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CAFA Celebrates 25 Years of Design Excellence

The Canadian Academy of Floral Art (CAFA) has been testing and certifying the best in floral design for 25 years. In an era where experts are born by following Pinterest boards and watching YouTube videos, you might wonder, what is the value of a formal accreditation? For CAFA founder Patricia Patrick, the drive comes from within. “When people wonder if the effort to study for and take the test is worth it, I want them to focus on what’s really important. I ask them, ‘Is your goal to be better?’”

CAFA’s testing process is very challenging and designed to reward only those few who have elite design skills. “Our admittance requirements are tough, but they have resulted in a roster of members who are the movers and shakers of the floral industry,” she said. “Our members are designers and commentators, and often the creative force behind many of the floral trends seen in visual and print media.” In other words, CAFA members are industry leaders who shape trends rather than follow them.

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Patrick didn’t anticipate founding a world-renowned floral accreditation program. Instead, the opportunity seemed to find her.
“In 1987 I was inducted into the American Institute of Floral Designers, as there wasn’t a Canadian equivalent,” she recalled. “I was on the Board of Flowers Canada and came home so excited after the testing. ‘I just got AIFD!,’ I said.”

The board lamented the lack of a Canadian equivalent and then Flowers Canada President Marilyn Broad looked at Patrick and said, “Why don’t you start it?” The group decided to separate the nascent Association of Floral Design from Flowers Canada with Patrick at the helm to develop the program and attract students for testing.
As with many noble causes, the devil can be in the details. “One of the biggest challenges early on was getting through all of the paperwork required by the government,” Patrick said. The program also had to strike a balance between expecting high standards (to have industry gravitas) and being achievable through training and practice (to have mass appeal). Getting the word out across Canada became another priority “The first inductees were all from Toronto, due to population concentration and geographical accessibility,” she said.

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Rising to the Top

The accreditation process is a two-tiered process, modelled after AIFD’s. The first stage involves an online questionnaire that covers topics related to the industry, trends, design, and the colour wheel. The second level involves hands on testing where the designer has three hours to complete five designs. Being able to produce that many designs within this time frame is key, as a florist who can’t produce arrangements efficiently is typically a florist who cannot thrive economically, Patrick explained.

For preparation, CAFA introduces prospective candidates to mentors who can walk them through steps leading up to the test. “It doesn’t guarantee a passing grade, but the learning from the mentoring makes the student richer,” Patrick said. “This isn’t for junior people; it’s for fine designers. It takes time and effort. I tell students that I failed AIFD the first time but I learned what worked and what didn’t.”

Testing typically occurs in Toronto, though CAFA has traveled to other provinces to administer it to groups who’ve banded together.

Shining Moments

As CAFA became synonymous with Canadian floral design excellence, Patrick and other members gained remarkable opportunities to showcase the nation’s talent.

Patrick’s proudest memory was creating an arrangement to honour Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip when they visited Canada in 2002. The design, displayed at Exhibition Place near Lake Ontario, was five feet in diameter and its centre featured red flowers fashioned in the shape of a maple leaf. “Prince Phillip stopped and took some time admiring the design and then came over to find out more about the Association,” she said.

Additionally, CAFA has also designed for the King of Thailand for his 60th anniversary on the throne and his 80th birthday. (The members created an exhibit with a snowy theme to show the Southeast Asian monarch what a Canadian winter looks like.) There also exists a strong bond between CAFA and its American sibling, AIFD. Patrick and a small cohort of CAFA designers have given presentations at AIFD events.

The Road Back

CAFA celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala. Prior to the formal party, world-renowned designer Roman Steinhauer from Siberia led a hands-on workshop from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by a stage presentation.

“A high profile foreign designer is very exciting for the membership as it’s a chance to see something different, to expand our aesthetic perspective,” Patrick said. “Our membership includes people from the U.S. and Europe so, while the standards and the process are Canadian, we want to take inspiration from all areas.”

The event also included a live design competition, complete with surprises (such as designing blindfolded!), and many dreamy, show-stopping arrangements to inspire guests.

Among them was a special design by Patrick with great personal significance. “Marilyn was very much on my mind when I created the design,” she said of Broad, who encouraged her to start CAFA. “She passed away from breast cancer after CAFA was founded so the arrangement I created was designed using pink roses. I tucked a small pink ribbon pin into the arrangement as a personal tribute to her.”

The Journey Forward

Pondering the next 25 years, Patrick said she is eager to see the next generation of leaders take up the cause. “I can’t even imagine what the future holds but I do know that the creative process can’t be mechanized,” she said.
She encourages CAFA members to educate the public about accreditation and the level of expertise needed to attain it. “It means you’re the best,” she said. “A CAFA designation will give the consumer comfort regarding [your] design expertise.”

Patrick named growing membership as an ongoing priority and challenge, along with coming up with ways to make the accreditation process more easily accessible for florists outside of Ontario. The next wave of CAFA leaders will have all kinds of technology including live streaming and virtual reality programs to help them reach a broader audience.

Another CAFA call to action is “getting consumers to see floral design as something that’s part of their everyday lives,” she said. “The industry needs a coordinated marketing effort to address consumer awareness and perception of flowers.”

Patrick is proud of what’s been accomplished but emphasized she’s ready to pass on the torch, assuming the role not of an organizer but of a mentor.

Michelle Brisebois
Michelle Brisebois specializes in retail strategies with experience in luxury goods, restaurants, financial services, and ecommerce. She currently manages Trius Winery and Direct to Consumer for Andrew Peller Limited in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario.
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