Now, more than ever before, event design has a critical role to play in celebrating moments, creating connections, and even serving as an icebreaker.After so much time without face-to-face gatherings, we want décor to do more than dazzle; we want it to engage attendees, too.
Here’s advice from some top visionaries about how to pull that off.
Jeff Leatham doesn’t follow trends in floral design, he launches trends. The artistic director of Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, and the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, Leatham is the author of several books about floral design. He was the subject of the 2009 TV reality show “Flowers Uncut” and has a social media following of millions.
Though Leatham’s floral installations in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles stop guests in their tracks, there’s an elegant restraint to his designs. “My mantra is clean, simple and chic,” he says. That means floral displays that are often monochromatic and built around a single type of flower, or two or three at most.
Leatham anticipates that a spare, uncomplicated esthetic will reign as events resume after the pandemic. “What we’re going through now puts things in perspective,” he says. “We’ve come to appreciate the beauty of a yam or a potato. I think in the new climate, when there are so many people in need, companies are going to be cautious in how they demonstrate prosperity. The days of having flowers hanging from every corner of the room up to the ceiling are over. We can still enjoy beautiful, lush flowers on the table, but the arrangements will be more compact and confined. Think of it as isolated luxury.”
Décor That’s Both Seen & Heard
Events in wine country are often lavish; winemakers, after all, are eager to showcase their venues as well as their vinos. But it would be hard to top an event staged at Donum Estate in the Carneros region of Sonoma County and produced by Napa-based Sasha Souza Events. The winery, known for its collection of more than 40 open-air, large-scale sculptures, recently added a stunner: a massive wind-chime installation called Sonic Mountain. It consists of three overhead concentric circles that dangle 365 polished steel rods of differing lengths to form a wave of chimes that brush together and make lyrical music in a breeze. To add to the drama at the sculpture’s inauguration, which was attended by about 100 guests, the chimes were activated by 20 percussionists who were brought in to perform a piece written especially for the occasion.
A Return to Haute Hospitality
Chris Hessney produces events for high-end fashion and lifestyle clients and the entertainment industry, like Goop and Ferragamo, Netflix and Armani. They are gorgeous, luxuriant affairs. But for Hessney, who began his career working for restaurateur Stephen Starr and then with hotelier André Balazs, the true success of an event comes down to hospitality. “You can create a beautiful event,” he says, “but if you don’t think about the guest experience as they’re walking through the space and taking in every moment, you’re going to miss the mark.”
As events resume, Hessney says he’ll be encouraging the brands he works with to get back to the basics of what makes a great party: terrific food, warmth, playfulness. “People are really going to look forward to letting their hair down, not being too serious and being really present in the moment,” he says. “As designers, it’s our responsibility to create an environment that leads to that experience.”
His own approach to events is almost maniacally detail oriented. “We’ll put together a mood board for our clients that’s anywhere from 40 to 100 pages, with different textures of fabrics, stones and materials,” he says. “That helps everyone be more thoughtful in the overall approach to an event. If you want to create an immersive experience, it helps to have a consistent tonality throughout.”
Hessney doesn’t shy away from kitsch. For a dinner hosted by LA jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth—her whimsical gumdrop hoop earrings can cost over $10,000—he took over an Italian restaurant and made the entrance look like that of a pawn shop with a neon sign that flashed “We Buy Diamonds.” At each place setting there were necklaces wrapped around porcelain poodles, kittens or bunnies. “They were great ice breakers for people sitting next to each other who’d never met before,” Hessney says.
When it comes to tabletops, Hessney likes things “over the top,” he says. “I want to have as much fun as possible.” For a post-runway dinner for designer Brandon Maxwell, whose fashions have been worn by Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle and Oprah, Hessney created tablecloths, napkins and seat upholstery in a print that Maxwell had featured in his show. “I like to take all the hard work that the designer does,” Hessney says, “and put it, literally, on the table in every way I can.”
