The artist joins Document to discuss the universality of flowers, his sculptural practice, and the expansion of his design studio into the interior
Lutfi Janania Zablah—like any good host—can’t seem to sit still. I asked him to meet one Friday afternoon to speak about his emerging design studio, Rosalila, which has had quite the come up since its founding in 2020. What began with floral arrangements soon expanded to the interior: palm fiber mirrors, glass-encased botanical studies. At the moment, he’s got his eye on hand-crafted candles, signature ceramic vases, fertility eggs, and a furniture collection.
I waited in his garden until he appeared with a tray: ice water, natural wine, and his signature pack of Parliaments. Before I leave—nearly two hours later—I’ve had a tour of his two-story working space and I’m carrying a full-fledged arrangement, which Janania insisted on designing as we spoke. It’s a gesture he extends to all of his guests; the flowers will die soon, he reasons—and Rosalila’s mission, after all, is rooted in community-building.
Janania Zablah isn’t a florist. He calls himself a botanical sculptor. “I think that florists are great,” he maintains. “It’s color and composition; it’s literal artistry.” The point of differentiation—which he’s compelled to reiterate often—lies in the concept of permanence, which is vital to his work. Cut flowers are bound to wilt or dry, but the impact of a botanical installation, “the permanency of creating a moment,” stays with his audience forever. His latest show at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, for instance, communicated the artist’s Honduran-Palestinian upbringing: immersive for the sake of education, of transportation, of shared experience. The flipside is simply literal: Janania also makes objects, meant to exist permanently in the home. “That’s the strongest connection you can have with someone—when you can be in their deepest, most intimate place.” These pieces are still rooted in botanicals, in nature, but they’re made to last.
Because Rosalila started with flowers, it’s been difficult for Janania to establish them as a component of his work, rather than the whole thing—especially after he won the first season of Full Bloom, an HBO reality series where participants take on floral design challenges. He recalls that in 2021, he began to resent flowers entirely. He’d been commissioned for a botanical installation at the Rockaway Hotel; that sphere of his work was beginning to take off, leaving little time or space for anything else. “I was so committed to making objects [at that time],” he says. “That’s all I wanted to do.” It didn’t help that the flowers—with their quick turnaround and broad market—were bringing in the bulk of Rosalila’s funding. If Janania wanted to experiment with other types of art, he’d need the money from the flowers first. They became his means of organic creation, and his greatest barrier to it.
In conversation with Document, Janania divulges the methods to his madness: his vision for Rosalila, his ties to the land, and how he harnesses the commercial to make space for fine art.
Morgan Becker: You’ve always described yourself as a ‘botanical sculptor,’ rather than a florist or a floral artist. What’s the differentiation you’re trying to make?
Lutfi Janania Zablah: I started doing flowers maybe four years ago, when I left fashion. I’ve always been in the design world. I worked at a shop in Gowanus as a trainee, and I literally knew nothing. I was buying flowers myself just to learn and to get into the market. I started learning a lot about production with this florist. They do a lot of weddings, so it was full-on training. I was there for six months, though, it was really [short-term]. I couldn’t take it. Retail is not for me. I was a good salesperson, but I was not great at opening a shop at, like, a specific time every day of my life. [Laughs] Shoot me.
[Rosalila] started off doing a lot of floral work. We grew really quickly, because we used our contacts from fashion. For me, it’s all about the experiences we share through our installations. It’s beautiful. I really wanted to find a way of having that permanence. That’s how we started with objects and sculpture. I’m very curious, so I needed to take it to the next step. I can’t stay steady. I need to get to that point, and for me it’s about building and creating overall.
I think that florists are great. We hire florists at Rosalila. It’s about the color and composition, it’s literally artistry. But the sculptural work—the permanency of creating that moment for your viewer, for it to exist in your home… That’s the strongest connection you have with someone, when you can be in their deepest, most intimate place. And that’s how we’ve been showing our work lately. Just putting out collections, creating work that is permanent, like the mirrors. They’re still from a botanical world, still from plants, still from nature—because ultimately, my inspiration is always rooted in nature.
