by Jessica Carreras
Norman Silk is feeling a little bipolar. It’s easy to understand why: On any given day, the co-owner of the Birmingham-based floral design shop Blossoms deals with deaths and births, sympathy and love.
The same goes for his feelings about the AIDS epidemic. His late ’80s to early ’90s – when a positive diagnosis “was a death sentence,” says Silk – were often spent providing arrangements for funerals. Now Silk and his partner Dale Morgan focus their 25-year-old company’s philanthropic floral forays on high-end fundraisers attended by the best-of. And on Aug. 14, the king of all AIDS gala events will showcase Blossoms’ work like never before when Dining by Design comes to Detroit.
Begun in Kansas City, the Design Industry Foundation Fighting AIDS has since held their state-of-the-art event in design- and fashion-focused cities across the nation – New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas. But never Detroit.
The Michigan AIDS Coalition changed all that when, earlier this year, representatives from the statewide HIV/AIDS nonprofit approached DIFFA with a proposition: bring Dining by Design – a several-hundred-dollar-a-seat event featuring one-of-a-kind tables created by local fashionistas, inventors, artists and florists – to Detroit.
On Aug. 12-14, the dream comes to life with three days of art, food and creations at the city’s Benson and Edith Ford Conference Center, culminating with the gala dinner, where distinguished guests will be served a gourmet meal at the uniquely awe-inspiring tables.
Silk is no newbie to table design, having decked out numerous wedding receptions and other upscale events. But Dining by Design, he found out, is a different animal entirely.
“At first it was like, ‘Oh, this is what we do,'” Silk remembers of the proposal that Blossoms participate in the event. “Then, as I read the guidelines, I realized that this is more like a designer showhouse than it is a table. (DIFFA) had examples of tables that had been created in other cities that truly were like a room from a house with walls – we weren’t even going to be close to that.”
But after meeting with DIFFA Director of Special Events Peggy Bellar, Silk and his team are now on track to creating a Frank Lloyd Wright-themed table inspired by one of the architect’s famous houses. But which house, says Silk, is still a secret.
For Detroiters, much of what they experience at Dining by Design will be a surprise, including a new format to the Michigan AIDS Coalition’s annual ArtWorks for Life event, which is being incorporated into Dining by Design as the kickoff on Aug. 12. On Aug. 13, the entire display – including the completed tables – will be open to the general public. An on Aug. 14, metro Detroit’s design and corporate community will merge for an evening of cocktails, dinner, entertainment and an auction benefitting the Michigan AIDS Coalition, which is expected to net over $100,000 from the weekend.
All this, in the name of HIV/AIDS fundraising.
Partygoers just there to have a good time can often overlook the underlying cause for such events. Luckily, DIFFA works with local Dining by Design teams at every turn to make sure that the reason guests are there – to fight HIV/AIDS – is not forgotten.
It’s a difficult task, melding the beauty of design and art with the horrific history of the disease, but not something entirely new to the creative minds that have been grappling with the epidemic in their work since its inception.
Like Silk and his team at Blossoms, artist Carl Demeulenaere has lost many friends to AIDS, and has been creating work to raise awareness and funds for addressing the epidemic.
“I didn’t have money. I’m not a wealthy person,” Demeulenaere admits of his decision to get involved in the cause some 15 years ago. “But I had already lost a couple of friends to AIDS and I wanted to become active using my artistic abilities.”
Along with a choice few others, Demeulenaere has donated his work to ArtWorks for Life for the entirety of the event. His work, though classically beautiful, often addresses the interplay of life and death – a topic inspired both by AIDS and his own personal losses.
“I started examining broader issues of life and death in my artwork and combining them with AIDS,” he explains. “So you oftentimes do see a skull in my work and usually a bright figure, alluding to a god-like or spirit-like force.”
At times both morbid and gorgeous, it’s a juxtaposition common to Dining by Design events, says Bellar, a veteran organizer of the fundraising galas.
“We’ve had all different types of AIDS messaging built into installations,” Bellar shares. “You can almost always expect, in every market, that there will be several artists who embrace it – either directly, or sometimes it’s so subtle that you could miss it if you weren’t looking closely.”
Messages about the epidemic range from simple inclusion of red ribbons to, in one extreme case at a New York City dinner, a bound-and-gagged live person hanging over the table, representing the silence in which HIV-positive people are forced to live.
It’s all up to the designers, Bellar maintains, which is what has given Dining by Design its longevity as a fundraiser.
“We’ve never guided, we’ve never had a theme. We’ve always let artists have free reign,” she elaborates. “It’s like gay Pride parades, for example, where they ebb and they flow and there’s years where it’s very political and years where they do something lighter and festive. The design and the art community … reinvent themselves every single year. That’s what keeps this event so interesting.”
And while some messaging is heavy-handed, other designers, says Bellar, choose to keep activism out, and focus instead on just creating a beautiful table for guests to enjoy.
Blossoms’ Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired creation will go that route, although to Silk and his team, the use of flowers can convey so much more than beauty.
“(Flowers) totally express your emotion, whatever it might be, whether you’re happy or sad,” Silk says. “When you see a tragic event, what’s the first thing you see? You see someone carrying a bouquet of flowers and putting it down. They may not even know the person, but they feel like they have to express their feelings somehow, and they do that with flowers.”
In the case of Dining by Design, Silk’s floral arrangements will express both the tragedy of AIDS and the hope brought on by new and better treatments; his own sadness over the loss of friends to the disease and the optimism he feels about the future.
“It’s always kind of an odd thing when you go to a charity party and you’re there to enjoy yourself. You don’t want to be overwhelmed by sad thoughts,” he admits. “But I still hope that people would remember why they’re there; remember what the underlying cause is and, in every aspect, don’t lose perspective of what the end benefit is.”
It’s beauty, it’s art, it’s design – but it’s also helping those in need, preventing new infections, and hopefully, finding a cure.
Cocktails by Design/ArtWorks
6 p.m.-midnight Aug. 12
Noon-5 p.m. Aug. 13
$10, or free for students with a valid ID
Dining by Design Gala Dinner
6 p.m.-midnight Aug. 14
All events held at the Benson and Edith Ford Conference Center, located on the campus of the College for Creative Studies at 460 W. Baltimore in Detroit. For more information, visit http://www.michiganaidscoalition.org