to ask what are the client's priorities. There are always things that one wants but one can’t afford. For example, if clients want a reception full of tall and dome pieces on tall graceful glass, but they are on a budget, I might recommend doing half the tables with "talls" only.
TL: What's your DESIGN STYLE?
NLCD: I would say, it’s natural, American modern classic. I don’t try to do something too trendy as trends come in and out. Staying more naturally classic has always helped serve our clients from wedding couples to corporate clients. We aren’t too edgy. That’s just not my personality. I love naturally classic design. Clean, romantic, but also without too much crazy wildness.
TL: WHAT MAKES YOUR SERVICES UNIQUE?
NLCD: Thinking like an event designer, stylist, or planner helps during the creative process and adds a layer of experience and ability, such that our team becomes more than just floral designers. I know we’ve saved the day for many clients during the behind the scenes set-up because we are able to edit, style, and eliminate “clunky” elements during the setup.
More critically, we have a continuous staff some of whom have been with me since I started, who just care about the finished look as much as I do. That continuity helps during large set-ups where you need an experienced and calm staff, and veteran designers. In addition, an experienced staff like my awesome team has been trained so that they know how to adjust and make chairs straight, line china, help with those styling details that floral designers or florists may not have time for or care about. Nothing bothers me more than gorgeous flowers with untidy chairs because if the camera sees it, the guests see it. Another aspect that I care about is where and how the flowers are placed in relation to linens, rentals, china, as well as furniture, props, tabletop accessories. These all work together to create an overall look. It’s a matter of looking at the scale of things as well, as the finer details that need to work together not against each other.
Here’s an inside tip: Try looking at the grand picture. Any floral piece looks ten times more expensive when paired with the right combination. I have nothing against white hotel tablecloths, but if they don’t cover the legs of the table, no grand or well completed floral arrangement will make that combination look any better. Because if the eye sees the legs of a table, it doesn’t matter. I haven’t done my job well. My flowers won’t look right and well done.
Lastly, one unique thing we are proud of is that we like to tackle things that many might want to do but have not had the chance to do. Sure, there are tons of designers who can make a beautiful bouquet or a centerpiece, many that I drool over, but do they know how to build a 2000 pound hanging chandelier of flowers? Are they daring enough to create a massive wall of flowers that is 32 wide and 12 feet high? Have they hung dozen of strands of orchids that passed 3 floors at SF City Hall? What makes a designer unique is how they can handle a project just as much as how they can create the fine detail pieces.
TL: MANY BRIDES MAY WANT TO SKIP HIRING A FLORIST OR EVEN HIRing AN EVENT PLANNER TO SAVE MONEY. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS?
NLCD: I think it depends on the event. If it’s a baby shower at a house, perhaps you can do it yourself. A small wedding in your parent’s house or even a restaurant, it’s totally possible that you can do it yourself. Sure, why not! However, it’s about the circumstances, the venue, the time limitations, the number of guests, and one’s own temperament. I’ve been doing flowers for a while so doing a party for 100 guests doesn’t stress me. The more important question: will it stress you?
If I were to get married again, I probably would do the centerpieces myself and have my team work on the ceremony because they have great experience, and I think experience is key to any larger event. And of course, I would order the bouquet. Perhaps I’ll have Svenja from Chestnut and Vine make it for me or Anna from Loop Flowers. I love them. It could be Kathleen Deery, she’s like an idol of mine. Or even something from April or Gaby, my assistants would be fun, but I wouldn’t carry something that I made. Here’s the thing: my favorite bouquets are the ones that other people make. It’s never my own. Sure, there are favorite ones that I like to make but to be honest, I like being surprised and the things that other people make to me are so much more interesting and inviting because I see what I do all day, and there is no mystery. I like and want a little mystery and magic when I walk down the aisle!!!
And definitely don’t skip on hiring a true floral designer, not just a weekend hobbyist. These days, many venues want only vendors with business liability, worker’s comp, and high car insurance. With a hobbyist, they don’t usually carry those things so when something happens, it’s you that is left holding the bag. Don’t be left holding the bag. This is a true story: I had a bride this year (and one a couple years back) who couldn’t find her make-up artist the day of the wedding. Yes, they could not find their makeup person. They had hired someone who was not a professional, vetted vendor, and guess what? They had to do their own make up and that person took their money. Oh well, I could have said I told you so but if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t be fooled.
TL: DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE TYPE OF FLOWER that YOU LIKE TO USE FOR WEDDINGS?
NLCD: I love peonies, ranunculus, lisianthus when they are really open and large, sweet peas for their delicate nature, astilbe for their whimsy, hellebores for their uniqueness, hydrangea for mass pieces, especially cone-shaped hydrangea (a favorite), mock orange, spirea, as well as different and unusual herbs!
TL: EVERY COUPLE MUST HAVE A VISION FOR THEIR BIG DAY. HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE THEIR VISION IS TRANSLATED IN THE RESULTS OF YOUR WORK?
NLCD: Yes, they do!! We make sure we spend time looking at their inspiration and dissecting what it is about the images that they truly like, so that when we create the florals, we match on the feel and the words. Words are really key, but oftentimes a client will use a word that actually isn’t what they mean, so it’s important to line up what they mean so that when they say "modern hipster,' it matches what I view as "rustic and relaxed." I know, it’s so hard when clients say the word SIMPLE in design. What does simple mean? Clean lines? Low cost? Not too many flowers? What is simple? You have to make your clients define what "modern" is?, what "simple" is.
Hope this makes sense! (laughter and a chuckle). There is a vision which needs to become reality, and it can only become real if clients can pinpoint what they like and trust you.
TL: ANY COST-SAVING TIPS YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE WITH BRIDES?
NLCD: Lower the guest count. You have no idea how shaving 10 guests can translate to thousands of dollars. Don’t be afraid of foliage. Don’t be afraid of not being exact about how you pictured it. It might turn out even better. If you like a pricey flower, go for it, but do it in meaningful ways that don't require ordering tons of them. Don’t do too many long tables. You need more flowers and accessories for rectangular tables versus rounds. Don’t skimp on things that you really need.