Volume 7, Number 2, 1998

She loves a parade!

Michelle Lofthouse, AS '89, knows exactly what she'll be doing on Dec. 27 each year-gluing mums onto floats for the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

Lofthouse sees many similarities between her career as a float designer and her UD training in applied piano and music.

"I'm using a lot of the same processes; it's just that my media have changed drastically. Instead of harmonizing music, I'm harmonizing color," she explains. "In both art forms, there are lines to follow-a floral line in float design and a vocal line in music." Timing and pace also are important in both, she adds.

Lofthouse was destined to be in the float design and building business. Her father started out many years ago as a "wire boy" for a prominent float-building company. Later, when he founded his own company, it became a family enterprise. "I remember being handed a paintbrush and put to work when I was quite young," Lofthouse says.

Over the years, she learned design and decorating techniques from the best in the business. While other teens were flipping burgers or bagging groceries, Lofthouse was learning how to sculpt in foam and papier-ma–ché and to choose and properly apply decorating materials. Floats in the Rose Parade are adorned not only with flowers, but also with fruits, vegetables, leaves, seeds and spices.

Today, the family business, Phoenix Decorating MCo., is one of the premiere builders of Rose Parade floats. The company designed and built 24 floats-close to half of the entries-for the 1998 parade. Lofthouse personally designed 10 of these, including such elaborate works as an elegant fountain and formal garden, the playful Eastman Kodak polar bears and a whimsical Tea at Grandma's House.

Lofthouse's father, mother, brother and sister-in-law also play integral roles in the company. They are joined by a year-round staff of 25, in addition to seasonal workers and volunteers.

It's all in preparation for a 5-mile New Year's Day parade that, since its founding 109 years ago, has become an institution. An estimated 425 million viewers tune in each year to watch the parade as it winds its way through Pasadena.

But, even those who have oohed and aahed over the extravagant floats may have little idea of the tremendous amount of work that goes into each one.

Lofthouse begins designing floats a full 10 months before the event. Sometimes, a client provides the idea. More often, Lofthouse finds inspiration in novels, paintings or everyday surroundings. "I might just walk outside and be inspired by the way a bird is sitting on a branch," she says. One year, the family's antique silver rose bowl sparked her creativity. The resulting float won the Queen's Trophy for best use of roses-one of many awards Lofthouse has won during her nine years as a designer.

"I always try to push the envelope technically," she says of her elaborate, mechanically challenging designs.

Lofthouse's schematic drawings serve as guidelines when the chassis, or frame, of the float is built of pliant pencil steel reinforced with heavier steel. The generators and engines needed to power the float and its motorized parts are tucked inconspicuously into the frame.

Flat surfaces of the float are covered with wood, while curved surfaces are overlaid with screening and "cocooned" with spray-on polychemicals. Many of the smaller, intricate figures on the float are carved out of foam. As designer, Lofthouse supervises the work, doing many of the artistic renderings herself.

Next, the entire float is painted to serve as a guide for the thousands of volunteers who will be decorating it during the week before the parade. "It's like a three-dimensional paint-by-number," Lofthouse explains.

Seeds, bark and some greenery can be applied months ahead of time, but the flowers must all be applied at the last minute. Hardy flowers such as mums are removed from their stems and glued directly onto the float. More delicate flowers that last only a day or two, such as orchids and roses, must be inserted into individual, water-filled vials and then stuck into the foam covering the float.

In the days leading up to the parade, tens of thousands of flowers are delivered to Phoenix Decorating from growers in California, South America, Hawaii and The Netherlands. Every kind of flower imaginable is used-orchids, irises, baby's breath, gladiola, delphiniums, tulips, carnations, birds of paradise and more. When completed, each float displays more flowers than many florists use in five years. It's no wonder a Rose Parade float can cost up to $300,000.

Lofthouse says she loves the creative challenge of her work and the festive atmosphere that surrounds it. "It's lots of fun, and because it changes every year, it never gets boring."

-Theresa Gawlas Medoff, AS '94M