Pillow Talk with Shuheng Ji of Athabold Flowers

In a world where most people are known for being either left-brained or right-brained, Shuheng Ji is an anomaly. Shuheng has a masters degree in mathematics and over 10 years of experience in floral design. Earlier this year she opened the brick and mortar Athabold Flowers, where she crafts some of the most beautiful arrangements I’ve ever seen. I first met Shuheng while visiting our farm house in the Hudson Valley. Jeffrey and I were eating across the street at Otto’s Market in Germantown when I spotted the recently opened Athabold Flowers. I went inside and introduced myself and we have been friends ever since.

I’m excited to be featuring this talented floral designer and dear friend for the 10th addition of our Pillow Talk series. We sat down and chatted about finding your way through intuition, her undying passion for flowers and taking away the to-do list to recharge.

When you were in school, what was your favorite subject and what did you want to “grow up” to be?

I liked all subjects. Growing up in China, with a competitive school system, I learned to find the interesting side in everything. I majored in marketing before moving to the U.S., and then got a master’s degree in mathematics. Then, I worked as an actuary for over a decade, before pursuing this career in a more creative field. To me, it’s been about searching for and finding that passion.

What contributed to you becoming the businesswoman that you are today?

I already had a business background, so it was more about finding a way to marry my creative interests with my work. I was doing well in my career because I was working hard and put a lot of myself into it. I just felt it was time to start something on my own. You don’t mind the long nights and late hours when it’s part of you, and who you are.

Which entrepreneurs do you admire? 

I’m inspired by reading about and meeting all kinds of entrepreneurs. Where we live, I’m surrounded by so many “doers” and “makers”—and a lot of them are women. It drives me to hear their stories, and meet people like you, Caroline, who may not be following any one set path, but rather, just being intuitive, and finding your own way.

What was your inspiration behind starting Athabold Flowers?

I knew that I was going to do something that was my own, where I have a closer interaction with people, and put my time into creating beauty with flowers while running a business. I enjoy talking to my customers more than anything, hearing their stories and their plans, and understanding how we can collaborate to create exactly what they are looking for.

How did you get into floral design?

I had reached a point in my previous career where I began to find some free time to do something for myself. I developed a passion for photography, and flowers quickly became my subject. With the macro lens I saw so much more that I wanted to capture, trying to show others what I saw. Seeing all these different patterns, textures and colors, I began experimenting with floral design, to see how I could combine the two to complement each other. I then started taking courses at the New York Botanical Garden and just kept working on my own at home.

Where do you source your flowers?

Everywhere. I use a lot of local flowers and greenery from nearby farms. I’m also always looking to create something that is unique and unexpected, so I prefer to go to farms or markets in person, so I can see these amazing products, whether they come from their own fields or from another part of the world. It’s like cooking, which I love—going to markets filled with such beautiful products and just letting what I see inspire me. I start with a list of the basics I need, but then leave room for things to surprise and push me to create something exciting.

What under-appreciated flower or plant varietal do you like to work with?

Foliage! There are so many shapes and shades of green—and other colors too. I recently posted a pic on Instagram of a single stem of nandina that was just so perfect. I felt so in awe by nature and it instantly inspired my next photo project. Sometimes I feel like the creation is complete with just foliage, but I know my customers are looking for flowers when they come to me!

With the holidays fast approaching, what kind of arrangements work best this time of year?

During this time of the year, it’s all about coming together. Friends and family gather for food and drink, and I feel natural, seasonal arrangements are best for creating that sense of home, whether it’s a welcoming wreath on the front door, a lush centerpiece or garland on the dining table, or some light bud vases dancing around the gathering space. I’m discovering heirloom mums that are fabulous, with so many soft colors and textures that can add a nice, warm feeling to your home.

What’s the most challenging part of your professional life?

Finding time to do everything I want.

What do you think is the single most important ingredient to success? 

Be persistent with your dream. It’s actually part of my name. In Chinese characters, “heng” means perseverance and long lasting. I guess my Dad wanted me to have this quality from the beginning. 

How do you try to manage your work/life balance?

They are so integrated right now that I don’t know the difference. I’m happy that I’m doing what I love, so I don’t feel like I’m “working” most of the time. My husband helps out, so we’re together often, and on slower days I bring my pup to the studio with me. It’s all just part of life at the moment.

What do you see yourself doing next to express yourself professionally?

I plan to keep developing more products and really grow the Athabold Flowers brand. I love doing floral design, but it’s flowers, as the medium, that drive me. They are so calming and fulfilling and inspiring. I think it’s important to have them in our lives; wild gardens, fresh cut flowers, and flowers in art and design. My mind is filled with ideas for how to capture them with photography and develop unique products that I hope inspire people to see them in a new light. I’d love to see more people share this passion—that’s my dream.

How do you manage the fear and doubt that inevitably creeps in when you’re paving a less trodden path?

I trust that as long as I put 120% of myself into it, and be patient, that good things will follow. 

What have you been most afraid of trying in your career, but you did it anyway?

Anything worth doing is a little scary. Moving to another country. Quitting a good job. But I’m okay pushing myself a little, and daring myself to try things. I come up with a plan and just start working at it.

Was there any opportunity that you had in your life that you didn’t take?

I’ve always been a forward-looking person. I ask myself, what can I do with what I have.

Any sleep rituals that you use to help quiet the mind after a long day?

After a long day, I fall asleep pretty quick.

What’s the biggest gift you give yourself to recharge?

A day without a to-do list.

What’s your favorite food to indulge in?

Chinese hot pot, super spicy.

What’s the first thing you do after you wake up?

I have a window next to the bed with this wonderful view of our property. I like to look out and see if there are any deer or other wildlife out there after I wake up.

What’s the last thing you do before bed?

Enjoy a glass of wine and catch up with my husband.

How do you make your bedroom a sacred space?

I keep it clean, uncluttered and simple. Having lived in small, city apartments for so many years, we wanted to make our home feel open and airy. We painted everything white. Our bedroom just has a big bed, an oversized painting, and this large, flowing drapery. It’s a space where I can take a big, deep breath and just sink in. Oh, and I love linen bedding.

Thank you Shuheng, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you more. Your passion for flowers and floral design is inspiring, I can’t wait to see what you do next.

If you’re in the area, stop by her studio, 214 Main Street in Germantown, New York or you can reach her at shuheng@athabold.com or 518-537-4215. To learn more about Athabold Flowers, visit www.athabold.com.


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