Pulling back the foliage of "Big Flower Fight," from the eye-popping designs to the fairy tale final

Kristen Griffith-Vanderyacht on personality through posies, his floral business, and the moment that made him cry

By Ashlie D. Stevens
May 24, 2020 3:00PM (UTC)
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Natasia Demetriou and Kristen VanderYacht in "The Big Flower Fight" (Netflix)

The following contains spoilers from the first season of "The Big Flower Fight," including that bloomin' finale.

"The Big Flower Fight" is Netflix's new floral sculpture competition, blossoming with eye-popping creations and a buoyant energy that's reminiscent of "The Great British Bake-Off." And in a time when people are largely homebound and may feel a little disconnected from the outside world, it's an easily bingeable series that showcases nature with a kind of whimsical halo. 

Over the course of eight challenges, 10 different teams of two race against the clock to craft an extravagant floral sculpture — each tied to a different theme, like "enormous insects," "green giants" or the spellbinding "fairytale finish" finale. 


Lead judge Kristen Griffith-VanderYacht — with his sunny outlook and sharp suits — is an immediate crowd favorite. He spoke with Salon about developing a rubric for judging contestants, the challenge outcome that made him cry, and how his own business is faring during the pandemic. 

What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions about florists or working with flowers are? Because I feel like this show is going to be a shock to people in a lot of ways. 

I think the biggest misconception that I've experienced in my professional career is how much time and energy it takes to make an arrangement that looks like it took no time at all. Because if you're dealing with flowers, it's a product of nature. So nature, but its own sort of origins, feels as though it just showed up. It feels as though it just miraculously came from the earth and appeared, so it feels easy. 


Really good floral design mimics that sort of relationship between nature and man, so a lot of that takes a lot of practice and that takes a lot of time and diligence. You know, people are like, "Oh, it's so pretty, it's so great," and then they think they can go home and do it themselves, which I do encourage. I always encourage exploring your creative side. But in reality, it took someone probably hours to make something that looks like it took no time at all. That is also the sign of a good floral designer — that effortless communication of an idea. 

I think that's such a great point, and it leads into another question I had. So obviously, floral competitions are well-established, but it's not something that people tune in to watch on television to watch super-often. I was curious how difficult it was for you, as a judge, to develop a rubric for what you wanted to see out of the competitor's designs?

It wasn't difficult at all, actually, because I worked very closely with the production team in order to get it down. So being able to have criteria that we were going to give to the teams allowed for me to already have a blueprint of what I was going to be looking for. Then on top of that, I think that what I'm also looking for is the teams to really take it further than what I had originally set out. I really wanted to see their personality, I really want to see their own creative prowess. It was really important for me, for them to be vulnerable as artists and as designers. I think the most successful pieces were by the designers who took risks, but also had the technical understanding to back it up. 


I wanted to touch on a couple really emotional moments from the show. One of them, which just made me completely tear up, was when Helen and Andi's crab structure fell. How did that make you feel?

I was devastated. It didn't make it into the show, but I was crying, too, because I knew how much work goes into these installations. I mean this from the bottom of my heart: when creative people put their work out there, they are baring a piece of their soul. And to have it sort of collapse and crumble in the way that it did, it was just so heartbreaking. 


Then there's another emotional moment that I think veers a little more heartwarming. Jim and his father Ralph constructed this "monster" that represented anxiety. And you actually crawl into the mouth of that monster with Jim and say to him, "You are not alone."  I think this touches on what a special team they were, Jim and Ralph. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about what it was like experiencing their relationship? 

Well, it was interesting because Jim, I believe, was the youngest contestant on the show. I mean, all the contestants on the show feel like my little flower babies, they feel like they're my kids. My goal is for them to go out into the world and create so we can make it a much better place. 

It was really special to be able to watch Jim, being the youngest, but also expressing himself in one of the most mature ways of all the contestants. So, I think in order to have that vulnerability, he had to be a very self-aware person, and I value that sort of introspection. I think it deepens and enriches a person's ability to connect with the world and that empathy I think we need right now. 


