In our inaugural Q&A series introducing you to the team at Wild Things Flowers & Curiosities, we are highlighting the talented founder, owner, and lead florist of the shop: Carolyn Chen. She talks about her idyllic childhood in Chicago, developing her singular floral-arranging style, launching her own business, how she likes to spend her free time, and more …
Carolyn Chen, owner and lead florist at Wild Things, pictured here with Dutch Parrot Tulips, her favorite flower. Image: David Hillegas
Tell us a bit about your upbringing.
I grew up in a great suburb of Chicago called Clarendon Hills. It was the kind of town where there was an ice cream social every Friday in the summer and we ran through backyards playing Capture The Flag at night. My siblings were a lot older than me, so in a way, I was like an only child. My dad is a doctor and worked a lot, but he made sure to spend a lot of his free time with me—coming to my sports games, cooking at home together, and we had a traditional 20-mile bike ride down the Illinois Prairie Path every summer. My mom was also busy working as a flight attendant but was home often—we got to travel a lot as a family because of her perks, which is why I love to travel so much. She and I spent a lot of time out in the garden as well as shopping around town. I grew up in a family that was extremely cultured—my dad is Chinese, so we were exposed to a lot of different foods and traditions. In addition, because my parents were busy, I grew up with au pairs who lived in our house for two to four year stints. Most of them were from Germany.
I adapted my love of nature from both of my parents. Dad is an outdoorsman, loves to golf, and often took me hiking, biking, and horseback riding. My mom was always in our backyard digging in the dirt—she replanted our garden every year with different colors and blooms. Watering the garden was a chore on our list.
When I was in high school, since I was the youngest, there was nobody in our immediate group of family and friends for me to babysit as an after-school job. My mom had worked at a florist when she was younger, so she suggested I apply to the florist in town. That’s when I discovered my love for floral arranging. In college, I worked for another florist in Auburn and really got to hone my design skills and develop my own sense of style.
Carolyn took a trip to a Dude Ranch with her Dad in September. On the left, she stops to water her horse during a cattle drive. On the right, she hugs her new friend after an eight-hour day of riding.
What was your earliest memory of expressing yourself creatively through flowers?
I remember going to the garden store with my mom every year and picking out the annual flowers that would go in our garden. I got to work with her on the color scheme and types of flowers—every year they were different. Our planters and hanging baskets also changed every season. But we decorated our house for Christmas the same way every year, and I lived in that house for 18 years, until college. The garland over the fireplace, the chandelier in the kitchen, the garland on the staircase, our front porch décor, and our Christmas tree were the same year after year, and I have tried to incorporate some of those things into my little Birmingham condo. We’re a white-light-only family.
When did you realize that you wanted to make floral design your career?
It was actually a pretty impulsive decision—I always thought it was something I could do later in life if all else failed. I graduated with a graphic design degree from Auburn and, shortly after, moved to Atlanta to work in corporate advertising. I realized that was not my calling as I felt burdened by the amount of rules and regulations for design in the corporate world. When I moved to Birmingham, I had a hard time finding a place to buy everyday florals—I ended up going to the grocery store and arranging everything myself when I got home. I saw that Birmingham needed a fresh, young take on everyday floral design, as well as a one-stop-shop for gifts and gardening supplies. That’s how Wild Things started.
Carolyn and her dog Maple water the plants outside the shop.
As a successful entrepreneur, what advice would you give others who have dreams of launching their own businesses?
Just do it. You just have to jump in head first and learn as you go. There were so many times when I was unsure about what I was doing and needed to remind myself to just keep going. And I did. I figured it out along the way. Not everything was perfect (it’s never going to be), and there are still some kinks I’m working out almost two years later, but you keep moving—you live and you learn. There will always be things to improve, but if you never start, you’ll never have the opportunity to work on it.
Your arrangements have such a striking look. Describe your floral style.
