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faux flowers

Faux flowers decorate the entrance to Gino & Marty’s Italian restaurant at 844 W. Randolph St. in the West Loop. Chicago business owners hope such decor offers a warm welcome to patrons.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

These flowers are fake, but Chicago businesses embrace them as a very real way to attract customers

They slither, curl and twine around windows, under eaves and over doorways in a riot of color — the way things might be if the world was abandoned to flowers.

And they’re everywhere. In New York or London, you can’t help but notice storefront after storefront smothered in elaborate displays of flowers that never wilt or need water or pruning because they’re all fake.

Chicago has begun to bloom in faux flowers, though not on the scale of some cities.

“It’s my job, as a retailer, to give people a reason why to take time out of their busy day to shop,” says Paula Queen, who owns Pyar & Co., a posh version of what she calls a “general store.” “Everyone appreciates flowers. And it creates interest.”

Braided foraged vines with purple bougainvillea — about 250 stems — climb beside the store’s entrance at 2132 N. Halsted St. before arching over the top like a wave about to crash or maybe a question mark asking: Don’t you want to come inside?

Aisling O’Halloran installing faux flowers on restaurant exterior

Aisling O’Halloran of the seasonal container planting company A Proper Pot, who was hired by Pyar & Co. owner Paula Queen to decorate her storefront, installs an arch of faux bougainvillea flowers outside the Lincoln Park shop.

Pat Nabong

Aisling O’Halloran, who lives in Andersonville and owns the seasonal container planting company A Proper Pot, did Queen’s flowers this year. She was on a trip to London two years ago when she noticed the explosion of color adorning shopfronts.

“I was just blown away by the sheer volume of it, how it just completely transformed a sidewalk or a footpath,” O’Halloran says.

The trend took off in the COVID-19 pandemic when businesses began to reopen. Restaurant owners who had invested money designing interiors were faced with how to lure back customers to the sidewalk sheds they’d put together with supplies from Home Depot and elsewhere.

Along came Carlos Franqui, a New Yorker originally from Puerto Rico. Floratorium, his silk flower and art studio, had been doing well since opening in 2014. The pandemic temporarily shut him down. The sheds — which he could decorate with his flowers — offered a lifeline, he says.

Franqui, whose team has so far decorated three restaurants in Chicago, says his “overgrown” designs are inspired by the tropical rain forests of Puerto Rico.

“If there is an abandoned building, nature will reclaim it and cover it,” says Franqui, a colorful figure who favors multihued nail polish. “Life will always find a way.”

He starts with hand-braided willow branches, adds wisteria vines “to create movement,” then weaves in the flowers. The effect is more fantasy than verisimilitude because there are just so many blooms.

Even as the pandemic wanes, demand remains high. Late last year, he opened a showroom in Miami.

“We have installations every day,” Franqui says.

His designs aren’t cheap, ranging from about $40,000 to more than $200,000.

Avi De Yparraguirre owns the French cafe Maison Marcel at 3114 N. Broadway. Franqui’s pale pink flowers ramble over the building’s whitewashed exterior. Yparraguirre won’t reveal how much he paid but says the flowers were worth the money.

faux flowers on Maison Marcel exterior

A grand display of faux flowers decorate Maison Marcel in Lake View.

Pat Nabong

“It was a good investment because there were a lot of restaurants closing at that time,” he says. “Nobody knew if [your restaurant] was open or closed.”

He says the flowers sent a message that the cafe was back open for business. The faux flowers have begun to fade, though, and will need to be replaced soon, Yparraguirre says.

Gino Bartucci, chef and owner of Gino & Marty’s Italian restaurant in the West Loop, says the pink and yellow blooms that ramble across the front of the restaurant serve a similar purpose to the shingles that business owners hang out front.

He says he wanted the flowers, installed by his friend Agne Valiskas of Gurnee, to give his restaurant a “little more neighborhood” feel.

“If you factor what a couple of tables on our patio can make, especially on Randolph, and you have a fresher, more European feel when you’re dining,” Bartucci says, “it pays itself back.”

Franqui likes to talk about the wild, overgrown look of his displays. But that doesn’t mean he’ll throw any old flowers up on your wall.

“The botanicals must represent what the restaurant is selling and what the vibe is all about,” he says. “I can’t have an Icelandic restaurant with tropical flowers.”

O’Halloran, who said she had about 20 calls from prospective clients after she finished a recent installation at St. Clement Church in Lincoln Park, doesn’t think the interest in faux flowers will wilt and be pushed aside by a desire for the next thing.

“Obviously, people follow trends, but there are very few people who don’t love big, bright, beautiful flowers,” she says. “I don’t think that that’s something that comes and goes.”

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