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If you attended the 2023 Society of American Florist Convention in Phoenix, perhaps you saw Michael Smith, AIFD, AAF, PFCI, FDI, FSMD win the 54th annual Sylvia Cup design competition.

Michael is the owner of Artistic Designs Unlimited in Mariana, Florida, President-Elect of Florida State Florist Association, and the 2002 Florida State Designer of the Year.

What inspired Michael to compete? “I competed last year and felt driven to do it again. To beat what I did last year, to do better, to test myself.” A wise decision. Competitions are like a hands-on class of spontaneous learning. “It absolutely is,” agrees Michael. “You learn from yourself and the other designers. Amazing work was produced in that competition. It was neat to see what everybody created using the same materials.”

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SAF’s Sylvia Cup

The Sylvia Cup competition is the longest running live floral design competition in the US. Beginning in 1967, it was named for Sylvia Valencia, a prominent designer and active SAF – Society of American Florists member. Organized by PFCI - Professional Floral Communicators International, Sylvia Cup hardgoods and prize money were sponsored by Smithers-Oasis North America. Certified American Growers provided fresh product that was introduced to the designers fifteen minutes ahead of the competition.

Twenty-five competitors were provided the same flowers, foliage, and design supplies to complete three designs in a two-hour time limit. A ‘Wild, Wild West’ theme was announced thirty minutes before the competition.


Three judges scored each design based on design elements, principles, mechanics, execution, and creative application. The winner was determined by the highest combined score and awarded $3,000 and a coveted trophy. Results were announced during the SAF Stars of the Industry Awards Dinner.

Kelsey Thompson AIFD of Bloom Flora in Algon, Iowa was awarded first runner-up and $500. Second runner-up went to Patience Pickner AAF, AIFD, PFCI of The Picket Fence in Chamberlain, South Dakota, along with $250.

Competitions are challenging

“It's hard to put yourself out there to be evaluated or judged by somebody else,” says Michael.

 Participants compete against each other and the time clock, with an intensity that often bonds them. “There was a lot of really good energy in the room.” Michael reminisces. “We all cheered and clapped because everybody finished.”

Going into the competition, Michael’s plan was to “keep it clean and simple.” An important concept for trying not to lose points on the evaluation sheet more so than trying to gain points. While taking classes, studying and working with flowers, Michael learned that keeping it clean and simple, “makes it easier for judges to evaluate quickly with less product to judge or mark against you.”

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Three design topics

A topic was announced for each design. “You had to really listen to the rules. Some materials were required for use in our designs. There were new products that Oasis brought to market,” Michael explains. “This year a lot of people found it challenging because we received no cold glue, floral tape, or floral wire. It was very interesting to see what people came up with from the materials we were provided.”

1. Spirit of the West - a museum worthy floral art piece that captures the heritage of the Native Americans and the influences of Spanish, Mexican, and American cultures. Designers were asked to create an all-around vertical arrangement for a modern art museum.

“I love vertical arrangements. I've gotten really infatuated with them lately. I came up with doing a standing all-around, like a garden, but a very clean and tailored look. We were required to use black Midnight foam and I love it.” It’s a fun product to manipulate.

“When competing, you have to listen to the questions and really think about what is being asked. Somebody asked if we used black Midnight foam, because we required to, could it be visible?” Yes, but it had to be used in an obvious and creative form that became an element of the design.

“I enjoyed using the black Midnight foam. I crushed it with my fingers, pinching it off in little pieces to make it look like dirt and rocks on top of the foam,” Michael continues. “I cut a piece to make a solid base using the element of decoration on top. Tailoring everything to give it creative flair.”

2. Gold Rush - a monochromatic yellow wedding bouquet suitable for the wedding of a daughter of a wealthy gold miner.

“I wasn’t sure about the bouquet, but I knew I could make it work if I kept it clean and simple.” In a competition, confidence is everything. You have to trust your talent. “They always tell you in competition, don't do anything new. But, they had this new gold wire mesh product that I really wanted to use. In that last twenty minutes, my thought process was - I know what I want to do, if I stick to my Principles and Elements, I can make it happen. I was able to use those new materials and pull it out.”

Using materials, flowers, or hard goods in an unexpected way can elevate a designer’s work, sometimes resulting in higher points.

3. Dearly Departed – a sympathy tribute that features some representation of a cross and stands as a memorial tribute to those who did not make it along the journey west.

“We had to include a cross in that piece, it did not matter if you created a cross, worked it into the design, or if the design was a cross.” Designers were given a cross form. “Of course, I threw it under the table because I knew everybody would use it.” Competitors were required to use the new Oasis Event Saddle. “I knew that it would take a lot of material to cover the mechanics. I took a knife, cut a hole in it, hung it on the easel, and made a freeform cross out of it. Again, keeping it very clean and simple. Using Aspidistra leaves to cover mechanics, making the design stand out even more,” Michael explains.