I’ve developed a sort of free-form, garden style that embraces a natural look. All of the arrangements are one-of-a-kind, because we let the seasonal flowers guide the design. We basically just order a mixture of what we think looks good and flowers that we find particularly cool or interesting. For instance, we just ordered this batch of beautiful African proteas from Holland that are the size of a dinner plate. So, with us, you don’t go online and order a generic bouquet that we then have to make 100 of. That would be pretty boring for us. Instead, customers choose a color scheme and let us know if they have any particular flowers they’d like to include and we do our best to accommodate. And it is so nice that I chose to set it up like that, because now our customers just sort of trust us. They say things like, “Designer’s choice; everything you do that I’ve seen on Instagram is pretty. Whatever you think looks best.” Our system allows us to be creative while giving our customers a unique, beautiful arrangement that they’ll love!
Carolyn drops pennies into the water in this vase of tulips, saying, “It’s a trick I learned from my mom growing up—the copper makes the tulips stand straight up.” Image: David Hillegas
What is most rewarding about your job?
The way we’re able to make an impact on people every day—people use flowers to lift people up, to celebrate them, to remind them of their love, to help them through times of grief. Because the holidays can be hard for those who have lost someone or who are just going through a tough time, we do our “Season of Giving” Giveaway. But the winner doesn’t win a prize; instead, they get to nominate someone for whom an anonymous arrangement at their doorstep would really help lift their spirits. Last year, after the holidays had passed, I received a note that I keep to remind me of why we do what we do. It read:
At Christmas you sent my daughter-in-law flowers as part of an anonymous giveaway. I want you to know that she enjoyed and appreciated them. She did great through Christmas, but had a rapid decline in her health shortly afterwards and died January 18, 2019.
Her family is extremely grateful for your act of kindness.
Tell us about Wild Things’ shop dogs.
My two dogs (my children, really) Maple and Ginny are at the shop with me every day. They’re like my little sidekicks, and they definitely enjoy spending the day with me wherever I go.
Maple is a goofy English Setter who is as sweet as can be. The perfect picture to describe Maple is prancing through a field of wildflowers, chasing butterflies.
Ginny is a German Shorthaired Pointer who is too smart for her own good. She’s a human trapped in a dog’s body. She loves to pick up cut flower stems and place them in piles around the store, so please excuse that mess if you’re ever in the shop—it just means Ginny is around!
What do you like to do when not working?
I am kind of a hobby junkie in that I love learning and trying new things. I play the cello. I also love to sing, and I love musicals and theater. You can find me after work listening to vinyl records at home while cooking or baking, another hobby of mine. I also watch every Jeopardy! episode each year—I have them recorded and keep up with them in order. Great show.
I LOVE to travel—I have been to over 15 different countries and have scuba-dived in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans, as well as in the Blue Hole in Belize and all around the Caribbean. I’m heading to Amsterdam over Christmas this year.
I prefer to be outside! I ride horses a good bit, and used to compete when I was younger. I also enjoy rock-climbing, although I’m a total rookie—I’ve been out to Moss Rock a few times and have had a lot of fun! Ginny is trained to hunt, so we do a fair amount of dove and pheasant hunts each year with my Dad. I’m not a pro at skeet-shooting, but I’ll give you a run for your money. Staying active is important to me, so I do lots of hiking and biking with the dogs around Birmingham!
Carolyn rock-climbing at Moss Rock Preserve; scuba-diving in the Maldives; hanging out with a sumo wrestler in Japan; loving on an elephant in Jaipur, India; perusing a flower market in Chile; and serenading Ginny with her cello. (Maple is afraid of it!)
And now for some fun, rapid-fire questions …
Sport played in high school:
Volleyball, equestrian team, and brace yourself … water polo.
Red wine and water.
Last album purchased:
Rumours on vinyl—a must-have, and I was missing it.
I’m actually in the middle reading the Harry Potter series, book four. #nerdy
La La Land
Last celebrity sighting:
I saw Richard Branson riding a bike up an extremely steep mountain on an island a few years ago.
French bread with salted butter, dental floss, autumn leaves, sweaters, games and puzzles
Folding laundry, bad grammar, long lines and bad rap music.
Wild Things Flowers & Curiosities is more than just a floral retailer. It’s a place where the confluence of tradition and trend comes alive through creative workshops, eclectic merchandise, unique gifts, private gatherings, event design, editorial styling and floral delivery, all curated and crafted by artist Carolyn Chen. Carolyn’s unique background in graphic design, floral design and studio art lend inspiration to all aspects of the multi-faceted business. Wild Things aims for clients to walk in curious and leave inspired.