Text by Anna Harmon
Images courtesy of Isa Isa and Tierney Gearon
To Sophia Moreno-Bunge, palm inflorescences look like something from the sea: white tentacles dangling among a palm’s waving fronds, lavender coral among golden puffs and pastel flowers in her botanical arrangements. These flowering stems, dried fronds, pods, dates—all cast-offs of Los Angeles’s trademark palms—beckoned to Moreno-Bunge upon her return home to Santa Monica after years on the East Coast. When she gathered the palm discards for a floral design job with no budget, something fell into place, and she wondered what else she could source from the surrounding environment.
The 33-year-old remembers being interested in flowers growing up. She created sets with roses to photograph for a middle school class, and as a teenager she picked flowers while wandering the neighborhood with a friend. But when Moreno-Bunge headed to New York for college, it wasn’t for anything of the floral sort. Rather, she studied photography and art history.
Her work has an overflowing yet sculptural style and regularly features bursts of dried, golden materials and bright florals that speak to her hometown.
After graduating in 2009, she worked as an assistant for sculptor Nivi Alroy. Around that time, she accompanied her girlfriend, professional skateboarder Alexis Sablone, to Park Delicatessen, a combo skate and flower shop in Brooklyn, where they would buy flowers to arrange at home. She also visited Saipua, “a pioneer in the wild, romantic garden style” according to Moreno-Bunge, where she was inspired by the vision and ethos. (It is now a farm, but at the time, Saipua was a flower-arranging and soap-making studio in Brooklyn.)
These encounters marked the beginning of her formal interest in floral design—though to call Moreno-Bunge’s work “floral” is to disregard its celebration of other types of plant cuttings, dried materials, fruits and vegetables, even inanimate objects like shells and driftwood. When she saw an article about Emily Thompson in the New York Times, she was was drawn to Thompson’s fantastical aesthetic and familiar background in sculpture. She reached out to Thompson and ended up interning with her for three months and then working full time with her floral design company, Emily Thompson Flowers, for more than two years.
Thompson’s style, Moreno-Bunge says, is dramatic and severe and reflects the East Coast with its dark, moody, thorny elements. While working for the company, Moreno-Bunge occasionally tried out her personal palette of pastels, but it didn’t fit. Then in 2015, she returned to Santa Monica to be near family and support their restaurant, Fig Tree Venice. She saw anew her city’s landscape: the tans of the desert, the neon and pastels of the ocean and sunsets. It was here, she realized, that her fondness for pinks and lavenders and blues and yellows was rooted (as well as in being a child of the ‘80s). From her time with Emily Thompson, the natural inspiration of her hometown, and her desire to “expose people to the more mundane materials that you find around the city,” Moreno-Bunge developed her signature aesthetic. Her work has an overflowing yet sculptural style and regularly features bursts of dried, golden materials and bright florals that speak to her hometown. Flowers, foliage, and objects foraged and found mingle with those sourced from local farms and flower markets.
Moreno-Bunge debuted Isa Isa in 2015. Her clients include Van Cleef and Arpels, Rachel Comey, and Eckhaus Lautta, which are eager to let her team experiment and use things like dry materials and palm dates for floral arrangements in their stores. She also created arrangements and an indoor plant landscape for Goop and defined the floral style for the West Coast debut of Glossier in Hollywood.
While Moreno-Bunge is best known for her L.A.-inspired look, she is willing to travel for work and finds place-based inspiration wherever she goes. For a friend’s wedding in Italy, they bought plants from a nursery, foraged grasses and palms around Sicily, gathered squash and stone fruit from the farmers market. But there are unique elements of L.A. and its surrounding landscapes that Moreno-Bunge eagerly anticipates. In the spring, the invasive wild mustard blooms, covering the hillsides in “this acid-yellow explosion.” In the summer, there’s wild fennel. Wildflowers appear and then vanish. The city shimmers golden with dried grasses like milky oats. All around, palms drop fronds and drip with flowers.