By Emily Williams
Sometimes you just need to look at something beautiful.
As the tenth month of 2020 rolls past, there have been countless “sometimes” so worrying that you simply needed to turn your mind away and bask in a bit of creative beauty.
Creativity is like air for Brooke McAfee, a floral designer and stylist who owns and operates Birmingham-based Lilt Florals.
Though the event design world, like the rest of the world, has changed this year, she has found the silver linings in the details.
“For a while, events were just getting bigger and bigger,” she said.
One of her favorite pandemic trends has been the rise of the brunch wedding.
“I love large events and I love a production, but these smaller more intimate weddings are really burrowing into my heart quickly,” she said.
Last year, McAfee’s business reached new heights with the potential for 2020 to be even bigger.
Then everything came nearly to a halt. A few brides persevered, but others moved their plans forward a year.
“We’ve all had time to just sit down and reflect on what we want to do, how we want to be, what impact we want to have,” McAfee said.
She’s a person who enjoys being busy.
“I’m a natural workaholic,” she said. “I really enjoy it. … You have to be in this industry.”
When she was forced to take a step back she realized how much she needed a little break.
“My mother sent me watercolors for my birthday in April, so I’ve started painting and I absolutely love it,” she said.
Being able to do something creative with her hands as she works through the insanity of COVID-19 has been a great release.
“I love a before and after, seeing the progression of things as you layer your design, and working with different colors and color schemes,” she said. “Those are my two favorite things.”
Discovering Her Talent
McAfee first discovered her affinity for design at 19 years old. She was working in an antique store that also offered decorating and design services in Edmond, Oklahoma, a town that has a prominent design community.
“I took over decorating and designing all of the different displays and booths and windows,” she said.
Over time, designers would enter the store and take note of her work.
“It was very organic,” McAfee said. “I was a young kid just going in to run the register, and I happened to start decorating, and these incredible designers wanted to know how I had done this and that.”
She naturally progressed into interior decorating, staging homes and styling for events and photoshoots.
When McAfee made her way to Birmingham at 27, she had drifted into a different place.
She was brand new not only to the state of Alabama, but the Southeast. She spent time bartending and exploring the region.
“It came over me one day all of a sudden that I just had to be creative again or I would die,” she said. “It sounds so intense, but it was actually a dark time.”
She didn’t understand it at first but knew she had to start doing something.
Leaning on her design experience but drifting from furnishings, she turned to floral design.
“That came really naturally to me as well,” McAfee said. “You know the old adage fake it til you make it. I had hardly touched a flower before.”
She reached out to a local floral designer whose work caught her eye, setting up a meeting over coffee to simply pick her brain.
“When I showed up she said, ‘Do you want to do bouquets or arrangements?’ And I was so nervous I almost threw up,” she said, but she chose arrangements and went along for the ride.
After working on a smaller scale and learning all she could from her mentor, she joined a large-scale floral operation that cranked out florals for about 15 events on a given weekend.
“Between the two of those – the artist and the machine – I got some really good education,” she said.
Under the Lilt Florals brand, McAfee creates custom florals for weddings and special occasions, and she does styling. But one of her favorite areas is holiday decorating. It combines her love of design and her love of Christmas.
Christmas With Family
“I come from a huge family and we are all very close, very tall and very loud and very sarcastic,” she said. “Every family event is just a complete celebration, whether it is dinner at my mom’s on Sunday night or Christmas.”
On Christmas, they go all out, play charades and break out the crackers in a home decked in holiday regalia.
While holiday decor was a must, there were rules.
“You couldn’t touch my momma’s tree,” she said. “I always wanted to help her with the tree, but she had a system and now I do, too.”
In a long-standing tradition, McAfee and her five siblings each would receive a Christmas ornament from one of their aunts.
“So, there are about a billion sentimental ornaments on my mother’s tree,” she said. “What she would do was put all of the glass orbs inside the tree and then all of the smaller ornaments toward the top and the bigger toward the bottom.”
Once the tree was finished, the whole family would lay underneath and look up at the ornaments.
Prepping for the Busy Time
At a time of the year when most event and floral designers are taking a breather, Lilt is full steam ahead spreading holiday cheer as they decorate homes.
“If you are going into holiday decorating, you are outside in all of the elements and you have to really have a passion for it,” McAfee said.
Planning typically kicks off once the fall wedding season begins to wind down. Last year, McAfee and her team began installing decor the week before Thanksgiving.
“The thing is, you have an allotted amount of time to do all of these homes,” McAfee said. “It’s just a total smash and grab of Christmas. I love it.”
There is so much work to be done, and often friends in the biz will reach out and offer to help with installations.
“I can’t even count how many times we have had people show up for one day and then never show up again,” she said.
You have to have a passion for it, and McAfee has a passion for the holidays.
The decor includes just about everything indoors and outdoors except for the lights.
“I really enjoy using real, organic materials,” she said. “Garlands and things like that that make everything smell really nice and give off that old world, classic, dreamy Christmas style.”
Tradition is a foundation of any holiday, but Christmas is essentially traditional and that remains at the heart of her holiday decor.
“When the season rolls around and the foliage rolls in, you work with what is presented,” McAfee said. Yet, there are certain florals that are constants.
“A potted orchid or amaryllis, that is tried and true,” she said. They are a great addition in a dining room, on the kitchen table or placed on a kitchen island.
Areas of play and whimsy lie in the layers.
“I like mixing different greeneries, textures and berries together, as well,” she said. The complexities of layering are what amp up a simple wreath and give it a more professional look.
There are also moments of play, such as introducing an unexpected color in a ribbon.
“It doesn’t always have to be red and green, although I am a big fan of red and green,” she said.
She once used a green and grey velvet ribbon in a shoot for Southern Living. It was a simple addition, McAfee said, but it was one that everyone went wild for.
Ribbons are an essential in decorating.
Throughout the year, McAfee will find herself stopping to grab a ribbon that catches her eye, often with a specific home in mind.
“We used this really beautiful, jeweled pink ribbon. It sounds gaudy and tacky as can be, but it is stunning,” she said. “We found that in July.”
While investing in ribbon may not seem very economical, it’s a place where clients can cut costs over time. A more expensive ribbon will stand the test of time and be reused each year.
“There is one home that we decorate the same way every year,” she said. “I don’t know how long those ribbons have been there, but we get them out and we flat iron them and rebow them up.”
Getting Good at Adapting
Ongoing COVID-19 preventive measures have had a ripple effect for the event planning and design worlds.
“It has been strange just at the floral level,” McAfee said. “Shipping has been such an issue.”
Being flexible isn’t something McAfee is new to. It always has been important to only make promises she has the power to keep.
She can promise a certain color scheme and a specific price point, but there is no guarantee when it comes to specific types of flowers.
“It’s a live product,” she said. “There are shortages.”
You just don’t ever know for sure, she said, especially when your opponents are typically acts of Mother Nature.
“A lot of floral farms were depleted because they didn’t have the workers or they didn’t have the product moving,” McAfee said. And then came the forest fires in California, which also have had a huge impact.
There are also looming questions surrounding what this year’s holiday celebrations will look like, but she is hoping for the best.
“Last year, by the time we had finished with all of the homes that we had on our roster, we were already fully booked for this year,” she said.
“I’m hoping it will all work out, because it is such a joyful thing to decorate.”
It has been encouraging to see the amount of decorating that the Halloween season has brought.
“We also saw, during lockdowns, when people would put out their Christmas trees and put up their lights,” she said.
Driving around and gazing at decorations is quite socially distant.