Curtis Grace is taking it easy after a busy weekend: a wedding with 540 guests.
"It took an hour to get everyone up and down the aisle, but the marriage itself only took 20 minutes," he says. There were 500 roses, 300 hydrangeas, assorted gardenias ... "It was a Tiffany theme, a pretty, pretty wedding."
But now it's Monday, a day that has an entirely different personality for an event decorator like Grace than it does for the average Monday to Friday nine-to-fiver. There's never a "bad case of the Mondays," because Monday generally marks a lull. But at the end of the week, there's no TGIF relief either — more like OLIAF: Oh lord, it's already Friday.
The sign outside his business in Meadowthorpe reads Curtis A. Grace & Associates Florist and Event Decor. But "florist and event décor" doesn't begin to do justice to everything contained within: vintage dresses and hats, found art, jewelry, toys, even sock animals that he sews himself. You might enter expecting poppies, but you'll leave with a vintage Popeye ring. Or at least this reporter did.
A budding florist: "It's kind of new to me having a retail flower business," Grace says. There's one flower cooler on the right, with a bucket of yellow roses and some filler plants. The weekend wedding cleaned him out.
"People come in and ask, 'Is this really a flower shop?'" he says. It's easy to see how customers might be confused. There are no metal étagères filled with shiny ceramic planters, no prominent FTD sign. A first-time visitor might be drawn to the jewelry, the old books with titles like Half a Rogue, or the collectible vases and only slowly realize that many of the vintage and new items relate to flowers, and that the store's potted plants are for sale. The saintly looking woman in several artistic incarnations on the walls is St. Theresa, the patron saint of florists. Holiday swags hang nearby.
"I call myself a 'special-needs florist,'" Grace says with a laugh. "I get some strange requests."
"A while back, the secretary to a mayor of a little town called to order roses for a stripper for Valentine's Day. Then she called back again to make sure they were delivered." Which town? Grace can't remember. A Google search later for "mayor's secretary orders flowers for stripper" turns up no results.
"Somebody just recently asked about sending 'dead flowers' to a losing candidate" in this month's council elections.
"That's harsh. Thank goodness they never came back," he says.
In any event: But it's event décor that Grace says makes up at least 80 percent of his business. Some weekends it's a wedding for 500, other times it's a convention with several events during the week. He does galas for public institutions and private businesses in town, lavish parties or modest affairs for businesses and families.
The recession, he says, has affected the scale more than the number of events he does. Coming up soon is a bar mitzvah, the third for this particular family. Before it's over, he'll have staged four separate events, from dinner one night to a blowout party the next.
Grace is a master at disguising bland convention halls and transforming cold gymnasiums into intimate settings. He creates life-size trees out of curly willow, and he drapes fabric across wide-open spaces. He builds backdrops out of foam core and a material called Flexiglass, using an X-Acto knife to cut classical or Art Deco patterns to evoke the right feeling and conceal anything that might spoil the effect.
But much of what Grace's work comes down to is wish fulfillment. He turns the client's vision into reality. When necessary, he will provide the vision.
The job has its challenges. "People do go overboard, and I have to ask myself, 'How much can I physically do?'" Then there are customers who go all-out in a different way: "One bar mitzvah I did had a '60s theme, with astronauts and go-go girls. But the mother put out baggies of oregano and rolling papers at each table. I thought that was a little much."
Sometimes, the job requires an engineer's precision: "A customer would bring out pictures ... She wanted everything the same each year. She'd point to a photo from the year before and say, 'Look at this angel. See how it's over a few inches?'"
Fashion was calling: Grace, 56, a native of Paducah, moved to Lexington in 1979 after studying fashion design at Parsons School of Design in New York City, which helps explain the racks of vintage clothes.
"I've always been interested in fashion. My mom says I sat in church and drew women's hats."
He freelanced around town, but he credits Lexington's most famous party-giver with helping to launch his career.
"I got my start with parties at Anita Madden's. One was Japanese, one was Russian and one had a Truman Capote black-and-white theme. It was exciting. You'd work a month on site." He became known there, he says, for his bathrooms.
Grace still occasionally sees Madden. "Every once in a while she'll call. I made a hat for her. She wanted a bird's nest in it."
Spotlight Meadowthorpe: Grace opened his store in Meadowthorpe in July 2006. "Things were changing. I wanted visibility, and something I could retire into."
Since then, even more has changed. "A few years ago, brides called a year in advance. Now it's often three months. It used to be they wanted you to think about things. Now they want answers immediately."
Grace attributes it to texting. "It's interesting to witness the trends," both decorative and sociological, he says.
For all the high-profile work Grace does — his wedding decorations were even featured on an Ellen DeGeneres show several years ago — he says he doesn't crave the spotlight.
"I like watching people. I like to be in the background. I never want to be in the event."
But he has created a different kind of spotlight for himself at his shop in Meadowthorpe, where he's surrounded by things he likes, from dollhouse furniture to antique console radios. And at this event that's been running 4½ years, he's very much front and center.