Cathy B. Graham has a unique talent for delight. Her original art and fashion illustration, developed at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Parsons School, and her beloved floral creations, honed through years of work alongside floral designer and event planner Robert Isabell, share a whimsical charm that’s unmistakably hers. And as a hostess, Graham throws dinners and parties that are can’t-miss affairs, renowned for their offbeat style and humor.
Her approach to floral arranging, tabletop design, and party planning has been immortalized in one of our favorite books, Second Bloom: Cathy Graham’s Art of the Table. We asked Graham for a peek behind the curtain into her creative process, and her ideas are sure to inspire your next gathering.
Read on for more floral and tabletop design insights from the celebrated artist and hostess.
Tell us a little of the story behind this photo shoot.
"The shoot was held in the dining room of my New York City townhouse, which was decorated by the brilliant William Hodgins twenty-three years ago. The room is so timeless that I haven't changed anything in all these years. The backdrop is perfect for my flower designs."
What’s your philosophy when it comes to tabletop design?
"My philosophy for tabletop design is to create something beautiful but also a little bit unexpected."
How do you approach table settings for the various occasions you host in your home?
"When approaching tables for different occasions, I always keep in mind the season and what’s available. The maximum I can seat in my dining room is 22, so when giving a large dinner party, I remove the round table and rent a long narrow table. This is how it can feel more intimate. Oddly enough, having people closer together makes conversations easier. When I give intimate dinners, for 6 up to 14, I use my round table and add leaves for larger groups. That’s when I particularly like using placemats and doing my garden table with small bottles.
The one thing that I feel is imperative when giving a dinner, no matter what the size, is to use place cards so guests know where they are sitting. That is where a hostess has control in creating a fun, interesting dinner."
Where do you find inspiration for your floral arrangements?
"I find inspiration in paintings, in seasons, in my cutting garden in Nantucket, in Union Square market, and the flower market. What I adore is finding a flower or vegetable I haven’t seen before. I’m always looking for something I haven’t used and coming up with a way to incorporate it in my tabletop."
We’re fascinated by the collection of individual blooms you’ve arranged. Can you tell us the story behind that idea?
"I started using the individual flowers in tiny bottles on my table years ago when I had a weekend house in Northwestern Connecticut. I had a beautiful cutting garden with so many extraordinary flowers. I wanted to showcase the beauty of each individual flower by creating my own little garden on the table."
"What I adore is finding a flower or vegetable I haven’t seen before. I’m always looking for something I haven’t used and coming up with a way to incorporate it in my tabletop."
What’s your process when creating an arrangement like the large centerpiece?
"When doing a large centerpiece, it's important to keep the height low enough so you can see your fellow diners. That said, I love creating abundant, lavish centerpieces. I use greenery to create the height and width. You’re constantly turning the container to make sure you have balanced arrangement. What’s fun is adding fruits, vines, and vegetables. I love having it spill onto the table."
Tell us about your choice of vessels, both for the centerpiece and the individual blooms.
"When it comes to containers, I'm really not that creative! I have a few antique metal baskets that I love using. Since my flowers spill over, you don't really notice the container. With the individual bottles, I love using antique medicine bottles that I find on eBay or Amazon."
The lovely, whimsical style of your art and illustration seems to be reflected in your floral designs. Can you describe how they relate to each other?
"My floral designs and watercolors relate to each other in that they’re both playful. And my color sense when painting or arranging flowers is always the same. I try to create different moods through color combinations."
Tell us about the Matouk table linens you used in these images.
"The Casual Couture Octagon placemats with the pale blue border, and Calypso napkins work perfectly on my gray table. They pick up the pale blue panels in the room. They work either with a centerpiece or the individual flowers." Graham used our Margot table linens as well, which she says were "the perfect foil for my flowers. They enhances the delicate leaf pattern in gray in my dining room, but are elegant enoguh to work with any décor or style. It's a lively yet subtle print that looks beautiful in all of the colors. The neutrality with a little bit of pizazz works perfectly with my own aesthetic, which is both classic and whimsical."
What do you love about using Matouk?
"What I love about Matouk is the simplicity and quality that works perfectly in my house. I can’t wait to use the blue Margot pattern in Nantucket next summer. It will look particularly beautiful with hydrangeas."
"What I love about Matouk is the simplicity and quality that works perfectly in my house."