Michael Gaffney's varied career, culminating in a thriving, coast-to-coast chain of floral design schools, has been guided largely by whims -- not to mention a remarkable talent for landing solidly on his feet no matter where his impulses have propelled him.

Consider: As a fine arts major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he joined a bus trip to New York organized by the school to tour the art museums there. He promptly fell in love with the city and declined to get back on the bus for the return trip to the Midwest.

So, with $200 in his pocket, did he spend the next few hours planning his immediate future? Looking for work? Finding a place to live? Nope, he headed for the nearest discotheque, where he met a young woman who not only offered him a place to stay, but also introduced him to a friend working on Wall Street who found him a job as a commodity broker's assistant.

In short, a sure-footed landing.

Four years later, on a visit to his home in Milwaukee, he stopped by a floral design shop run by a college friend who asked Gaffney if he'd like to spend a few days helping him with some designs he was developing for a local wedding.

Goodbye, Wall Street. A few days morphed into about six years, during which he learned the design craft and discovered that he was very good at it.

"Floral design," he concluded, "is a lot more interesting than pushing paper and pencils on Wall Street."

As it turned out, however, his contact with the business world has played a key role in Gaffney's success in the floral design industry.

In 1990 he started a freelancing and consulting company, designing floral arrangements for weddings, civic events and corporate offices in Milwaukee, Chicago and the Twin Cities and using his business background to help floral retailers and designers improve their profitability.

He also became a popular lecturer on the topic of floral design, which led in 2005 to an assignment to teach a class on design styles for a Minneapolis garden club. Gaffney drove away with $1,000 in his pocket, saying to himself, "Hey, I just made as much money in a day as I usually do in a week."

It was the inspiration for his Design Schools of America, a Minneapolis company he founded in 2005 to offer eight-week courses in flower design covering everything from floral retailing and wholesaling to event design and freelancing.


With the addition of satellites in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it's a business that grew 61 percent through the 2009 recession, to $525,000. Double-digit growth is expected to continue in 2010 with the addition of a school in San Diego this summer. The courses cost $2,000 per student.

The business is "recession-proof," Gaffney said. Indeed, the country's financial woes might have contributed to the growth: "The majority of our students are either laid off or unhappy with their jobs and looking for something new."

Gaffney runs four sessions a year, "about all a market can support, I've found," he said. He staggers the dates so that he can teach at least half of the eight-week course in each location, recruiting veteran local designers as independent contractors to teach the other half.

Two factors set Gaffney's training program apart from competitors'. The first is his focus on "the math and science of design," as he puts it.

"It's not just about creative juices," Gaffney said, but about "the symmetrical shapes familiar to anyone who's taken geometry -- triangles, rectangles, squares. Order, balance, symmetry, all are principles of design." He calls it "the science of beauty."

Said Lesley Quan, the Minnesota State Floral Association's 2008 "Designer of the Year" and one of a roster of veteran designers Gaffney has recruited as independent contractors to help teach at his schools: "His system is easy to follow, with clean-cut rules ... When they're done, they can look at any arrangement and know how it's put together."

The other differential is the inclusion of sessions on starting and managing a successful floral design business, which Gaffney regards as critical to making the training meaningful to his students.

Following his own directions for creating a successful business, however, helped push Gaffney into an intriguing sideline.

In his classes, Gaffney talks about "the power of the business card." So when he was opening his school in New York, he stuck one of his cards in the storefront window of a nearby flower wholesaler.

Whereupon a passerby who was a set designer for a New York film company spotted the card and called to hire Gaffney to do the flower arrangements for "Jack Goes Boating," a movie being shot by film and stage actor and director Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film is due out in September.

That led to an assignment to work on "Black Swan," a movie starring Natalie Portman, and a gig on "Flowers Uncut," a TLC network show shot in New York.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com