Amanda Luu & Ivanka Matsuba
San Francisco-based floral design shop Studio Mondine takes a unique approach to flower arrangements, combining lush, overgrown English garden style with precise, spiritual Japanese ikebana style in their work. We caught up with founders at their studio and chatted about their passion driven careers, and how they do it in style.
What inspired the creation of Studio Mondine?
Amanda: Ivanka and I wanted to explore a different narrative with flowers — one of simplicity, clarity of thought, and purity of expression.
How did you decide to start a business together?
Amanda: We met on the Bay Area freelance floral design circuit, running into each other weekend after weekend at some of the finest studios in San Francisco. As we both tend to skew a bit more serious and focused when we design, it took over a month for us to have a real conversation. I deeply admired her work, and I think she, mine. When we started talking aesthetics, we realized there was a common thread, and one that wasn’t often explored in the work we created for others: a wabi- sabi aesthetic. A year later, we formally teamed up and started creating editorials that WE wanted to see in the wedding and event space.
Ivanka: I think I'd sum it up by saying "two heads are better than one." Amanda and I were friends and we worked together a lot - helping each other on our own events - and our styles were very similar. So we knew we liked working with each other and thought we could do more with less stress when we join forces. This was the starting point.
Once that was decided, what was the process like getting it up and running?
Amanda: To be honest, it was scary! There was very little social proof for these flower arrangements that we made. We consider ourselves fortunate that the people who “get it” — it, being our aesthetic — really got it. Our early clients tended to be designers and architects who felt comfortable with negative space and a certain undone quality to their flowers.
Ivanka: I think as every business - all the legal stuff first. Once that was all settled we started hunting for a studio. We spent a weekend in Portland and pretty much wrote down answers to all the “what ifs”, and dreamed up some big and small goals. From there we took it one step at the time.
The name Studio Mondine has a special story – would you mind sharing with our readers?
Amanda: Absolutely! We were inspired by the story of the Italian women called the Mondinas who left their homes each season in the cultivation of rice paddies. Much of the backbreaking seasonal work was clearing these fields of weeds. I joked with Ivanka that we had a lot in common with these women, because it also felt like we left our lives behind each summer season, our busy season for weddings and events. And we, too, were picking weeds, but to imbue our arrangements with a sense of wildness and movement. The name just clicked for us.
How would you describe your relationship with each other pre-Studio Mondine, and its growth since?
Amanda: Ivanka and I ran our own businesses for a season or so before teaming up. We would consult on one another’s projects, and we would even share our inventory with one another. We were and are completely self-funded, which meant we needed to be strategic and creative from the get-go. When we formally joined forces, our initial contributions to the business were equal, 50/50 because we’d been sharing so much with each other already.Before SM, I knew that Ivanka and I were aesthetically lined up. What I didn’t expect was how differently our brains are wired, and how that would play out in our business. I prefer looking at the forest, and Ivanka prefers looking at the trees. We’re always riffing off each other in these ways, which I think makes for some really special flowers.
Ivanka: Before we started Studio Mondine we met freelancing in different flower studios in the Bay Area. We were drawn to each other at first because of our work style. Working in silence haha, but then naturally we became good friends.
Is one of you more creative than the other? More business-oriented than the other?
Amanda: Hard to say! I’d say that Ivanka is much more intuitive when it comes to designing, and I’m much more intuitive when it comes to running a business. But that’s just our starting skill set. We’re cross-functional, so both of us look at the business and both of us think about design. I think it’s that holistic approach that has propelled us. As Ivanka likes to say, we’re both stressed, but about different things. :)
Ivanka: I think Amanda enjoys the business side of things much more than I do, I prefer the more creative side, but I think we are equally creative. I’d say most of our best work we've done is when we were both involved in the creative process together.
How would you describe your style of arrangements to a stranger?
Amanda: The simplest way I’ve found to describe our body of work is that it is a negotiation between the more lush, overgrown English garden style and the exacting, spiritual, and introspective Japanese ikebana style.
What are some key factors when shopping for farmers that you’d like to work with?
Amanda: We love working with local farmers. Bonus points if they adhere to growing practices and methods that enrich the Earth. Even more points if they’re woman-owned!
