Armed with scissors, a set amount of material and a two-hour time limit, Philip Rice, like any designer, felt the pressure to make it work.
"Timing is the only thing I worry about which got me a little bit," Rice said shortly after wrapping up the surprise fashion assignment. "In the past year, I haven't been in retail, which keeps your speed and agility up."
Though the tension was certainly similar to the backstage of a runway, flowers were the only high-fashion items to pop on Thursday at a Sheraton Hotel ballroom outside of Phoenix.
Rice was one of 24 floral designers from 15 states vying for the Sylvia Cup, the floral industry's only live, national design competition.
"From what I understand, it's one of the most prestigious floral (industry) awards," said Rice, a freelance designer from Folsom, Calif., who was competing for the first time. "It can boost your career in any direction you want it to go."
Each contestant was given the same tools, flower varieties, decorative containers and a wooden folding table for a work space.
They were then issued a surprise task — create a prom floral necklace, bridal bouquet and a sympathy arrangement for someone who had been passionate about roses.
With spectators told to keep quiet, the unfurling of cellophane-wrapped bouquets was the only noise during the first hour. The designers feverishly played with foliage, coiled beaded wire and sprayed leaf shine.
Their flower menagerie included lilies, delphiniums, and rose varieties such as cinnamon and tiramisu. Commentary from two "experts," previous winners in the Sylvia Cup, colored the last hour.
Many designers were state or regional champions who received sponsorship to attend.
"We know how important color is," Deborah De La Flor, one of the commentators, said to dozens of onlookers. "The color combination you put together is crucial in a design competition."
The room was then cleared for three judges, who were sequestered during the contest, to inspect each entry for its originality and mechanics.
On Thursday night, designer Cindy Anderson of Colorado Springs was named the competition's winner. Cathy Grim of Tucson and Tonja VanderVeen of Grands Rapids, Mich., received honorable mentions.
The flowery face-off, in its 42nd year, was the main event at the Society of American Florists' annual convention.
More than 300 attendees from all parts of the industry — growers, retailers, wholesalers — see the three-day gathering as a chance to check out the best and, perhaps literally, the brightest in flower varieties.
Twenty-eight growers from the U.S., the Netherlands, Australia, Ecuador and Colombia were able to petal their wares in their own "best in show" contest with 10 different categories. Innovative varieties of roses, chrysanthemums, carnations and kale were among the nearly 300 bouquet entries on display in a ballroom.
"When you walk into a room like this, you just can't help but smile in the awe and beauty," said Rod Saline, SAF president and a florist in Duluth, Minn.
The flowers were judged on several criteria such as bloom form, bloom size, stems and vase life.
For growers, said Saline, the competition is a way to get the word out about their flowers to retailers anticipating what customers will buy this season.
Shari Lane, a retail florist from Las Vegas, was at the convention for the first time. She was taking notes on 4-feet-tall Forever Young roses.
"Consumers want the latest and greatest," Lane said. "A retailer who can provide that will keep the customer which is really the bottom line."