And so being able to see Jim have a moment, so publicly, in which he rips off that shame sticker, I thought it was so beautiful. I thought it was so adult of him. I thought it was, you know, so advanced in terms of his emotional intellect.

One of the things that I loved about "The Big Flower Fight" is that it was beautiful, not only aesthetically, but it was so incredibly emotional and inclusive. Was it important for you, as a judge, to exude inclusion and positivity on set? 

Absolutely. The way that I approach judging is sort of how I approach any sort of constructive role that I have, as a designer, as a business owner, as a father, as a husband as a friend. It's always to uplift other people. I think in order to uplift other people, you have to take the time to really see them. And so, you know, I really wanted every contestant to feel seen, even if it was an uncomfortable moment. I wanted them to feel like, "Okay, Kristen knows I tried. It may not have worked out, but at least he knows I give my all," right? I was never there to tear anyone down. It was always to guide and mentor and uplift. Because at the end of the day, our creative abilities far outweigh our bad traits. And I want people to focus on creating


And the level of creativity on this show was so impressive. You are obviously a veteran in this field, but I was curious if throughout filming you saw any techniques or materials used in ways that you were like, "Oh, you know what — that's something I'd like to steal moving forward"? 

Every day. Every, every day. I was 100% blown away. And I was like, "How'd you do that? What's going on over here? How'd you make that?" You know, because that's part of the fun of design is creating new techniques and developing new ways to get your idea out of your brain and into the real world. 

So all the contestants, I've stolen something from them. That's what, that's what you're supposed to be doing. I will always say that I am always learning. I continue to learn, I have not arrived. And I don't want anyone to ever think that I have arrived. Because if you arrive, then you're dead. Like, what are you doing? 

Maybe a silly question, but we had all these great designs. What happened to them after the challenges were over? 


I know that a lot of the materials are recycled and a lot of the plants were donated. I don't know of anything that was just wasted. The great thing about working with organic matter is that everything can be made into compost. You know, some of the structures were filmed in the heat and by the time we were done, they had been out in the sun so long, they're crispy and burnt. Whatever couldn't be revived ended up in a compost pile to continue that circle of life. 

One of the things I noticed people were responding to on Twitter with regards to the show were your suits. They were just so on point. Were they all yours? 

They are unfortunately not mine, but I had a very strong hand in picking everything that I wore, even down to my brooches. The wardrobe team was really fantastic. They were so accommodating of my style. I'm hoping for Season 2 — if we get one — that we can take it even further. 

So, outside the world of this show, you are a business owner. And while wedding season is typically in full bloom right now — pardon the pun — the pandemic has thrown everything off center. I was curious how your business, and businesses like yours, have been affected? 


Well, my business is all about gatherings, and nobody is gathering right now. So it's definitely taken a major hit. A lot of people have pushed the pause button on their weddings, on their events on their baby showers. And I don't have a retail location; that's not really part of my business model. 

But the good news is, we still have access to flowers, and I still have an opportunity to create and so that's a huge part of my own sanity, just getting my hands in nature and flowers. So, I think I've been to the nursery like six times since this happened. I'm wearing a hat and a mask and it's all outdoors. It's weird how that has shifted. 

But I think as long as you're able to stay creative, keep your skills up and keep them fresh, that is going to be so beneficial and so therapeutic for your soul. 

Final spoiler warning! In the "fairytale" finale challenge, how tough was it to make a decision on the winners, Andrew and Ryan? They did the dark Hansel and Gretel house and took a really big risk putting some of the more alluring elements on the inside of the house. 


It was really easy, actually, because I was so overwhelmed with emotion — even just talking about it now, I get chills and goosebumps up and down my arm. It was such an experience. Walking around that house, there was so much to take in, and there was such a clear story behind what they designed, you couldn't help but get emotional viewing it. 

It was a visceral reaction and my guest judge had it, too. We were both so blown away and it was obvious those two deserved to win. 

"The Big Flower Fight" is now streaming on Netflix.

Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture and food.

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