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floral fantasia

Interior designers highlight the elegance of flowers in intimate living spaces

IT'S an apartment dweller's dilemma. Every March, exposition centers around the country come alive with fantasy gardens of magnolia and birch, lily ponds, and fragrant orchids.

The acres of manicured sod and tidy flower beds seem to defy the limitations of city window boxes and potted ficus trees.

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At this year's New England Spring Flower Show (through March 22), sponsored by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, planners remembered that not everyone can have a garden. But that doesn't mean they have to go without flowers.

"People who do not have land need to be able to come in and be able to dream," says Maureen Sullivan Stemberg, a Boston interior designer. "Everybody can buy a flower."

This year, the nine-day exposition focuses on "Rediscovering the Americas," celebrating the garden styles of North, Central, and South America, and even features a tropical rain forest complete with thunder, rain, lightning, and a waterfall.

One of the most interesting exhibits in the show, however, celebrates flowers and plants in indoor habitats and was coordinated by Ms. Stemberg.

Called "Tables in Vignette," the display features rooms designed around a particular flower. Eight Boston interior designers each chose a flower and integrated it into a setting.

"As an interior designer, whenever a client asks me 'How do we finish the house off?' I say, 'with the least expensive thing: flowers.'

"A house is not a home without flowers," Stemberg adds.

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One room in the exhibit, for example, depicts daffodils in a beach cottage; another shows orchids in a collector's library.

"Scandinavian Legacy," by H. Langell Interiors, is designed around geraniums and was inspired by Swedish artist Carl Larsson. Larsson's interior paintings are simple and spare, but also warm and welcoming, which is just what this interior reflects.

Stemberg's vignette "Anniversary Waltz" glorifies romance with none other than the rose.

"It's pure fantasy," she says. The scene is a midnight terrace supper at Ashford Castle in Ireland. The roses are magnificently displayed and their colors are enhanced by the opalescent screen, the chair, table, drapery fabric, and dinnerware.

Lighting plays an important role as well, says Stemberg.

As it turns out, all of the designers in the exhibition are also gardeners. That is not uncommon, says Stemberg. For an interior designer to work with a florist is more than natural - it is a necessity.

"Florists are as important to us as our antiques dealers, our wallpaper suppliers.... All these sources we have gathered and cherished," she says.

When Stemberg went to her florist and told him exactly what she wanted for "Anniversary Waltz," he didn't believe that the color combination of coral, pinks, shrimp, and lavender would work at first. But when it all came together, he agreed that the flowers in the setting looked spectacular.

"I wanted to create a room, per se, not a showcase," Stemberg explains. "I wanted to create fantasy, where somebody could come by, dream, and maybe think of their love."

She had the screen designed and used most of her own furniture pieces, many picked up in Ireland. Three gifts from Tiffany & Co. rest on the table. Also, one of the chairs is pulled away, as if the man got up to leave for a minute, says Stemberg.

"That's when I planted the gift on his chair."

Stemberg says she's not suggesting people do this very scene, but that they embrace the concept and glean their own ideas.

"It's all in the presentation. Anybody can do that when it comes from your heart."

Merle Bicknell, manager of the flower show, says the interior design exhibit adds a new dimension to the event.

"It's been one of the most popular exhibits. Flowers are indoors and outdoors. For us to be able to show what to do with flowers inside is something we were looking to do."

Hundreds of thousands of people - from avid gardeners to just plain spring seekers - flock to the 14 or so major flower shows held in the United States each year.

In Boston, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's show is the oldest continuously operating horticultural event in the world and is considered the third largest of its kind.

Here, more than 60 landscaped spring gardens at their peak shower the senses and allow people to trade their blahs in for blooms. Truly, it is a treat for the winter-weary.

Nearly 150,000 are expected to attend this year, and thanks to the 235 retail booths and educational discovery center, many will return home with plants that they can only hope will look as good in a few months.

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