Wolfgang Puck Catering (WPC) is well-known for small creative touches that make a big impression. A new innovation is using company logos or monograms to literally brand food and drink. “As face-to-face events emerge post-pandemic, WPC is at the forefront of coaching clients who are now working with tighter budgets on smaller events on ways to pack more ‘pow’ with fewer resources,” says Mary Cline, Wolfgang Puck’s regional director of catering sales. “Branding through food and beverage offers a multitude of ways to showcase an event host’s logo, company color or mottos.”
One subtle, but striking example is custom ice that features a company logo using a deeply engraved brass stamp to create a recessed relief image. The weight of the solid brass handle allows for a clear imprint when crystal-clear ice cubes, available through speciality ice vendors, are used. “The imprinted ice cubes are more impactful in cocktails curated with darker spirits,” Cline says. “Place the custom cube in a rocks glass and allow it to temper while you prepare the cocktail ingredients. Stir or shake your other ingredients, stamp the ice, pour the cocktail into the glass and voila!”
With advance notice of four to six weeks, WPC can create custom molds or branding irons to stamp chocolate, bread and other foods. Adding edible logos to cake icing, stenciling a company name or logo onto plates, and creating a display of sweets and candies in a company’s color palette are other ways to embed a company’s vision and vibe into an event menu. For smaller scale events that don’t have the budget or space for printed signage, made-to-order lighting or elaborate décor and production elements, logos and company colors that guests can eat and drink are an affordable way to incorporate branding customization into the gathering.
Hue Got This
When it comes to making a statement, color rules. Take a daytime networking event for a venture capital firm that was held in large tents on the grounds of a private estate in Atherton. Abbey Party Rents in San Francisco provided the rentals, including a main 40-by-100-foot tent and a 20-by-50-foot buffet tent. The ceilings of the tents were made of blue and yellow checkerboard panels and surrounded by pleated yellow drapery. Pipe and drape along the walls and table linens in primary hues, plus tall flower arrangements bursting with color, contributed to an eye-popping installation.
The firm is seeing a fair amount of color-block décor involving just one or two colors as well as large floral patterns in fabric installations and statement pieces. Underfoot are wrapped dance floors covered with vinyl sheets that are printed with monograms or patterned to look like marble or agate.
One of the most lavish events that Lauren Grech, co-founder of New York-based LLG Events, produced in recent years was a multiday wedding celebration at The Resort at Pelican Hill, the super-luxe Newport Beach property known for its Italian architecture and sweeping ocean views. Grech always strives to incorporate elements of the environment into a gathering in ways that are unforgettable. In this case, Grech wanted to capture the shimmer of the sea, the sky and the bride’s sparkling gown.
“We went with mirrored tabletops that reflected the sky and what turned out to be a very beautiful sunset,” Grech says. “We also had a mirrored ceremony aisle lined with arrangements of white flowers. We used big bunches of baby’s breath on acrylic stands to create a cloud-like effect over the tables; it looked like the flowers were floating. To incorporate the bride’s colors of gray and gold, we lined the dance floor in gold and put a monogram in the center of it; it looked stunning under the overhead twinkling lights.” Grech sees the “mirrors, mirrors everywhere” concept working well for social gatherings of all kinds, as well as corporate events.
A Trio of Trends: Oversized, Inflated and Frozen
As the Sacramento area’s most prominent event supplier, The Party Concierge has been at the top of the event trend curve for more than 30 years. Known for their elaborate foam fabrications and ice carvings, the company founded by Susan and Lawrence Crane has a 40,000-square-foot warehouse filled with props that include mock skyscrapers, faux Western sets, life-size zoo animals, Egyptian sphinxes, jumbo corporate logos and other creative solutions to meet just about any demand for a corporate, community or social event. A 3-D printer facilitates fabrication, while “ice meister” Lawrence turns out frozen creations ranging from full beverage bars to tabletop columns with flowers or other objects encased within.
One trend that’s blowing up is “organic” balloon garlands, essentially strings of different-size balloons in complementary colors that can be draped over, above and around installations at trade shows and corporate events.
