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  • Writer's pictureHolly Blum

Thirty Minutes With World-Class Event Artist Carolyn Dempsey

Part three of my series profiling event industry professionals impacted by the COVID-19 crisis features the dynamic and creative Carolyn Dempsey, CEO and Lead Creative Director of Carolyn Dempsey Design. I recently caught up with her to discuss her 25- year career in event design and how she is keeping her business afloat during this challenging time. Carolyn opens up about her professional journey (she started as a banker!), her creative process, trends to watch and how she is channeling her inner teacher.

What motivated you to join the industry & start your own business?

I graduated college and went directly into banking. I quickly realized I was miserable. I got engaged to my husband and absolutely loved the planning stages of our wedding (sound familiar?). I took flower classes at the NYBG, worked weekends at flower shops and then started freelancing as a designer for a large local event company.

During this time, I learned all the ways NOT to treat clients and employees. I also learned was how resilient I could be. I was able to juggle the controlled chaos of multiple events simultaneously—a wedding locally in Westchester with The Kennedy Center Spring Gala in D.C. and The Swan Ball in Atlanta. I loved every minute of it.

Shortly thereafter, I was hired by David Beahm to oversee and implement his floral designs for Katherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglass’ wedding. It was quite a spectacular experience. With husband’s encouragement, I opened own design firm, which is entering its 20th year in business.

How has the current COVID-19 pandemic most affected your business?

The biggest change has been not seeing my close-knit team everyday in person. Although we have adjusted to working from home by scheduling creative meetings over Zoom, we certainly miss the spontaneous flow of in-person conversation.

Last year, we opened an extension of Carolyn Dempsey Design; a lifestyle store called Fleur & Nest. The shoppe gives us the opportunity to evolve our creativity and interior design skills and meet new clients. Regina LaVecchia, my Senior Sales Designer, Jayne Taylor, my Client Services Manager, and I help to curate the shoppe with eclectic hostess gifts and home décor. COVID-19 has shuttered the doors of that aspect of our business for now, but we hope to reopen this spring.

How have you been able to stay focused and inspired while the event industry are on pause? Like many of my industry colleagues, I have been wearing many hats. I have three children, 16, 15, and 11, who are eating three meals a day (plus snacks) while homeschooling. I have uncovered my hidden teacher talent with my 11-year-old Sam. I have to say I am enjoying this time and I have a new respect for our teachers— it takes a lot of patience for sure. After lunch I dedicate time to myself; I have been participating in some wonderful, informative webinars given by my colleagues. Although our industry has taken a major hit, it has brought us together in solidarity as we each help our clients postpone their life celebrations. I also find inspiration in my daily walks and keeping up with fashion and interior trend magazines. COVID-19 could never stifle my inspiration. And an afternoon dance party always helps!

How has event design changed over the past decade?

For me, the most obvious change is florals. When I started in this industry flowers were where everyone started. Then they became lower on the priority list for clients. And today, events are more about the overall environment (e.g., lighting, furniture, fabrics, custom tables and bars, etc.) and creating more customized interior designed spaces. I now approach each event from an interior design perspective and try to give each its own personality, whether it is a Bar or Bat mitzvah, wedding, private, non-profit gala or corporate event.

What is your creative process like? How do you approach each event and keep it feeling unique and fresh? My creative process is simple: it’s all about the client. I want to know as much as I can about the clients’ likes, dislikes, what colors speak to them and the designers who inspire their sense of style. I find out whether they like symmetry or asymmetry, graphic patterns or quiet solids, or modern, simple design or bold design.

Regina and I meet with each client to hone in on likes and dislikes. We look at various samples, solidify colors and discuss an overarching design plan. The best part is a demo presentation where we share our interpretation of the design, how the event will look and feel and how it will layout. We work collaboratively with clients to finalize the plan.

Our in-house production facilities also enable us to custom fabricate in wood and plexiglass, with enough space to create large-scale installations for social and corporate events. For one client’s Bar Mitzvah, I created breathtaking chandeliers for The Black Box Theatre at SUNY Purchase. They were literally out of a dream I had the night before I designed them.

What gets you out of bed each morning and motivated to do your work?

Definitely my kids and my business! I could never imagine a world without them or doing anything else. Everyday is different and I’m no longer married to a desk. I find inspiration everywhere and implement it into creative ideas. I love going on site visits, working with venues, entertainment companies, photographers, planners and clients to create something new and exciting to unveil at their event. I want our events to reflect our clients’ personalities, values and style. My specialty is melding sophistication with whimsy, especially at Mitzvahs where the balance between adults and kids is key.

What are some fun or interesting facts about yourself that would not fit on a traditional resume? For the past 10 years I have been a “skating mom.” My daughter Sherlynn is a competitive synchronized figure skater and we have traveled all over the U.S. She is part of Team Image’s Junior Team and will compete both nationally and internationally this year as Team USA.

Also, all three of my children are adopted and they are my entire world. Through them I understand the world in a way I could have never understood before. We do not see color in our family or hold any prejudices; we are one. I could not be prouder to be their mother as they were all born from my heart!

Are there any trends you are tracking when it goes back to business as usual?

I am constantly tracking trends and trying to stay ahead, while forging my own style. Two trends I think are here to stay are old traditions fusing with new ones and events being a personal reflection of individuals and families. As far as getting back to “business as usual,” the health and safety of guests will be at the forefront of every discussion. We are hopeful that more testing and a future vaccine will allow us to celebrate with loved ones in the not-too-distant future.

What are 1-2 “must have” elements of any celebratory event?

A focal custom bar is always fun to have; it anchors the space and creates a great spot for guests to gather without being “stuck” at their dining tables. Secondly, great lighting to enhance your décor and create the ambiance is a must have. There is nothing worse than making an investment in creating a beautiful room and the venue lights go down and everything gets lost. There’s nothing better than a romantic glow to make you and your guests look beautiful! Who doesn’t want that?

What do you want to say to your colleagues in the event space who are navigating this difficult time? Stay the course…stay focused…use this time to dig deep into your business and find new ways to streamline, organize and invigorate it. Also, spend time on yourself. When we are “in season” there is hardly time to breathe. Start a new routine for yourself, whether it’s walking, doing yoga or sitting down to finally read that book you haven’t had time to read. And remember that as an industry we have been through tough times before. I know that we know will come out of this on the other side celebrating in style.

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