Denfeld News

July 16, 2009
Duluth News Tribune

Renowned floral designer maintained Duluth roots
By David Cowardin

Robert Isabell set off to the Duluth airport in the mid-1970s to pursue a career as a floral designer in New York City. High school friend Donna Price drove him there.

As she dropped him off, the song, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” streamed through the radio.

It’s a song that Price heard playing again Tuesday, and it reminded her of Isabell, a world-renowned floral designer who died last week in his New York City home of a heart attack.

“He wasn’t just a friend,” Price said. “He was family.”

It was Isabell’s trip to New York that launched him from Duluth to the top of his field as a floral designer to celebrities and the social elite in this country and around the world.

Isabell designed floral arrangements for the weddings of Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also helped produce a lavish White House Christmas party during President Clinton’s administration.

Price, who attended Denfeld High School with Isabell, helped him design some of those events. Even though Price no longer worked as a floral designer, Isabell still turned to her for help.

“He always called on family,” she said.

When Isabell was 14, he was so passionate about flowers that he would ride his bicycle two miles from his parents’ home to Engwall Florist in Hermantown, where he would help make floral arrangements. At 17, while working at Engwall, he designed the floral arrangements for the wedding of his sister, Cheryl Liebert.

“He made it come alive and very warm,” said Liebert of Superior.

After Isabell moved to New York, he worked for famous party planner and florist Renny Reynolds. In the mid-1980s, he started his own company, Isabell Inc., through which he was hired to decorate increasingly lavish weddings and events. One of his most-remembered pieces was a gigantic wreath with 1,500 lights, each dipped in blue gel, for the Clinton White House Christmas.

Isabell also was in demand overseas. He created a Greek temple in London for the wedding of Marie-Chantal Miller, daughter of billionaire Robert W. Miller, and Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece.

“It was pretty neat for a Minnesota boy out of nowhere,” said his brother, James, of Duluth. “He was extremely talented. There was nobody that had the insight that he had.”

Though he lived and worked among the elite, Isabell remained humble and true to his Duluth roots, his brother said.

“You could never get him to say what he did was above and beyond everybody else,” he said.

Price said Isabell always wanted to be the man behind the scenes.

“He was just a humble, humble individual with a gleam in his eye and a smile always on his face,” she said. “He just wanted to make people happy and not be known for it.”

In 1996, Isabell explained to the New York Times why his success didn’t go to his head.

“I grew up with Scandinavians who don’t make everything so complicated,” he said.

At Isabell’s request, there will be no memorial service or burial ceremony.

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