Robert Isabell: the magician

– Andrea Mestrovic –

Some of the world’s most iconic events happened under the reign of Robert Isabell, a New York event planner whose highly effective mechanisms captivated the mighty around the globe.  He orchestrated and ornamented a long list of most memorable weddings and funerals, among which was the 1994 funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1996 nuptials of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, eight Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute galas, and Nan Kempner funeral at Christie’s.  Anna Wintour calls him “the king of the event world” and since his passing in July of 2009, there has been no notable replacement.  And significantly less glitz…once upon a time, at a New Year’s Eve party at Studio 54, he trucked in four tons of glitter, thus fashioning the glitziest floor covering in New York!

1996 - Planned wedding for John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Bessette

Although Isabell’s events were most often described as thrilling and lavish, he would timidly refer to his work as understated, which only added to his already unassuming allure.  It is this unpretentious charm and undeniable magnetism that attracted the world’s richest, most reclusive dames, who desired his friendship and company.  One of his most fascinating relationships was his somewhat anomalous friendship with Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon – a horticulturalist, philanthropist, fine arts collector, member of the International Best Dressed List, and a woman almost twice his age.

Just in time for spring socials, we are celebrating and remembering this true genius with a few abridged guidelines for your “understated” fêtes at home.

1. Draw a blueprint.
Every event starts with a concept map – a theme that will unify all other elements. For Alexandra Miller’s nuptials to Prince Alexandre von Furstenberg, the son of Diane von Furstenberg, Isabell’s theme was a daydream of Hong Kong. He turned a tent in Battery Park City into a scene from The King and I.

Robert Isabell in 1995. Photo By George Chinsee

2. Budget for flowers.
This is where budgets break.  But flowers are costly for good reason – they enhance and add an undeniable tenderness to the room.  (Flowers and dusty, vintage books.)  Isabell’s favorites were lilies of the valley and violets – both very fragrant – but the king of flowers also loved peonies in a range of pinks and reds, as well as orchids, potted or cut. If your budget is unyielding, ELLE DECOR’s Carlos Mota suggests omitting the exaggerated centerpieces and replacing them with miniature potted primroses or pansies and even herbs or tiny hot pepper plants – perfect for unfussy, but nimble rendezvous at home.

3. Light up the room.
Isabell obsessed over lighting. It’s an element that most often came together at the very last minute, but apart from flowers, it was his most ardent concern.  It is the single way to unmistakably set the mood you desire at your event.  Although lighting can be multifarious in a grand venue, it is always done with maximum discretion and minimum exposure.  For your soiree at home, opt for candles and bring in ridiculous amounts for a truly majestic effect.

The simple rule is: the square-footage of your home divided by five equals the number of candles you need. Paper lanterns in interesting colors and prints like ikat or suzani are another brilliant alternative (or a welcomed addition).

4. Play host.
As the lead on an event, Robert Isabell was usually out the door as the guests arrived. In your case, you planned your event and you are staying to hosting it.  To do this right, you will need to delegate bartending and foodservice to the professionals.  Consult with and hire a skilled caterer – it is only then that you can truly enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Happy planning.

Andrea Mestrovic is a multi-lingual, multi-talented, but modest multi-tasker who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic. Andrea has a sure-footed instinct for discovering magnificent finds all over the globe. You can follow her on twitter @AndreaMestrovic


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