July 16, 2009
Renowned floral designer maintained Duluth
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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.