Berry Hill’s new flower shop, a story of love and loss

Nashville Native Rachel Penn has an impressive resume under her belt. After all, not everyone can brag about having spent the last decade living in Singapore and Hong Kong, managing large global clients like Google and LinkedIn. But a return to Nashville just before the COVID lockdown, combined with the devastating loss of her daughter, Lillian, led Rachel to turn a long-standing passion for floral design into a full-time career. Now, with a brand new 2,000 square foot design studio in Berry Hill, Rachel continues to carry on Lillian’s legacy through flower art, sustainability and community outreach to help those who have experienced a similar loss. . Please welcome this week’s Nashville FACE Owner and Head Floral Designer of Lillian’s Floral Studio, Rachel Penn.

Please welcome Rachel Penn, Owner and Chief Floral Designer of Lillian’s Floral Studio. Image: Natalie Watson Photography

What led you from the world of corporate tech to floral design?

My job was based globally, so most of my team were in New York and London. Considering the time zone and how the business worked, I found myself on my phone and emails 24/7. My manager and I decided to carve out two nights a week when no one could disturb me and I was not reachable. Having always had a love for flowers, I decided to take local design classes in Singapore. I grew to love flower art and design even more during this time and started moonlighting on weekends and evenings. I completed the 140-hour professional course and worked freelance for florists and planners before devoting myself to it full-time. I let Google do that, which people are always shocked to hear! Then we came back here to Nashville in February 2020, right before it all ended. We thought it would be a temporary landing place after living abroad, but life and plans change. We’ve been here ever since.

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What made you decide to open your own studio?

On June 6, 2020, my daughter was born prematurely and died unexpectedly within hours of her birth. I was lost. We were so cut off and isolated from everyone. My parents couldn’t come to the hospital; we had a funeral without friends or family. There was so much [of] what I call “repressed parental energy”. All this love for the future life that I envisioned had energy with nowhere to go. I knew I needed an outlet and a routine, so I started making flowers for Lillian every week – an arrangement I could bring to her grave. I felt like I was in contact with her, to grieve and to blossom. This is what brought me back to flowers again. During this time of mourning, I could choose something I liked for her, put it together, bring it to her, and tell her what I had done for her. It was healing and gave me an outlet for all the anxiety, sadness, and loss that needed to go somewhere. My husband once said, “You have to open your own thing. You know how; you did it for other people, and it’s time for you to have your own space. Do it for Lillian and continue to carry on her legacy this way.

The "Liliane" arrangement by Rachel Penn, seated on a pedestal table near a green velvet chair

Named after her daughter, The Lillian is an arrangement made up of flowers chosen by the designer. Image: Sarah Nichole Photography

Tell us about the importance you attach to sustainable development.

We source as much as possible from local flower growers in Middle Tennessee. There is no wrapping or plastic when it comes to our door. It is cut fresh, put in a reusable bucket and sent to us. We also love our wholesalers. Everyone wants roses, but we don’t grow roses in Tennessee all year round. So when we have to buy from wholesalers, we look at the travel it takes for these flowers to reach us, and then we contribute part of the sale to buy carbon credits to offset that travel.

Much of the flower industry uses flower foam, which is really easy to use – you can insert a piece of foam into your base and design very quickly. But it is also non-biodegradable and toxic to the environment and to humans. It’s bad to inhale dust. So, we are without floral foam.

Of course, we also recycle whatever we can. All of our packaging is compostable or biodegradable, even the plastic and tissue paper we use. We also have a vase recycling program. If you receive a vase from us and don’t need it, you can return it and we’ll add a credit to your next order. Finally, we compost via Compost Nashville.

Rachel Penn in the office of her floral design studio, Lillian's

“I’m always trying to find better ways of doing things,” says Rachel of her sustainability efforts. “I think it’s the responsibility of a small business owner. Image: Sarah Nichole Photography

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In light of October being Infant Loss Awareness Month, what do you hope sharing your story will do for other women who are experiencing loss?

Thanks for asking. Anyone who is willing to listen to the story of someone’s loss is supporting that person more than they’ll ever know because loss is something we don’t talk about, especially miscarriage or the loss of a infant. It’s an incredibly isolating thing to experience, which is ironic because one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage and one in 160 births is stillborn. If it’s so common, I don’t know why we don’t talk about it more or know how to better support the women and families who experience it.

In October, I am working on a campaign called “Support Better and Support Strong”. “Supporting better” is about ensuring that dollars are channeled to organizations that support families and mothers who have suffered loss, whether it is financial, emotional or mental support such as counseling. “Support Strong” is about recognizing and helping women who have experienced a loss, whether it is a miscarriage, infant loss or neonatal loss. We want the community to nominate women deserving to receive flowers so that we can celebrate their strength and honor what they have gone through.

Each year we contribute to two organizations; one is now I lie down to sleep. I joined the board in July and they offer professional portraits of newborns who have died or will die shortly after birth. They pair up professional photographers and send them immediately to hospitals whenever a nurse, doula, or families call. They take beautiful black and white newborn photos that are given to families for free. I can tell you from personal experience that this is the most precious thing I have from my daughter. That’s all I have of her, and I can’t think of any better organization to continue to support her.

Rachel Penn in front of Lillian's Floral Studio

“When people think of sustainability, it’s often purely, ‘I recycle, therefore I’m sustainable,’ Rachel tells us. “For me, that’s the bare minimum. It’s the most basic thing we can do as stewards of our environment, but it’s just not enough. Image: Sarah Nichole Photography

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

It’s a quote from Brené Brown; she’s one of my favorite people to watch at TED Talks. “Someday you will tell how you got over what you went through, and that will be someone else’s guide to survival.” It’s not quite a tip, but it’s the most resounding quote that got me to do what we do, to share and develop Lillian’s legacy.

Despite faith, family, and friends, what are the three things you cannot live without?

Flowers. Growing up in the South, I can’t imagine welcoming someone without flowers or showing up and not having flowers for the host. I also feel deeply and strongly that whatever the occasion – good, sad, or bad – flowers can express what we want them to express. Also, Fitzgerald, my French Bulldog. He gave me someone to my mom when I needed it. I never understood the emotional support animal play. I grew up with dogs and enjoyed them, but never really understood what an animal can offer when you need it most. The other thing for me is the ocean – not seeing it from a distance or sitting on the beach, but actually being there. My husband and I are huge divers and we spend a lot of time diving and doing ocean conservation work. This gave us a second big list of places to go – it still opens up 70% of the land that a lot of people aren’t ready to explore or don’t want to explore!

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