Owner and president of Neil Leeson Decor Floral and Be Seated, Leeson was trained in art and sculpture, and began his career in visual merchandising — where he learned to put together “looks” and themed ideas. People soon began hiring him to decorate their homes for Christmas, and at 27, he quit his job to pursue theme parties full-time. When he started doing weddings and working with fresh flowers in his third year, his business blossomed, so to speak.
Today, Leeson is known for his unforgettable atmospheres and is often hired to work his magic on destination weddings and parties — like when he headed to Puerto Rico to design an event at a 350-year-old convent that’s now a boutique hotel. “Our workspace was literally on a balcony that overlooked Luquillo Beach and ocean on one side and the rainforest on the other,” he says, adding that although he kept threatening to stay there, Akron is home.
“I like it here and love that I can keep my life based here but still pursue other ambitions,” says Leeson, who grew up in New York but has lived in Akron for 17 years. “I really hate winter so being able to do weddings in Florida that time of year is a beautiful thing. I get to have my (wedding) cake and eat it too!”
You’ve incorporated golf balls, artichokes and citrus fruit in your arrangements. What’s been your favorite and why?
NL: My favorite are bloomed purple artichokes. Most people don’t even realize that artichokes bloom, but when they do, they look like giant Muppet flowers on steroids. They’re fantastic!
How would you describe your design style?
NL: It depends upon the client. I ask lots of questions that help me to get into their heads and then start designing from there. Sometimes it’s super-modern and stylized, sometimes more classic and reserved. I always make sure there are interesting twists or unexpected color combinations. My favorite designs to work on are, of course, anything over-the-top that’s never been seen before.
What’s the most high profile wedding you’ve done?
NL: It was one in Naples, Fla. We were working with a very famous wedding planner, and it was almost covered on the WE Network show “Platinum Weddings,” but the bride and groom decided against publicizing their big day just prior to filming. I was disappointed, of course, but totally understood and respected their decision. We created a crystal canopy for the ceremony, along with swirls of rose petals with Swarovski crystals down the aisle with the Gulf of Mexico in the background. The reception had six different styles of linens, amazing white leather lounge furniture and a cake riser made of over 200 roses mixed with rhinestones.
The most fun?
NL: One of the most fun was here in Akron. It was an outdoor wedding at the bride’s parents’ home, where we created 5-foot-tall hot-pink rose pineapples on top of flower-covered pedestals, lined the garden beds with hundreds of pounds of lemons and oranges and built an Oriental carpet out of fresh flowers. Everything was oversized and brightly colored in orange, yellow, hot pink and lime, including the 8-foot-tall centerpieces that were these giant towers of flowers with enormous tropical leaves exploding out of the top. It was a great example of an exuberant bride’s personality coming through in a design.
What special event is your dream gig?
NL: The Grammy Awards stage decor or a post-Grammy party. It would be really fun to do something over-the-top and edgy with that group of people. Or a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show. That would be pretty phenomenal.
If I weren’t a floral designer, I’d be …
NL: a chef. I love to cook for people!
Whose next wedding would you like to do:
___ Larry King
___ J. Lo
___ Billy Bob Thornton
XX Other. Who:
NL: Madonna, for sure. She has impeccable taste, is fearless, and it would probably be held somewhere amazing, like in Europe. Plus, I’ve been a huge fan of hers forever, and it would be a great excuse to meet her.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve used in an arrangement?
NL: A few years ago, a woman ordered a funeral arrangement for her father, who was an entomologist. She said he had had a great sense of humor, so I suggested we attach realistic crawling bugs all over the arrangement, and she loved the idea, so we did it!
What would surprise people about you?
NL: That as much of an energetic motor-mouth as I can be, I’m actually pretty quiet and introspective when I’m by myself. And that even though my job is to create lots of intricate designs, I like my personal life best when things are kept simple and calm.
In my spare time …
NL: I love to have dinner parties, hang out by the koi pond with friends, practice yoga and do anything near the water.
When a client goes “Bridezilla,” I:
___ Go to the happy place in my head.
___ Smile, and make a mental note to tack an extra 25% onto her bill.
___ Smack her a few times with a long- stemmed rose.
___ Thank goodness I’m not marrying her.
XX Other. Please explain:
NL: I’ve always been lucky enough not to attract those Bridezilla types. I really have fun with my brides, and I’ve probably had only one or two Bridezillas in the entire 14 years I’ve been in business. I can’t even watch that show. It would give me nightmares.
/ Writer Abby Cymerman is assistant editor of akronlife magazine.