Creative ‘grounds’

God, they say, is in the details, and details are what Melissa Grounds of Westchester design consultancy Mod Creative Design brings to all her client projects. Details that others miss, details that others simply never think of.

When we meet for coffee at Cafeto, the year-old, “designer” coffee shop near Melissa’s home-base in Larchmont, she brings her office with her. There are notebooks all around her, swatches, leather samples, “placecards” etched on marble and agate and menu covers, including the one she did for the 40th birthday party of Mirka Federer — wife of tennis great Roger — in Ibiza, Spain. 

She studied graphic design at Penn State University, thought she wanted to be in marketing but became an administrative assistant at a financial firm. “And then suddenly one day I remember thinking, that’s it, this is my life now, and I realized I had always wanted to be in design.” She left her job in Rye, hoping things would look up, and moved to another in Manhattan, where an understanding boss allowed her to get her various financial industry licenses. She still hated the job.

What happened next, Melissa — Meliss to all and sundry — describes as her perfect storm. A friend at Vanity Fair, the former head of red carpet events, left the magazine to start her own company. She was working with a client who wanted to design and produce an invitation, which would go into an egg, which in turn would be hammered open with a mallet. When her friend asked Meliss if she could help (“I need someone who will take this on and make the eggs — all 150 of them,” was what she actually said, back in 2016,) Meliss rose to the challenge. She mocked up the first egg in plaster, painted it robin’s egg blue and bound it with string, complete with a label saying “crack me.” She then hand-sculpted the 149 remaining eggs in her off time. They took several months to complete — and that, thought Meliss, was that.

The God of small things, who is also the God who’s in the details, had other plans for Meliss, however. It just so happened that Reese Witherspoon was a guest at the  egg-invitation wedding, and one thing led to another, as things do and soon more requests for design novelties started to come Meliss’ way. This coincided with her being laid off, which in itself was not a good thing, except that she thoroughly disliked her job. And, as luck would have it, her boyfriend, Scott — who is now her husband — was “crazy supportive” of her going into business on her own. They had met at Meliss’ first job in finance, a career which Meliss had chosen not to pursue, but which Scott had, so it was extremely useful to have him on board.

“When people come up with an idea,” Meliss explains, “they don’t realize you can’t just buy this stuff. Not in a regular store.” She sits down with clients and so begins the long creative process, coming up with original ideas for custom props to “stage” an event and then figuring out how to produce them. Projects are diverse, from weddings, bar mitzvahs and Sweet Sixteens, to product launches for clients like Sally Beauty and Laughing Cow cheese. For one particular client, Nutritious Life in Manhattan, Meliss transformed a drab event space with a tarp she bought from Home Depot, dyeing it in her bathtub and heat-pressing the company logo on to the canvas before attaching it to an 8-by-8-foot wooden frame. Sounds easy, no?

Who are her most demanding clients, I want to know. “The mothers of bar and bat mitzvah kids can sometimes be a little challenging,” she concedes, when pressed. “Some clients have a hard time letting go. But you have to put your trust in somebody.”

Meliss works closely with event planners but emphasizes she is not a planner herself. It’s hard to put a name to what she does, she says, but “event production” and “custom event décor” get close to it.

Her ideal commission is a blank canvas, as she calls it, “when a client says you can style it any way you want.” She loves to create a sense of cohesion throughout a project, with colors and fonts that match or complement one another. She is also hands-on when in attendance, even if she has only had a hand in designing a small part of the event, and has become known for her emergency kit, which she keeps in the car, so that when she is helping set up for an event she is always prepared for the unexpected. 

“There’s no such thing as a perfect event,” she says knowingly, “but there is such a thing as a person who can solve all the problems which come up.”

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