Morgan: Does the concept of permanence come into play at all with your floral work? Or is it one against the other?
Lutfi: It’s definitely segmented, and I purposefully made it that way—to have a clear idea for myself as the creator and the business owner, but also for the client and the viewer. That’s why Rosalila came into play: to have a special space for the floral work to still happen, because the reality is that that is our income. That’s how we’re funding everything, that’s how our business is growing. Most people know us through the floral work, so we can’t just shut that down. It’s a quicker turnaround, for sure. The demand is quick, the events need to happen, the experience and response with the viewer is immediate. That leads up to hospitality and food culture, and other areas in the industry that I’m really interested in. Rosalila is a way for me to experiment with other things besides sculpture. It’s a full design studio—we’re gonna be pumping collections out, to be able to exist in an interior world. We have the mirror collection, we have the vessels, there are other collections that are still in the making. We’re developing some candles in Oaxaca. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll be able to see our first chair and table.
Morgan: The whole interior.
Lutfi: That’s the idea. To have Rosalila exist in an interior world, in the design world. I’m really interested in sculpture, in being able to continue showing my work in an art space. Museums and galleries that have those conversations I want to have. It’s a slower process to get there, because I’m funding everything myself. Every collection is expensive. There’s prototypes. When you do something new, which is my tendency—that’s very expensive. You need to buy new materials, and there’s waste. Things fail, and you do trials, and you have to train people—it’s just a whole thing. That’s why the mirrors and the vessels make sense right now. We already learned how to produce them, and how to continuously get there.
Morgan: Do you have any formal training in furniture design?
Morgan: So you’re learning as you go.
Lutfi: [Nods] It’s the only way I’m passionate about learning—through experience. I’m not going to be able to stop what I’m doing and go to school. I never could. It has never limited anything. I don’t have professional training in a lot of the things that I’ve done. I’m using all of my resources from past jobs. You can see all the references in my work, too. You see that I worked in fashion—the way the murals are constructed is like draping a dress. The coloring, and everything that goes into it, is very much like a garment in a way. Same with the vessels. All of the girls have accessories. I was looking at these Honduran-Mayan pyramids, and these statues that exist there. I wanted the vessels to become those statutes. Each has their own personality, their own being. They have a lot of character. I want to continue to create work that will lead me to those sculptural works that I really want to present. It’s always about learning something new that I can make with my hands, and how I can take one step at a time. One step further every time. That’s the goal, you know, we’re immigrants.
Morgan: I was curious about whether the studio’s popularity was stopping you from being able to explore as an artist. But the floral work has actually become a means of funding your personal projects. You’re running two operations.
Lutfi: It’s the funding, but also the connections to people. They see the work at events, installations. Flowers are one of the single most beautiful things in the world. They’re unique. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how old you are, your background, race, anything. You can’t deny their beauty. It’s like seeing a baby. [Pointing] Everyone sees the beauty in that tiger lily. I love that reaction. It’s very Libra of me, but I love beauty. I just love beautiful things. It only makes sense that I would gravitate toward work with flowers, and then take that into everything else that I’m doing.
My mom, my sister, and my two grandmothers all have flower names. I never took a moment to think about that until last year. That’s also how the name Rosalila came about. Rosa was my grandmother. Rosalila is also an amazing, fantastic temple of the Mayan ruins, buried in the pyramid. It fully made sense, because I want Rosalila to have all of my background, in a more personal way. You can see the hand-crafted connection. I just have an idea and a vision of what it will look like, and I’m walking towards there. Sometimes I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.
Morgan: At the end of the day, that’s what being an artist is.
Lutfi: You surround yourself with a team that can make you stronger. I believe that, when we’re placing someone in a role in our studio, it’s so important to understand their strengths. I experience this with myself: When you try to make me do something that isn’t in my nature, it’s not gonna happen. It’s not gonna happen the right way, and it’s gonna cost you more, because it’s gonna take a lot of time, and it’s gonna take my soul away. We try to create special areas for the people that work with us. I’ve never been a boss before. This is so new.
