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Floral designer Robert Isabell, a behind-the-scenes tour de force on the New York party circuit, has died.
He was believed to have been in his mid-50s and was found in his downtown house earlier this week. The cause and date of his death have not yet been determined, according to a spokeswoman for the company that bears his name.
Whether trailing Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg in a golf cart on her wedding day to hoist up her gown’s train, brainstorming with Bette Midler about her annual Hawaiian Halloween-themed benefit or helping to make the Costume Institute’s gala the party of the year, Isabell threw himself wholeheartedly into each event with the hope that his creations would not be easily forgotten. Not likely, considering his handiwork included Mark Morris’ Nutcracker Party at Grand Central Terminal, the New York City Ballet’s Balanchine tribute and Ian Schrager’s all-out bashes at Studio 54. His wedding clients included the daughters of duty-free shopping magnate Robert Miller, Whitney Houston and others, but Isabell also designed decidedly more low-key affairs and gardens for such VIPs as the late Philip Johnson and Calvin Klein, or floor-to-ceiling Christmas trees for Aileen Mehle — not to mention IBM’s presumably more staid Manhattan headquarters.
Of Isabell, Midler said, “Robert was a big believer in [the notion] if you make something beautiful, people will become beautiful and will behave beautifully.”
Having recruited Isabell to jazz up her 60th birthday party at a Lower East Side synagogue as well as her New York Restoration Project’s ghoulish fund-raisers, Midler said he was always up for whatever the budget called for. “We were really cheap in the early days when we were trying to wring every nickel out of each dollar. We had turkey dinners, meatloaf, chicken pot pies — and Robert was totally into it. He would give the best party you could possibly have for whatever money you could afford,” she said.
Longtime friend Schrager said, “He was a visual genius. I don’t toss that word around either.”
Lally Weymouth, who worked with Isabell just last weekend at her annual Fourth of July party in Southampton, N.Y., said, “He really knew how to light the ladies and keep a party going. I can’t think of anyone on the New York scene today who has the talent of Robert Isabell.”
He first did the honors for her mother Katharine Graham’s 70th birthday party in Washington, a bigtime affair that attracted such guests as then-President Ronald Reagan. “I just remember it was in a really hideous building. But Robert draped the walls in white and put up a photo gallery of my mother’s life from start to finish. It was stunning.”
Not wanting to make too much of a splash for last weekend’s Independence Day festivities given the recession, Weymouth said she slashed the budget and scrapped “the big, grand clumps of centerpieces.” Well aware the days of over-the-top parties are passé, Isabell opted for a tent adorned with small vases of field flowers, hurricane lamps, Chinese lanterns and other recession-friendly touches. The end result was not lost on the guests — “even some of the men e-mailed me to say how beautiful the tent was,” Weymouth said.
A Duluth, Minn., native, Isabell’s career first sprouted at the age of nine, when he pitched in at an FTD-type florist. In the early Seventies, he moved on to Minneapolis, where he eventually ran a flower shop. Then, on a trip to Manhattan, Steve Rubell plucked him out of a line in front of Studio 54. He soon was arranging flowers with Renny, the glitterati’s go-to guy for all things green. Often on a whim, Isabell would be asked to transform the disco into Madame Butterfly for a visit by Liza Minnelli. While Renny was known to have the Studio 54 contract, Isabell was known to do the work and they eventually parted ways. After a brief stint at Bergdorf Goodman, Isabell launched his business in 1980 and was soon juggling two or three parties a night, but still yearned for more. “There’s enough work to go around, but I want it all,” he told W magazine in 1993.
Known to be a stickler for detail and uncompromising about his ideas, Isabell often masked any tension with a Buddhist smile. He once said of his design philosophy, “It’s all about illusion.”
Having handled numerous parties with Isabell, Glorious Foods partner Sean Driscoll said, “The one thing people will remember was how he always smiled. Even if there was a hurricane, he just smiled.”
Years before it was fashionable to do so, Isabell favored hard-core rap and a homeboy style — both of which he showed off in a vintage red Corvette convertible. He even launched a fragrance in the Nineties and also had the foresight to buy a 25,000-square-foot warehouse on West 13th Street, which housed his offices and full-time welding crew among other things, years ago. His Greenwich Village home included a townhouse, carriage house, a private little rain forest and a Jim Toth-designed sound system with 48 speakers. Willing to tell a client to order up one million gardenias if need be, Isabell was more penny-pinching with his own business. His mornings started with bartering with wholesalers in the flower district.
Norma Kamali, who along with Schrager knew Isabell for decades, said, “Robert would put fruit in a bowl, and I would want to take a picture. He was not ostentatious. He knew just as far as you could go and not a step too far. It will be a loss not to have someone of such special individual talent around.”
Grand as his party planning was, Isabell was not above dining on bad pizza with friends over a Tyler Perry video. If hostesses insisted he stay for dinner, he was inclined to break bread with the help.
Kamali said she and Schrager often joked with Isabell about how his age never seemed to advance as theirs did. In fact, they were so impressed by how youthful and fit he looked last weekend that Schrager told him, “We know you’re only 43, but we wanted to tell you that this weekend you look 35.”
Even Isabell once admitted, “I’ve been lying too long about my age.”
Plans for a memorial have not yet been finalized. Isabell is survived by his mother, a sister and a brother.