Cathy Graham can’t imagine a life without flowers.
Graham, who worked for more than a decade with the late floral designer/events guru Robert Isabell, is herself noted for her innate talent for creating unusual table décor that integrates flowers with vintage goods and objects from around the world.
Those in the know have long turned to the lifestyle and entertaining expert — who is perhaps best-known as a fashion illustrator and artist — for advice on gracious living, especially when it comes to creating memorable gatherings.
Graham, an Illinois native long based in Manhattan, has collaborated with author Alexis Clark on “Second Bloom: Cathy Graham’s Art of the Table,” with photographs by Quentin Bacon and Andrew Ingalls (The Vendome Press, 208 pages, $35) to offer a glimpse into her world.
“Second Bloom” is the first book devoted to Graham’s signature approach, covering the essentials of planning events that range from a casual seaside gathering to a lively urban dinner party — and all kinds of occasions in between.
Graham’s aesthetic, which relies on more than a hint of whimsy, enlivens her events. It starts with the idea, progresses to the invitations and comes to full bloom with the one-of-a-kind table settings as she creates yet another original — and memorable — event.
Graham, who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and studied fashion illustration at Parsons School of Design in New York, is now working on a line of stationery and paper goods, complementing her product design and editorial illustration. Her editorial work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and New York magazine, with commissioned work for Bergdorf Goodman, Estée Lauder, CBS Records and HBO. She has also been a contributing editor of Elle Décor and House Beautiful magazines.
Graham took a few moments to share some thoughts with us:
Please tell us a bit about your childhood. What were some early influences that led you to your pursuing a career in such artistic fields?
“I was born to an artist mother and architect father in Highland Park, Illinois, who happened to get divorced soon after my arrival. So I divided my time between Highland Park and Chicago. My father was passionate about art. I remember spending weekends visiting galleries and (The) Art Institute (of Chicago). My mother ended up becoming an art teacher. Both my parents encouraged me to draw and take classes after school such as weaving, pottery and figure drawing. On top of that one grandmother was a painter and the other a fantastic gardener who loved arranging flowers from her garden. So as they say, ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’”
Can you talk about your appreciation for flowers. How important are they to your daily life — and to your designs, from invitations to tabletops?
“Oh, I really can’t imagine not having fresh-cut flowers. Even in high school I turned my bedroom into a greenhouse with flowering plants filling the room. The flower market on 28th Street (in Manhattan) is an early morning haunt of mine. Gathering up masses of flowers and arranging them makes me feel most like myself. As for my tablescapes, the nuttier the better. Since I am an illustrator, it is only natural that I go to my studio and paint flowers for invitations, textiles and note cards.”
What do you grow in your own garden, at your summer home on Nantucket?
“Roses love the sea air, so I grow a variety of David Austin roses. I also grow hollyhock, delphiniums, sweet peas, oriental lilies, foxglove, dahlias, phlox and nasturtiums, to name a few. I like to try something new each year and one of my favorite pastimes is perusing garden catalogs for ideas.”
Though we’re sure it could fill a whole book, can you share just a bit of what you learned from your work with Robert Isabell?
“Robert was a visual genius. No one could create magic like Robert. It was so exciting to be around him and see his magnificent creations. Of the many things I learned from him, one was the importance of considering all 360 degrees in order to create a complete atmosphere from lighting to color to scent. And, of course, lots and lots of flowers.”
Tell us a bit about your first book, “Second Bloom” — what sparked it and what you hope readers will take away from it.
“For years my dear friend, (interior designer) Howard Slatkin, had been encouraging me to do a book on my flowers. I’d always thought I’d do it someday, but I didn’t really pursue it. It wasn’t until two and a half years ago, when my husband of 30 years left me and I found myself needing to rebuild my life, that I found the fire to really make it happen, hence the title ‘Second Bloom.’ One thing I hope readers take away from the book is how using flowers and, entertaining in general, can be both joyful and unintimidating. For example, something as simple as using small bottles with a single stem in each to create a unique garden on the table is a great way to express yourself and to add some fun and visual interest to your hosting.”
And finally, can you describe the most memorable table you have ever set?
“I gave a dinner for a painter friend, Peter Sacks, a few years back. I thought it would be fun to hang tiny vegetables such as eggplants, radishes, carrots and passionflower vines from the ceiling and to hang them low enough that they were at eye level with the flowers… The guests were surprised to see tiny hanging vegetables, and it certainly turned out to be a good conversation starter.”
For more, visit cathybgraham.com.