Morgan: Could you tell me more about your aspirations in the art work?
Lutfi: I’ve been waiting for my big moment. The show at MAD was fabulous. People saw the sculptures; they saw the installation with fresh-cut flowers, the mirrors, the vessels. It was the first opportunity for people to be in the actual, physical world of Rosalila. But that’s where we’re going, yeah. We have a piece at Ryan Lee—one of our mirrors is there right now, for a show. We’re doing something in August with Regular Normal Gallery by Danny Baéz. There’s this Public Art conversation that just came around. I’m just, like, crossing my fingers. That would be a step that would make sense for our trajectory.
Morgan: I remember you told me you manifest everything.
Lutfi: It just kind of starts getting there. I still need to show my design at Friedman Benda. But I’m not interested in starting that conversation formally until I know the work is where it has to be. It’s not there right now.
Morgan: You’re setting up that platform for yourself.
Lutfi: That’s how I see it. I’ve worked from the ground my entire life. I’m taking the steps to get there. You can’t jump.
Morgan: It’s really cool that you’ve found this avenue that works for you—where you can do well in a commercial sense, but not have your work become commercial.
Lutfi: It’s a thing that I’ve been struggling with. I started doing flowers. Then I did the HBO show, Full Bloom, and that was my concern: Oh fuck, I’ve been working so hard for a year and a half to do sculpture. This is gonna set me back. In a way, people see me as a florist. But honestly, I’m not fazed by it. I know we do much more than just that.
[The show] did help a lot. It opened up this ability in us. And me knowing about myself too, and my voice—that was a great learning experience. I needed to vocalize. I needed to really pour it out there. I had an out-of-body experience. It was fucking insane.
Morgan: You’d started Rosalila before the show, right?
Lutfi: Yeah. When we did the commission with the Rockaway Hotel, that’s when I was, like, fully in it. For a year, I was working a lot with Bambi [Grimotes], my best friend. He was a great supporter of the brand. We’re really into floral work. It just started happening. We’d started being in the arts community, and then the commission happened. I was so committed to making objects [at that time]. That’s all I wanted to do. I almost, for a minute, resented flowers, because I just wanted to do this. But there’s no way—I need to have Rosalila still touch fresh flowers.
“Flowers are one of the single most beautiful things in the world. They’re unique. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how old you are, your background, race, anything. You can’t deny their beauty.”
Morgan: Can you talk about your vessels? Did you work with a painter for these?
Lutfi: These aren’t painted, actually. It’s a really special technique, really dear to me—I’ve been obsessed with it since I was a little kid in school. It’s from the Lenca community, the closest descendants of the Mayans: We create the body with this kind of cream ceramic base. Then we make a thinner paste, and create these motifs—everything that you see in the white. It all goes into an oven that’s burned with fresh green leaves, which creates a really heavy, dense smoke. It’s essentially smoking for eight hours. At the end, you kind of shave [the paste] off. What you see is the negative. The body is actually the base, and everything that’s black has been created by the smoking process.
Morgan: Where do the motifs come from?
Lutfi: We mainly work with tropicals—for me, it’s part of my DNA. I grew up on a bioreserve in Honduras. I was fully surrounded by greens; it was very special. Every day, I would look out of my window and see nothing but full green, Jurassic Park, enormous palm leaves. We had the sago palm, which is one of my favorites. She’s become an iconic motif of Rosalila, and that’s why it’s kind of engraved in all of the vessels. It’s a little minimalistic. She almost gives you serpent, or centipede. That’s how The Centipede Study came to life. We took the sago palm, we preserved it, then we created these framed botanical compositions.
This spiraling translates to other motifs. It’s what I wanted to be the body of these vessels. And as I was mentioning, I was looking at the Mayan statues a lot. I decided to dress them up, and give them all this armor, so everyone is decked out. They have the headdresses—thinking about super ceremonial aspects. The necklaces, all this beading. Then the fertility egg, that’s a precious little thing. I’d like to make it an iconic moment of Rosalila that can be in people’s homes. It’s so cute. It’s so special. The fertility aspect of it, I think it’s so romantic.
