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Remembering Robert Isabell

Last week, MAS lost a friend and long-time collaborator with the sudden death of event designer Robert Isabell.

Since 1983, when then Chairman Stephen Swid introduced him to MAS to work on a dinner at the Four Seasons honoring Philip Johnson, Robert designed all but one of MAS’s annual galas. “The one time we tried another designer, the party was terrible,” said Mr. Swid, “The next year we went back to Robert, and never stopped using him. He was the one of the most creative event designers New York has seen.”

In partnership with Robert, MAS established a tradition of holding its benefit every year in an unusual and unique venue — a practice which, without him, we could never have successfully carried out. Together with Robert, MAS could pursue sites as distinctive as the top floor of the then unoccupied McGraw Hill building when we honored Hell’s Kitchen native Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1992.

Indeed, Robert Isabell’s artistry contributed to the financial success of MAS’s annual dinners by making them memorable events that ended up on the top-ten lists of the city’s social pages. Working as part of a team, with the legendary event planner George Trescher and caterer Sean Driscoll, he created surroundings that celebrated the accomplishments of the evening’s honoree. For Bill Paley in 1988, he transformed a CBS studio into Paley Park by projecting images of the park onto a scrim and positioning trees around the room; to celebrate I.M. Pei in 1996, he designed a white fabric pyramid against which he projected images of Pei’s buildings; and for Margot Gayle in 1997, he illuminated the cast iron building where the dinner took place in such a way as to recognize Gayle’s efforts to save these historic structures.

When the occasion called for it, Robert found modest but still elegant ways to design a room, such as the 2001 dinner at Lever House honoring Fred Papert, three weeks after 9/11.

“I think we were incredibly lucky to have worked with Robert and George [Trescher],” said MAS President Emeritus Kent Barwick. “They had standards worth maintaining and a real affection for the MAS and our causes and campaigns, which is why I suspect Jackie, and Brooke and so many others trusted them.”

Paul Gunther, president of the Institute of Classical Architecture, who worked with Robert as a staff member of George Trescher, Inc. and MAS, sums up Robert’s legacy this way: “The moniker “party planner” is perfectly fine, yet I feel certain that the appositive fitting best is ‘festival architect.’ It’s a role played since the Renaissance, combining architecture, decoration, temporal amusement, and illumination. Robert was both classicist and modernist, striving to bring proven capacity, as well as recent innovation, to bear for the ephemeral joy of all those lucky enough to be present.”

Robert was supported by a great team of talented professionals that include Joe Heffernan, Thomas Boucher, Liz Garvin, and Amy Lewis. Our sympathies go out to them as well as to Robert’s family.

For the 2007 dinner honoring Wade Thompson and Elihu Rose and their efforts to preserve the Park Avenue Armory, Robert encircled the enormous drill shed with a white scrim and created an illuminated tableau of chefs at work.

Photos: top, Eric Weiss; all others, Steven Tucker.