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Stars of the Industry

The Stars of the Industry event was a special night for Michael in more ways than just the competition. He received his AAF - American Academy of Floriculture designation and was inducted into PFCI - Professional Floral Communicators International.

Why does Michael think accreditation is important? It allows you to perfect your knowledge, skills, and professionalism. “I started my educational journey in 2019 classes. I wanted to join AIFD and I'm so proud that I have done it.”

Expanding your network of people through working, competing, taking classes or teaching others offers new opportunities. “I call it my flower family. They're the ones that understand the long hours and hard work we do. The time and holidays we give up to provide flowers for our communities, weddings, parties, and events. I love conventions because then it's a chance to meet people that understand what I go through on a daily basis,” shares Michael.

I've made a lot of friends along this path. Amazing friends, amazing talents. Sometimes you need to know how to do something. I can pick up the phone, call and say, "Hey, how'd you do that?" and I've had people call me,” says Michael.

“We've gotten on Zoom to share and learn. Then, we compete with each other. We do it to challenge ourselves, to say “I want to see how they did that. It's fun to do it yourself and win, but it's also fun to see what others have done and what you can take away. Somebody’s always doing something that's a little different or new that you can learn to do yourself.”

Where does Michael find inspiration?

Interacting with other designers. Watching online videos. Taking classes – Floriology, Floral Design Institute, Florida State Florist Association International and SAF opportunities. Attending AIFD Symposium.

“Florida State offered eight scholarships this year. I was one of those recipients a few years back for a mentorship with a wonderful designer, Bob Tucker AIFD, and we've become absolute best friends. I talk to him on a regular basis. He’s one of those flower friends that can talk you off a ledge. If it's like, "I’m just not making it today", he’s like, "Calm down, you can do this". If you don't have a mentor, you need one,” Michael suggests.

What’s Michael’s best advice for someone wishing for Sylvia Cup Success? Network. Get involved in state organizations. “Anybody can come into Florida State. Our doors are open to help you in any way we can. I've had people come and spend a few days in the shop with me to work together coming up with ideas.”

Two hours can go quickly!

If you're preparing for competition, learning to discern time and how to break that time down per design is important.

“My heart sunk when they hollered the first 30 minutes was gone. The next thing you know, I'm doing my thing and all of a sudden, they said you have forty-five minutes left. At that point my heart sunk even further and it was like, ‘Oh no’. I just went to hyperdrive with stuff slinging and flying. People started standing around. I'm like, ‘Okay, it's time to go away. Just let me do my thing.’ It was even more pressure. It goes by really fast and before you realize that they're hollering ‘time's up!’”

Practice in advance by dividing out your time. Allow yourself ten minutes to settle in and get started and ten to finalize and double check your work at the end. Divide the remaining minutes by the number of designs to derive the minutes available per design. Practice using a lesser number of minutes. During competition, you’ll feel the cushion of a few extra minutes.

Once you've used up the time reserved for one design, put it down. Move to the next design. If you run out of time, you can get a lesser score for not finishing, but you will be disqualified if you fail to start a design.

Preparing for PFDE - the evaluation process of AIFD helped Michael practice timing and hone skills. After work in the afternoons, he set a 30-minute timer and made a design to test his skills and challenge himself.

Ask someone to pull your materials to simulate a ‘Surprise Package’ to practice working with unexpected materials. Ask someone to assign random topics to challenge you mentally.

Practice different types of designs. Often a bouquet, sympathy arrangement, centerpiece for a table or something for every day is requested. Have a basic form in mind for each. Michael was already practicing vertical designs. When they asked for a vertical design, he was ready.

Learn new skills

“I pushed myself to learn different skills because I want the shop to offer a lot. If you can dream it, we can do it. Our customers make us who we are, and they're super important to me. My customers started pouring out to me as soon as the announcement went out.”

To help differentiate his business Michael gives customers the option of traditional or artistic designs. “I have customers that love artistic stuff and are intrigued by what we send. Some of them say, ‘Make whatever you want today, this is what it's for.” Giving Michael an opportunity to practice new skills.

Every judge or evaluator has a little different approach. “I’ve learned in competitions that you can go in a room and knock something out, but a judge can find something wrong with it. It all goes down to what you're being asked to do, listening to the rules, and points. PFDE is the same way.

”If you're not successful but feel like you really did a great job and it wasn't scored that way, it doesn't mean that you should give up. You will have other judges in other competitions. “Each time I’ve competed, I got my score sheets, studied them, got with mentors or friends who helped me and I worked to do better. Over time, you accumulate greater skills.”

Change inspires growth. “Don't be afraid to step out and educate yourself,” Michael advises. “Education is the key to success, and I am very thankful for my flower family. Don't be afraid to ask somebody for help.”

How do you prepare for challenging competitions?