Ivanka: Building a relationship with farms and people that work there is definitely key and provides opportunity for collaboration. In the past we’ve worked together with farmers to decide what new varieties of flowers to plant, what new plants to bring in, or giving advice on what the trends in the industry are.
In addition to working with farmers, you have your own small cutting garden. Are there specific plants/flowers you prefer to grow on your own vs. getting from a farm?
Amanda: We do! It’s just something that evolved over time, because we were so frequently buying plants to cut from (pro tip right there!) for our arrangements that we started hanging onto them. Plants like hellebores, which can be commercially grown, cut, and shipped, but are much happier and longer-lived when cut from a plant for each arrangement...and accent foliage such as heuchera, coleus and peperomia.
Ivanka: We love to grow special varieties like akebia vine or special varieties of clematis that you can’t really see at the flower market. Basically flowers that will make the arrangement more special and unique.
Do you have a favorite event you like to create arrangements for?
Amanda: Right now, we’re working on a book due out Spring 2020 that explores Ikebana-style arranging within a modern context. Ivanka and I have been working with hyper seasonal and really special ingredients for the stories, and we can’t wait to share more!
Ivanka: I don’t think I have a specific event that I like to create flowers for. If the design is inspiring and challenging it can be any event. However, I do like to create for some more artistic endeavors, like our upcoming book.
Studio Mondine offers in-studio floral workshops. Can you walk us through what those look like?
Amanda: We do! We started offering these intensives because neither one of us was formally educated in flowers. At least for us, just practicing and working in them has been the best education. We wanted to offer this experience to more of the flower curious, as an alternative to formal enrollment in a 12-week course. For each class, we talk through ingredient selection and care, color theory, shape, and how to create movement within arrangements.
Did floral arrangements come to you naturally, or did you need specific training to help master your skills?
Amanda: As I mentioned, Ivanka is much more of the intuitive when it comes to arranging. I have to be much more deliberate (perhaps that’s why I was drawn to ikebana arranging, with its precise and exacting requirements to create very natural looking arrangements).
Ivanka: To my surprise I felt like it came to me naturally when I was first starting, although I practiced a lot to get to a point where I felt like I knew what I was doing. And there is always a room for improvement.
If you weren’t creating floral arrangements for a living, what would you be doing?
Amanda: At the top of my list: landscape architecture, textile design, public defender, small business consultant... I guess I have a lot of other career ideas! I’m sort of hoping I can still fit all of these into my life at some point.
Ivanka: Hard question to answer. It changes a lot, but right now I would probably be doing something with art therapy and would possibly try to involve flowers in it in some way.
How do your on-duty and off-duty looks differ?
Amanda: A day at the studio takes us all over town, so I need a wardrobe that’s flexible and can work in a variety of contexts: flower market to client meetings to venue visits. And comfort is key, day or night! You’ll often find me in natural and comfortable materials such as cotton, linen or silk. To keep things interesting, I like to play with exaggerated shapes and volumes. I keep hair, make-up and accessories fairly minimal and functional for work and will swap out shoes (I’m guilty of keeping 4-5 pairs at my desk...) and swipe on a dark lip as I run out of the studio to grab dinner with a friend. Off-duty, all bets are off. Recently, I’ve been dressing as my fourth grade self might have dressed — yes, that means faded jeans, tie-dye, and day glo. I went to UC Berkeley, where tie-dye still runs down a considerable length of Telegraph Avenue, so my off-duty wardrobe really feels like a homecoming of sorts.
Ivanka: I had a baby recently, so my weekends are primarily focused on my family, hanging out with friends and just relaxing.
If you’re in a rush after being in the studio and need to freshen up your look, what’s your go-to accessory?
Amanda: We used to share our studio with the inimitable Kate Jones of Ursa Major. Those were great times — I would swing by her work bench and ask to borrow pieces with some frequency. Now that she’s on the East Coast, my move is to swap out shoes (going from practical to slightly-less-practical-but-still- orthopedic) and put on a dark lipstick.
Ivanka: I usually go for blush to bring more color in.
What are some of your wardrobe staples?
Amanda: Are you familiar with capsule wardrobes? I find it really helps to set an intention for a season and simplify dressing that way. A few of my staples include thin long sleeve mock necks (yes, I feel like a black turtleneck is my birthright since I grew up in the Bay Area), a tailored cropped trouser, a pair of off-white linen pants, a vintage caramel silk tunic gifted from my dear friend Shasta, and a black jumpsuit.
