BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Jody Elting, founder of Designs by Jody, once transformed a Lake Forest prairie into an African Safari camp, complete with tents with running water and electricity for guests to spend the weekend in style—and wild animal noises in the woods for good measure.
For another birthday celebration, a tent on a country club lawn became Toulouse Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge with hand painted Art Nouveau posters on the walls, faux stained glass on the custom fabric ceiling, and kicking can-can girls as just part of an evening filled with entertainment.
This intrepid designer even had a road constructed into a California desert to transport supplies when the helicopter she had rented was already filled to capacity with flowers.
A Chicago client, for whom she has done a debutante party with a Venetian theme featuring dazzling feathered and sequined masks as well as several memorable children’s weddings, describes her work as “brilliant unexpected inspirations, with the creator nothing short of effervescent.”
And it is weddings, whether held in a French chateau or the woods of New Hampshire, that make her heart sing—when we met with her just last week, Jody and team were creating a tented spring garden in one of Chicago’s most elegant clubs with just two weeks’ notice.
Though she is best known for the many events she has helped bring to life, she touches a million-strong every year through the floral arrangements she creates for the Art Institute, on display at the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance every week.
Despite her busy schedule, she always does the altar flowers for her church, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest. She is the fourth generation of her family to live in Lake Forest—and all generations have loved their gardens.
Jody’s love of flowers, we quickly discovered during our visit, extends to even the tiniest petal. She brought out a hydrangea with delicate shadings of lavender and lime and removed a tiny piece to show us the tones. Next, she picked up a coral rose—she admits roses are her favorite—and gently opened the outer petals. “How could a person not believe in God when they see flowers?” she asked.
She continued, “I am recommending to people at this time of year to add springtime to a party. Flowers just make people happy. Even my dog Magic loves to sniff them!”
A designer for 37 years who consistently wins prizes in her field, Jody describes herself as a storyteller who meets with clients to find the fantasies of their lives and then create an event that captures them. Jody frequently works with one of her two sons, Fred, who lives in Washington, DC, on lighting at out of town events. (Her other son, Victor, lives in Chicago.)
She works alongside Dana Strothman and Peggy Carter in Lake Bluff out of an office, greenhouse, and warehouse situated close to the highway. While all three have their own clientele, they work together on large projects.
Jody thrives on such challenges, counting energy and magic as her tools. She recalls, “As a child, my first grade teacher had to tie me to a chair. My father gave me a dollar for the dandelions I pulled out of the garden as long as I got the long roots. I have always been energetic.”
Dana, who has worked with Jody for 30 years, echoes this, agreeing that no one even comes close to Jody’s energy level. This snapshot of the last few months gives a window into her boundless productivity:
“This kind of work requires both self-discipline and high energy. I can be at the wholesale florist in either Chicago or Northbrook at 4:30 or 5 am then back in the office at 8. During the holidays leading up to Christmas, we only took Thanksgiving Day off.”
Jody’s motto is: “There’s nothing we can’t get or can’t do.” For her longtime friend and client Marion Pawlick, she has transformed tents into paddlewheel boats, winter scenes with fake snow and skating couples, and a Moroccan souk.
Formerly a science teacher at Lake Forest Country Day School, who bought the former McAdams Florist in Lake Forest 38 years ago, Jody creates sensory gardens for children in various locations as part of the Smithsonian’s national science programs. She encourages her students to feel the silvery soft leaves of lamb’s ear plants and touch other garden delights.
One of her great pleasures is lecturing to garden clubs and doing hands-on presentations for groups in her warehouse:
“Garden Clubs are thriving. There must be five different ones in Lake Forest alone. I have conducted flower-arranging classes for groups and once did a pre-wedding party at a downtown club teaching flower design.”
No matter the size of the event, somehow they know just the right amount of flowers to buy from markets around the world and relate that when you order 70 stems of something, you have to realize that 10-20 might be bad.
And, she adds: “You have to realize that you can’t absolutely guarantee a particular flower. Once, white peonies, the bride’s choice, just weren’t available, but we could work with her on something similar. Peonies, which are great favorites around here, are now coming from Israel and you usually can find them year round.”
Most importantly, “you have to sit down with your clients and get to know them, get into their minds,” Jody says. “We bring a variety of flowers out of the cooler frequently to show them. Sometimes the younger set wants to go with glass balls and floating candles more than flowers. We want people to say afterwards: ‘I am so happy, she did what I wanted.’ ”
But their team is more than just flowers. Designs by Jody is a full-service company known for amazing table covers, painted backdrops, and imagination that covers every aspect of the party. When asked for entertaining tips similar to what she might provide for a room of students, Jody responded: “If you are planning a 50th birthday or anniversary, welcome guests with a bouquet of 50 balloons at your door. Give little goody bags—just with little things like Hershey Kisses, or I once put in little flashlights.”
After a delightful afternoon of finger sandwiches on a platter featuring tiny lavender flowers, and a reminder from Jody that pansies and nasturtiums taste delicious in salads, she got back to work on that spring tent with the immediate deadline, leaving us with a hopeful thought as snow swirled outside: “With shipping so much faster now from all over the world, we have found it is always spring somewhere.”