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All Yesterday’s Parties

Robert Isabell, the high-society party designer who died this past summer, conjured a vision of New York extravagance that may never exist again.

Gaultier party at Henri Bendel, 1992.  

Like flowers and candles, parties flare out quickly. Party designer Robert Isabell loved flowers and candles, and under his direction, they became implements of the illusionist’s art. The flowers might be tens of thousands of roses extending to the ceiling, or a single vase on each table stuffed with blooms of the same color. The candles? Maybe torches on bamboo poles swaying on the beach or silk Chinese lanterns hanging overhead as far as the eye could see.

Isabell’s parties endure as emblems of New York’s social history, iridescent bubbles of the inflating wealth of the last quarter of the twentieth century. For a New Year’s Eve at Studio 54, he snowbanked the floor with blue glitter, marking a flashy end to the seventies. The 50th-birthday party of Saul Steinberg, a financier with a renowned collection of old masters, came to represent the go-go excess of the eighties: A seventeenth-century Flemish drinking hall conjured up in a tent at a beach house in Quogue, with actors posed in tableaux vivants of great Dutch paintings. For a ball in the nineties celebrating the wedding of duty-free-shopping heiress Alexandra Miller to Prince Alexandre Von Furstenberg, Isabell created a fantasy vision of Hong Kong on the waterfront in Battery Park City.

And now? Studio 54 is long gone; its name adorns a tourist-trap knockoff in Las Vegas. The Steinberg financial empire crumbled in the nineties, and the paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Jordaens, and Rubens went with it. The Von Furstenbergs? Divorced. In retrospect, the funny thing about these ephemeral parties is that they seem more substantial than the occasions they marked and the wealth that paid for them.

Isabell died this past July of a heart attack at age 57. Business was down, as the sinking economy made elaborate parties less fashionable: If you could still afford to celebrate, better to be understated and discreet about it. Before the decline, Isabell had tried transposing his talent as a florist into a perfume line and, later, real estate. But his uncanny sense of scale had failed him, and the pressure was intensifying. In April, he laid off half of his full-time office staff. On August 1, a huge real-estate loan was coming due. He never let on to anyone that he was even slightly worried.

Certain people, endowed with good looks, ambition, and an unthreatening charm, rise in New York as if it were a gravity-free planet. Isabell was one of those people. He was 26 when he left his job as a florist in Minneapolis to come to New York: a handsome, broad-shouldered young man with black hair, dark eyes, and a wide smile. He had grown up in a working-class neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota, where a boy who liked flowers was an odd duck. Now, on his first night in town, October 30, 1978, he walked by Studio 54. Investigating what was causing the commotion, he was plucked from the throng by co-owner Steve Rubell and propelled inside.

Isabell found employment with Renny Reynolds, a florist whose clients included Studio 54. He was soon noticed by Studio co-owner Ian Schrager and began working directly for the club, designing flowers and décor for special events. Schrager recognized that Isabell already had an aesthetic vision and, surprising in someone so reticent, a remarkable self-confidence about imposing it. He had it back in Minneapolis, where, left alone to supervise the strip-mall florist shop in which he worked, he painted the entire window black except for one square foot, behind which he placed a single orchid on a pedestal. “In Minneapolis, Robert went through his black periods and his white periods,” says Donna Price, his best friend in those days. “When he was in his white period, he decided he was going to paint everything in his apartment white, including the floors and all the furniture. I came and helped him. Finally, he looked at me and decided I wasn’t the right color for the apartment and he put the roller on me at my head and painted white, down to my feet. I told him we were done for the evening.”

A few years after arriving in New York, Isabell pulled a similar trick at Bergdorf Goodman, where he was approached to open a flower shop that would help enliven the store’s image. “It was on a Friday, and he was going to fix his flower shop over the weekend,” says Dawn Mello, then Bergdorf’s fashion director. “I remember walking in on Monday. There was Robert, painting the main floor black. It was more than his shop. I think he got carried away.” The CEO, furious, ordered the walls restored to white. Within a few months, Isabell’s shop was gone.