Ivanka: A versatile jacket would be mine.
What is most important to you when shopping for new clothes?
Amanda: I’m a bit of a minimalist, so I have to truly LOVE the piece before I can add it to the rotation. A way I keep myself honest is by limiting the number of hangers in my closet — if something is acquired, then another piece has to find a new home.
Ivanka: The older that I’m getting, the more I care about clothes that are comfortable and cozy, clothes that are good quality that you will own for a long time.
What do you love about the Joie Summer Collection?
Amanda: The summer collection prominently features one of my longtime power colors — a bright, unapologetic orange! It brings me so much joy.
Ivanka: I love the pop of bold colors, bright yellow in particular.
Do you have any favorite pieces from the shoot?
Amanda: Yes! I loved the knits in this collection. I have relatively few, and relegated knits to the realm of Fall/ Winter. But a slinky tank knit gives you a bit more warmth (perfect for San Francisco year round) while still feeling light and breezy.
Ivanka: Braden Pant in Froth color. I love the silk material they are made out of. You can style them casually or elegantly and they look amazing each time.
On Bay area living and travel…
What is your favorite neighborhood in the Bay Area?
Amanda: I live in Bernal now, which has always felt like the “Berkeley” of San Francisco to me. It’s a sleepy little neighborhood with great local shops and restaurants, and one of the best views of the city atop Bernal Hill. A close second would be North Beach and Chinatown for the bustling nightlife, galleries, and fantastic food. North Beach feels like the most “European” neighborhood to me, because you have people of all ages spilling out of restaurants and sipping cappuccinos well into the evening.
Ivanka: My favorite place in the Bay Area is the beach at Point Reyes. I love the pristine nature and peacefulness there.
Do you have any local shops you love?
Amanda: Do I ever. Voyager on Valencia is a sartorial destination for me. I love March SF for kitchen/dining/living wares. Song Tea is a beautiful tea tasting room that also displays breathtaking ceramics. If you’re looking for a one-stop shop in the Mission, close to our studio, I’d recommend you visit the Heath Factory. They share the building with Tartine Manufactory, The Aesthetic Union (for all your stationary and art supply needs), and The Boiler Room, a rotating gallery/showroom that’s tightly curated and endlessly inspiring.
Ivanka: I always find something great in Voyager.
When you’re not working, where can you be found?
Amanda: In my vegetable garden, behind the studio. Or at the Abacus Row showroom, which doubles as my office-away-from-office. My friend Christine Trac helms the brand, and somehow she still has more bandwidth to create thoughtful programming in her space. Previous shows include “Made in Mexico”, which features the work of independent artists with roots in Mexico.
Ivanka: I’m more of homebody these days, so either at my house or at the cafe.
Do you travel more for work events, or for pleasure?
Amanda: As we’re a destination studio, it seems we’re always doing “away” games. I will say that traveling for work is nowhere near as relaxing as traveling for fun. However, flowers have allowed us to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world — Naoshima Island in Japan, the French Alps, the Caribbean...the list goes on!
Ivanka: Both. We traveled for work quite a bit in the past few years, which I’m super grateful for. And I travel for pleasure quite often as well. I’m from Slovakia, so I definitely make at least one trip a year overseas.
What are some of your favorite destinations?
Amanda: Kyoto is near the top of the list. Mexico City is right behind. Vietnam, where my family has roots, will always be my favorite place to go.
Ivanka: For me Prague is my favorite city, but love Portugal as well. Also, Hawaii is one of the most relaxing places for us.
Any upcoming summer travel plans?
Amanda: We’ll be up and down the west coast this season. We have a few potential jobs that would take us to St Barths and Kyoto. At the top of my list is Singapore — if only to eat durian.
Ivanka: I just got back from Slovakia and no plans for any more travel so far.
If you had to live anywhere else in the world besides SF, where would it be?
Amanda: I’ve been working on this question for some time now. It’s tough to say! The Bay Area is where I was born, raised, and educated. When I’m driving down 280 and the marine layer starts to blanket the treeline, I think that there isn’t much better a place to live than here.
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