Embracing the intersection of art and horticulture, the Benz School of Floral Design is developing floral design enthusiasts across the state of Texas and beyond.
The Benz School’s multifaceted floral design outreach includes academic courses for Texas A&M University students, continuing education for professionals in the floral design industry, a certificate program at a satellite school in Korea, and credentialing for a high school floral design curriculum.
In all its classes, regardless of the learner’s age, the Benz School combines teaching design principles with as much hands-on experience as possible.
“Floral design is a blending of the sciences, the humanities and the arts,” said Bill McKinley, instructional associate professor, endowed chair and director of the Benz School in the Department of Horticultural Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“To be successful, the designer must know how to combine the elements and principles of design with knowledge of the science of plant materials – how they grow, change and are best used,” McKinley said.
A generous legacy for floral design flourishes at Texas A&M
The Benz School namesake and founder, M. “Buddy” Benz ’32, spent his career promoting and teaching design theory. He established a landscape and floral design business in Houston, and in 1946, founded a floral design school there. An icon in the floral industry, Benz was known for his innovative style, McKinley said.
Benz left his estate to his alma mater for the permanent location of the Benz School of Floral Design and the Benz Gallery of Floral Art with over 1,200 artifacts from his art collection. After his death in 1980, the school and gallery were established at Texas A&M. His family set up the Benz Endowed Chair, the only floral design endowed chair in the world, to support teaching activities in the Benz School.
Dedicated to fulfilling the Benz legacy, McKinley teaches academic courses for the Department of Horticultural Sciences and the Benz School. He also teaches continuing education courses in the Benz School.
Cultivating young florists through job-like training
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers two academic floral design tracks: a Bachelor of Arts in horticulture with an emphasis in floral design and a Floral Design Certificate program open to any Texas A&M student. Furthermore, the upper-level academic courses in these programs are limited to 18 students, allowing instructors to give personalized attention to each student’s design projects.
McKinley said many of his students want to specialize in event planning rather than become traditional retail florists. To expand their experiential learning beyond classroom theory and experience, floral design students create arrangements and designs for events on campus.
For the school’s floral designers in training, the “biggest clients are the Board of Regents, the Texas A&M University president’s office, the Chancellor’s office and The Texas A&M Foundation,” McKinley said. “We create designs for many functions, dinners, receptions and even their suites at Kyle Field during football games.”
These events give the students an internship-like experience. McKinley said that when future employers see a student’s portfolio, they realize that the student is experienced in more than just floral design. They have practical experience collaborating with an event venue, coordinating with caterers and safely making the delivery.
Plenty of room for student leadership and professional development
The Benz School promotes student leadership and professional development through the Forsythe Student Chapter of the American Institute of Floral Designers, SAIFD. It is one of only 12 chapters in the U.S. sanctioned by the national professional floral design organization, the American Institute of Floral Designers, AIFD. Membership is open to all Texas A&M students. McKinley, the advisor for the student group, said half of the club members are not floral design majors but enjoy working with flowers.
Each year, SAIFD hosts industry representatives to visit Texas A&M to give a design demonstration and explain the floral industry. Members of the student club also compete at the national student design competition at the American Institute of Floral Designers Symposium and network with designers from across the country.
Former students often credit their participation in SAIFD and the hands-on design experience as factors in their success.
Hallie Morrison ’16 served as vice president of SAIFD, won the SAIFD Student Competition Designer of the Year her senior year and was an AIFD Foundation Scholar.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, Morrison worked in four floral retail shops, a wedding events company, and is now the wedding manager for a floral design retail shop. In 2021, she won the Texas State Florists’ Association competition for Texas Floral Designer of the Year.
“Without the Benz School and SAIFD, I would not have the success that I’ve had,” Morrison said. “It has allowed me to have the confidence to work with brides and sell myself as a designer, so they trust me and know that I’m going to take care of them.”
Lizzie Borchers ’08, floral manager of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, said she gained leadership skills as president of SAIFD while at Texas A&M.
“If you want to move up in your career and lead a team, you need to be organized, communicate well to people and share your knowledge,” Borchers said.
She oversees two teams on the Biltmore Estate. One creates floral designs for weddings and events in 11 venues across the property. The other team decorates the Biltmore house for every season and specific events.
Borchers said working in a historic property requires another level of training to work around priceless collection items, something she first experienced at the Benz School.
“I remember when Jim Johnson, the school’s former director, allowed me to use a vase that was perfect for what I was designing,” Borchers said. “It was from the Benz Collection and rather priceless. That scared me a little, but now at Biltmore, I work around priceless objects all the time.”
Expanding educational outreach in floral design to a broader audience
The Benz School offers certification courses to students beyond the campus, promoting interest in floral design and strengthening the industry. In addition, certification helps professionals stay current on the latest design and business management trends and prepares skilled candidates to pursue a career in the industry.
During the summer, the Benz School provides continuing education courses for floral design professionals, high school teachers and the public interested in entering the industry. Texas A&M students who want to take the classes not for academic credit are also eligible to participate. Each class is limited to 20 participants.
The Benz School Korea is a satellite program of the Benz School at Texas A&M. About 100 to 150 students a year participate in the train-the-trainer program where teachers in Korea learn the Benz school curriculum. McKinley reviews the students’ portfolios to evaluate their level of design work.
The Benz School collaborated with CEV Multimedia in Lubbock to produce the high school curriculum, Principles of Floral Design Certification, and provides certification testing. Currently, the curriculum is offered in Texas schools and in 11 other states. The comprehensive course covers plant identification, flower business management, floral design basics, and buying and processing flowers.
The testing and certification earned upon completing the course verifies to potential employers that the student has the knowledge and skills to pursue a career in the floral industry.
Whether for academic or continuing education for students or industry professionals, the philosophy of the Benz School classes is the same – proven design elements and principles are the foundation of any aesthetically pleasing design.
Because of Benz’s vision and generous gifts, the Benz School is developing the art of floral design and success of the floral industry worldwide. To learn how to make a legacy gift for the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, contact Brandy Kines at email@example.com.