Sheffield, Mass. >> At Campo de’ Fiori, the holidays have a natural glimmer-glow.
Barbara Bockbrader wants to simplify your holidays. Although she can’t do the baking for you and sugar cookies are definitely not her specialty, she has some ideas about getting back to the essentials this holiday season. Her idea? How about decorating the dining table with gilded leaves and gourds? How about taking a graceful terra cotta container with beautiful lines and mossy finish and filling it to overflowing with acorns? Instead of wading through mall traffic, why not cruise into the ample parking around Campo de’ Fiori’s local Sheffield, Mass. barn, and come out laden with baubles from nature. Amazon might not smile on you, but heaven and nature will sing. The Wise Men would be ecstatic.
Way back when, Barbara Bockbrader began experimenting with infusing celebrations with nature. Her mother was a floral artist with a comfort zone more in the delphinium and rose range. Barbara apparently inherited the gene connected with all things that require pruning shears, but she took a more freewheeling approach to floral design. When she first moved to the Berkshires, Bockbrader found plenty of opportunity to clip away. She started by doing flowers for the Old Mill restaurant in South Egremont, Mass., then found herself being asked to design arrangements for Blantyre, a Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel in Lenox, Mass.
Totally comfortable with juggling arrangements of massive proportions, her line is, “Big is easier than little when composing an arrangement. You have so much more freedom.” Not everyone is equipped to agree on that stance, but Bockbrader had the advantage of a garden.
“First and foremost,” she insists, “I’m basically a gardener.” So she grew her own flowers and cut branches from her own shrubs to build the mass to make magic happen.
“The holidays are really about magic,” she reflects. “They are about transformation and the brilliance of light.” That’s one of the reasons why Bockbrader infuses nature with the sparkle of gilding. The result glimmers with sparkle, “It’s so great to see something glowing and growing — it ties in with the return of the light.”
But part of the beauty of what she does is the comfortable reality of little nibble holes in leaves and nature’s glorious imperfection. Holidays are about pushing our comfort zone into a special place. And nature — with all its wonderful flaws — has a charming and close presence.
Word of her talents escaped. From the local scene, she branched out. Pretty soon she was doing the flowers for a Kennedy wedding, a Michael Jackson appearance at the Met, Studio 54, and events for Ungaro perfume.
“It was the 1980s and the decade of excess.” Bockbrader described the pulse of a time when huge arrangements were worshipped. Proportions were massive, but her style always hinged on a connection with local nature rather than leaning on flowers flown in from afar. These were not her mother’s arrangements. “I was never quite comfortable with all those rules,” she says of her uncontrolled style.
Meanwhile, her husband, Robin Norris was traveling to Mexico. At first, he simply went to visit a friend that had moved South of the Border from Vermont. But someone suggested that, while traveling to Mexico with a pick-up truck, he should throw on some pottery for the return trip. Pretty soon he had connected with artisans and began designing his own pottery to be crafted in Mexico. In 1996, Bockbrader and Norris built a beautiful barn to house the business that was dubbed Campo de’ Fiori. Bockbrader focused her talents on designing the shop and infusing it with the riches of nature. That focus continues today.
When the holidays arrive, Bockbrader’s design genius really comes into play. “I’m really part squirrel,” she likes to boast. When she wanders into the woods (“And I’m always walking around outdoors”), she finds wonders that the rest of us neglect to observe. Not only that, but she fills her pockets with flotsam from the forest and works it into creative displays. She sets up displays of gilded catkins, poppy heads, thistle flowers, milkweed pods, and grass plumes galore. At Campo de’ Fiori, you can purchase the talismans (as she likes to refer to her treasures) of nature, but also take a few lessons on how to decorate simply and sensitively.
“The charm and allure of nature comes by combining great form and texture,” Bockbrader explains. “Color plays a secondary role.” She echoes the patterns of nature and combines them with various patinas in crafted wooden bowls, sleek terra cotta containers, and all manner of other pairings. From fern fronds to fruits and nuts, she experiments with whatever she can scavenge. Not all her ingredients come from the surrounding woods. She grows tropicals such as grevillea in her greenhouse for their articulate leaves — and then preserves them. She ferrets out seed pods and sedum heads to sell. She creates compositions both petite and more ample to display in the shop. You can buy the pieces a la carte, or bring home the entire work of art.
Similarly, she grows amaryllis in Campo de’ Fiori containers and sells the budded and flowering plants for the holidays. This year she is focusing on some of the more brightly hued amaryllis that perform reliably such as “Temptation” (red and white), “Elvas” (double white with candy cane red centers), “Red Lion” (deep red), and “Orange Sovereign” (deep peachy orange). She also sells paperwhites (the biggest bulbs she can find) paired with Campo containers.
Bockbrader points out that nature goes with any décor and represents a vast time range. Cloves have been used historically in design, and so have golden apples. Anything with deep associations and strong architectural lines is fair game. Natural fragrances are also part of setting the scene — she makes a potpourri of frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, and orange peels for the holidays. She urges her customers to follow their heart and find their own inner sweet spot when it comes to design. As for pulling together arrangements — yes, Campo de’ Fiori can furnish unique and meaningful ingredients. But she prefers not to tell her customers how to pull their own scene together.
“As long as you’ve got a strong impulse, anything goes. If it inspires you, just go with whatever opens your heart. The holidays are about light and generosity,” she advises. “What would I suggest?” she responds to requests for guidance. “Settle in with what and who you love and give it a little gilding.”
Campo de’ Fiori is located at 1815 N Main St, Sheffield, Mass. Visit them at www.campodefiori.com/