Mark Upton is instantly recognisable as the passionate, enthusiastic, smiling florist with the funky specs often to be found in earnest conversation with friends and colleagues at the Flower Market. Together with his business partner, Charlotte Denton, Mark owns and runs tuff, a.k.a. The Urban Flower Firm, supplying flowers to offices, events, parties and weddings throughout the capital.
Mark first got the floristry bug on a school work experience placement, aged 16, at The Chiltern Florist in affluent Beaconsfield. A regular Saturday job and a three-year National Diploma in Floristry at the Welsh College of Horticulture soon followed. "I had such a fantastic grounding there in floristry techniques," explains Mark, "and it is probably where my mania for detail began!"
After stints at Jane Packer and Moyses Stevens, Mark was head-hunted back by Jane to teach at her Flower School. "It was an exciting time and a great opportunity for me," says Mark. "I travelled to Japan, helped expand the School and develop the famous Career Course. I still admire Jane and her work enormously. It takes real skill and intelligence to create beautiful designs with less, and I loved her ethos of sharing ideas and knowledge and demystifying floristry."
Over the course of his nine years there, Mark helped launch numerous florists' careers. He taught the Bloomsbury Boys, Michael Pooley, Tom Stogden and a certain Charlotte Denton, who later became Mark’s business partner, and had left her high-flying career at KPMG in search of a less rigid, more creative environment. At the end of the course, they kept in touch...
When Mark eventually tired of teaching, he left to work as a freelance florist, curious to see what other designers were doing. He worked for Wild at Heart, Woodhams, Paula Pryke, Rob van Helden and others, extending his repertoire and building a network of floristry contacts. “Florists are a lot like parasites,” laughs Mark. “We feed off each others’ ideas and techniques! But I also learnt how hard companies have worked to earn their reputations and their place in the industry. It is so competitive that you have to be resilient and very good at what you do. I really admire florists who have managed to sustain their success over time.”
Mark and Charlotte worked together frequently as freelance colleagues, before taking the plunge and launching tuff, The Urban Flower Firm. “We complement each other really well,” says Mark on the success of their working relationship. “Charlotte and I have different strengths and we support and encourage each other……. How we work together day-to-day depends on the job or the client. Charlotte calculates costs and plans the logistics. I will conceptualise a job, then we both bounce ideas around, refining them and reviewing their practicality and financial viability. The job is born out of a fusion of the practical and the aesthetic.”
Tuff has grown steadily over the years with a good spread of clients, carefully avoiding over-reliance on any one customer. They have 15 regular contract floristry accounts, and are accredited suppliers with top London venues such as Somerset House, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Tate, St Paul’s and the Royal Opera House. Tuff work with event and production companies on all manner of events from TV adverts to publicity stunts, functions and promotional stunts.
Tuff’s style is contemporary and pared down. They like to scale back the number of ingredients to look at what is really essential to the design brief. If rumour is to be believed, Mark is an absolute perfectionist. The key, tuff believe, is to listen really closely to the client until you understand exactly what the flowers need to do.
What about the fresh stuff? “We buy most of our flowers and foliage from the Flower Market. If you build a good relationship with your suppliers and pay your bills on time, they definitely look after you. You get the keener prices, the best product for the job, and good service. It’s a personal thing. I like to see what I am getting before I buy. I like to see the quality, and I like to pick the traders’ brains. They can advise me whether I can realistically get a particular flower or foliage in time for a specific event; or how to get it looking its best. Their knowledge and expertise helps us to do the best possible job for our clients.”
"The really lovely thing about floristry is that the materials change so dramatically," enthuses Mark. "We like to give a nod to the seasons in our work, and the summer months at the Flower Market have to be my favourite time of year. You just have such a wonderful kaleidoscope of colour to work with, and stock – especially British-grown - is plentiful and reasonably priced."
So, what does the future hold for tuff? "We like our work to move with fashion and trends. We are constantly evolving, and reinventing ourselves. It makes life challenging ….. and so much more interesting!"