Here are the candles we’ve started figuring out in Oaxaca. This is our first draft, and it was really tough to even get them here. A lot of them broke. I need to go back to figure out a program to [break them into] components, and build them in New York City. That’s money that I need to figure out.
Morgan: Do you still live here?
Lutfi: Yeah, I do. It’s so tough to live where you work. It’s a pretty big space, but more and more it seems small. The fact that it’s not on the same level is also tough, because the stairs are a bitch. I have to put the sculptural work away for the events to come in. The flowers roll in, they’re everywhere, it’s so chaotic. It’s like a tornado fully takes over the whole place. That’s why you need a huge garage warehouse, with a rolling door.
Morgan: So this was a bedroom before?
Lutfi: It was our living room. It was so different. It was painted a super dark teal, and all of the furniture was jewel-tone: emerald couch in velvet, midnight blue. It was a very sultry room. Now I painted it white, and I moved my studio here. We use the other room as storage. And we have our outdoor space where we create our bigger installations. If we have to do large panels, it all happens outside.
I need to figure out a way of getting a place to live and a studio. If I was just running a floral business, I would probably be able to move faster, but we’re doing all the other things that are the core of Rosalila. I’m stretching out the [event work] to get to different places.
It’s a fashion thing. I see this as an atelier. We have our collections and we have our shows. It’s all girls, it’s all women. The work that we do is very feminine—it’s very much about the women in my life, and that’s the only image that we create. They’re the showgirls, very much giving you runway.
Morgan: What materials are you thinking about for the furniture?
Lutfi: Wood. I want to get into carving and working with really special lines. It’s all about the lines. I’m interested in a few different materials. What we’ve been working with right now is this woven material: a palm fiber that’s been dehydrated. It gets woven, and that’s how the mirrors get done.
This pleating is what we showed at the museum. We’ve been working with a pleating master in the garment district, and we started creating these panels of all-natural textiles that had different, really exact techniques created by the intergenerational family. We worked with two different seamstresses: One of them does the fans that you see cascading down. All the ruffling happens with another. All of that comes here, then we treat it, we dye it, we manicure it. We steam, press the trimming, and there are other materials that go into it for the body. There are starches and preservatives. Once [all of these components] are done, we essentially drape the dress and fully sew it in. It’s a very long process, but you can see the hands that went into the making of these pieces.
We were looking at mushrooms, actually, in the creation of these mirrors. I found these mushrooms in Chinatown the other day—ugh, I wish I had more money. It can go all the way up, like, one mushroom for $3,000. I gagged. But I love to see the similarities in different things, from the formations in crystals to the formations in mushrooms, and insects and flowers and things. That’s how the pleating came to happen—to give us that directional, visual line. I think it’s so beautiful.
Morgan: It always comes back to botanicals.
Lutfi: The textiles that we’re using are all from nature. We’re doing some linen, we’re doing palm fiber. We made so many samples and trials and techniques. So much goes into the making of a garment. I wanted to even [channel], like, millinery—beautiful Philip Treacy hats, all these really grand moments that showgirls have. I wanted to make it feel soft but still structured.
Morgan: What would be your dream project, if you had unlimited resources?
Lutfi: I definitely see Rosalila being a household name. You know, with the whole interior, literally. With Lazy Susans.
Morgan: I would love to see you design a whole house.
Lutfi: That’s the goal. That would open up the door to something bigger, like architecture. I’m here for the ride.
My hope is that my dad and I have a beach-front property in Honduras. The plan is to build a Rosalila studio down there, that I can come and work in for many months each year. I want a permanent place to experiment more, on Honduran land. There’s so much stuff here from Honduras, it’s crazy. My mom, she does the best job of collecting this material: This is cical, it’s another fiber that’s deep down from within a plant. This is what’s forming the headdresses of the girls. It’s super cute to have a connection to my family, and that’s also the point of Rosalila—to have a way of working with them. I’m closer to my sister now than I’ve ever been, because we’re in consistent communication and we’re building something together. It’s legacy.