Designers have such fun jobs, don’t they? Take Debra Toppel, for example. She created the gorgeous floral arrangements for Herman Miller’s showroom at NeoCon. From there, she joined the crew as head greens foreman for the movie, “What You Don’t Know,” starring Vince Vaughn and directed by Ron Howard, where she oversaw “many, many hundreds of square feet” of landscaping on the set.
“I love it all,” said Toppel about her wide-ranging projects, which sometimes call for “inventing” her own creations.
Toppel started out as a retail florist in Chicago, where her reputation for excellence led to set design jobs for movies being filmed in the Windy City. She says her favorite projects are those that require her to “invent something I’ve never done before, where I have to take my experience and say, All right, how can I Frankenstein this into something that will work…”
Like when the American Girl doll company asked her to create a winter fantasy forest with 12-foot oak trees looking like they were lining Michigan Avenue. Or when companies like Glade and Herbal Essence want her to create flowers for their packaging that don’t really exist in nature. “I go to the hardware store and find things that are made for one purpose and use them for something else,” says Toppel. “I love to let my eye expand, to look at (an object) and then morph it into what it needs to do for the particular situation.”
She says she has a “wild passion” for her work and enjoys the small jobs as much as the large ones. “I still like doing corporate work because it keeps my hands in the real world, seeing what the trends are, what’s happening in real life. When you’re working on films, it’s like ‘acting’ with flowers; it’s more about the whole show; nothing should pop out at you.” The arrangements she did for Herman Miller, however, did pop out at you – in a good way. “NeoCon is almost a visceral experience for me,” states Toppel. “It’s like the Superbowl of floral design, demanding the highest attention to detail and quality. And I have to say, working for Herman Miller is a true honor. There are certain design standards in the industry that are considered exceptionally important, and we all know where Herman Miller stands on that.”
It is. And Ron Howard, among others, is probably pretty happy she did.