Activating Events Through Design
Ask Kristin Banta, one of the country’s top event designers and producers, about trends in décor and she talks about the big picture. “The most successful events are those that create a sense of community, bonding guests together in a way that builds brand loyalty,” she says. “We used to think about creating Instagrammable photo opportunities, but now we’re moving toward a more holistic approach: How can we manipulate all of the sensory elements we have at our fingertips to create a cohesive, immersive experience?”
One way Kristin Banta Events delivers shareable content and guest participation is using a concept she calls “Easter egging,” sprinkling subtle notes on a theme throughout an event. At a premiere party for the movie “The Favourite” that involved 400 attendees gathering at the LA restaurant Baltaire, her team “wanted to create moments that had guests revisiting the experience of seeing the film and get them talking about the event without doing something like recreating sets,” she says.
The event’s design evoked both the film’s setting in 18th-century England and the 1980s punk rock scene in London. Period tapestries, mirrors, wicker rocking chairs and tufted sofas were spray-painted with quotes from the movie like “Love Has Its Limits,” “My Men Must Look Pretty” and “How Goes the Kingdom?” Rabbits were tucked into tabletop displays to evoke 17 rabbits that the queen (played by Olivia Colman in an Oscar-winning role) kept as pets to represent the children that she’d lost.
Banta works hard to avoid obvious interpretations of themes. For a party that the dating site Bumble held at the Coachella festival, the theme was winter wonderland. “We can all immediately picture blue lights and trees dripping with crystals,” Banta says. “We wanted to do something different and disruptive.” After guests entered to beats from a mountain chalet-inspired DJ booth, they could enjoy blue Arctic Jell-O shots or vodka served at an ice bar inside a frozen igloo where 360-degree projection mapped the northern lights. There was a ski lift chair photo booth, ski patrol lounges, a snow angel garden and a digital kiosk where guests could project customized snowflakes across the sky.
“The devil’s in the details,” Banta says. “We always ask, how does something make people feel? Is it original content? What can we do to dial up a familiar theme? At the end of the day, you want to transcend the usual to create an event that’s timeless where guests connect.”
We all have a newfound appreciation for celebrating outdoors, notes Tim Sperry, president of Sperry Tents, which has provided products for high-profile events such as concerts by Paul McCartney and Jimmy Buffet. “With the help of tent heaters, there’s no reason to stop when summer ends,” he says. “A tent creates a fun destination for the typically buttoned-up, corporate setting, particularly when decorated with bistro lights and lanterns. A tent can also be used in combination with indoor spaces to help spread out your party guests.”
In 2022, Sperry continues, we’ll see more corporate events embracing the opportunity to create personalized moments with smaller guest lists and a deeper focus on guest experience, including more areas for lounging, wider spatial footprints for social distancing, and raised observation decks for presentations and keynote speeches. All of this can be achieved within tents.
At one Sonoma event, guests gathered at vintage banquet tables beneath a 32-by-72-foot Sperry tent that was adorned with floral chandeliers. Another elegant way of observing safety protocols was in the form of each guest being handed a personal cheeseboard for an appetizer.
We are living through unprecedented times, and that can make issues of design and décor challenging. Just ask Pantone. For 23 years the experts at Pantone Color Institute have sifted through its library of over 15,000 hues to anoint a Color of the Year. But not one of those shades seemed to capture the global zeitgeist of the moment and the transition as we emerge from an intense period of isolation, the institute said in a news release. Instead, Pantone created a brand-new color, Very Peri, described as a “dynamic periwinkle blue hue with a vivifying violet red undertone,” and declared this newcomer Pantone Color of the Year 2022.
“Very Peri displays a spritely, joyous attitude and dynamic presence that encourages courageous creativity and imaginative expression,” says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of Pantone Color Institute.
If that’s a vibe you’d like to bring to your next event, Pantone’s pros say the color works for an array of different materials, textures and finishes, providing a pop of color in painted walls, accent furniture, floral design, table settings or an “intriguing and eye-catching accent in a pattern.”