Does the thought of decorating for a party send cold shivers down your spine? Or does it really get your juices flowing so you can hardly sleep for excitement? If you don’t fall into the second camp, I have some thoughts for you. It’s true, some people are really gifted at this. But with all the resources out there today, ie: Pinterest, anyone can set a festive tone through the décor, even if finances are really tight, you “don’t have a creative bone in your body”, or you have no idea where to start.
I could devote all my blog posts for the rest of my days to party décor. However, in this article I want to help you think through the look of your event and how to create beautiful tables. Let’s start with the look. There are two main things that will define the look of your party, the design plan and budget.
A design plan helps you think through what you want to do. It provides clarity which will lead to a cohesive look and consists of five parts.
Theme: The theme is pretty self-explanatory. If you are having a Thomas the Tank Engine Birthday party, that’s the theme. But why is a theme important? Simply put, it provides a frame work for all of your decor decisions giving your ideas a focus.
Color Scheme: Often, themes dictate the color scheme, a selection of colors that you repeat throughout your decorations. This is important because it provides visual harmony, continuity and balance. For example, if your color scheme is yellow and blue, you use both colors in a few places, allowing your eye to flow through a space instead of just stopping where the color is the heaviest.
Motif: A motif is a repeating pattern or design element that is born from the theme. Like color schemes, they provide continuity. For example, at my best friend’s wedding, the motif was lovebirds. They were scattered throughout the reception providing cohesion.
Style: Even when you have a theme, it is possible to take it in several directions. Thinking of adjectives like rustic, elegant, playful, dramatic, airy, etc. will help you decide which way you want to go. Sometimes the inspiration can come from a scene in a movie.
Message: This aspect of your party design could simply be “Happy Birthday”. But if you are doing a fundraiser or missions dinner, you may have something specific you are trying to convey that can be made obvious by words or images. For example: recently we did a dinner for Radooga, the Ukrainian organization that is close to our hearts. To highlight the message, I found cute galvanized buckets that had a chalkboard on them on which I wrote milestones of the ministry.
Some people may find budgets to be a hindrance, but they can be very helpful, especially if having too much choice is overwhelming. Sure, an unlimited amount of money means that you can buy everything on the Pinterest page without thinking or consequence. But most of us don’t operate that way. Budgets eliminate options forcing us to be more creative which adds to the enjoyment of the process (for me anyway). The vast majority of my events portfolio consists of very frugal design, including two wedding receptions where the budget was about $150.
To get around a tight budget, shop your house, or a friend's house (with their permission of course). Go to garage sales, thrift stores, discount, and dollar stores. Hang out at the bargain bin and clearance aisles. And don't forget about your own backyard.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
After you decide on the look of your party, it’s time to bring all the elements together to create a festive and inviting atmosphere. Party décor can include so many details. But when you are thinking about a dinner, chances are, the lion’s share of your attention will go to the eating and buffet tables. To achieve a great look, use layers. These consist of a foundation, a grounder, table scape, and place settings. For our purposes here, let's focus on the first three.
Most of us don’t have seating for 30 at a nice table so we gather whatever has legs and a surface. For us this consists of a collection: 2 plastic paint-splattered 6’ tables, a folding camping table, card table, plus our patio, kitchen, and dining tables. Saw horses and plywood are a great option too. The fact that some of these are not fit to be seen doesn’t matter because my secret weapon is a stash of white king-sized flat sheets that I use as tablecloths. These create a consistent foundation to start building upon. The important thing is that they go down to the ground covering all the ugly and mismatched legs.
When you have a table with a white cloth and you just put a centerpiece in the middle, it can often feel lost. That is because it needs to be visually grounded. Do you know what a table topper is? It’s a piece of cloth, usually a square, cut smaller than the table that you use on top of the base cloth. It serves to add color and interest while grounding your table scape. It’s like have a living room with a hard floor and no rug. The furniture just sort of floats and the space seems cold and unfinished. A rug grounds the space while adding color and interest.
I have a whole collection of table toppers I have made through the years for all kinds of occasions and they get used over and over. These may seem like a luxury, but I contend that they are a necessity especially if the budget is tight. They make the table scape seem grander because they visually expand what is in the center. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. Scourer the dollar bins at the fabric store. Table runners fall into the same category as toppers. But you can layer one upon the other.
What you put on top of the foundation and grounders of your table can be comprised of so many parts, including all the dishes, flatware, napkins, place cards, and favors. Often with parties of 30 or more, you are not setting the table so for the sake of this blog, I will only talk to you about the actual table scape.
Notice I didn’t say centerpiece? The term “table scape” opens up Pandora’s box of design. To get a great look, think about the merchandise, structure, sparkle, organics, and extra touches.
- Raid your house for books, boxes, cake stands, tea pots, toys, whatever fits your theme. It does not need to be all about a vase of flowers and candles, though there is definitely nothing wrong with that.
- Find multiples of something inexpensive, like Ball jars, glass vases, hurricanes, lanterns, plastic flower pots, and baskets.
- Use unexpected materials such as chicken wire, tin cans, and wire screening.
- A table scape needs to made up of an odd number of elements of differing heights to create size and interest.
- If you are using all of one thing, having them the same height is fine.
- Be sure your tall elements can be seen over or around easily so you won’t feel the need to remove the centerpiece for the sake of conversation.
- Don’t be afraid to put something gigantic on the buffet table.
- No matter what you decide to put on the table, the two key principles you need to consider are scale and repetition. If you have a large table and a little bud vase with a single rose in the middle, it’s going to look “tookie”. That’s my mom’s word for “out of scale”. If you are on a bud vase budget (a dime a dozen at thrift stores), use several-three, five, or seven. This use of repetition will make up for the lack of scale. Most anything can look good if you have enough of it.
- If the event will be at night, be sure to include candles.
- If you are worried about open flames, consider battery operated. Luminaria makes amazingly realistic versions. One thing I have learned, though, is that some cheap kinds put off a very white light. If possible, test them out before your event to be sure you like them.
- Adding a mirror square beneath candles will multiply the candle power.
- Reflective surfaces like mercury glass and crystal will also add sparkle and a little glam.
- Something living is always a nice touch. Consider plants so you can reuse them. Sometimes I have used them for the foliage combined with artificial blooms. I have even grown sweet potato vines for centerpieces.
- If money is tight, try floating a bloom or several in a glass bowl.
- If the budget is almost non-existent, consider what is in your yard or a friend’s yard. Most of the time, I raid my garden, cutting greenery from bushes and adding blooms where I need to.
- If you really want to go out on a limb, pun intended, use branches. Even without leaves, branches can be beautiful. Spray paint them to fit your scheme. You can even use big branches in pots of plaster of Paris to create trees. Strung with white lights they make for a magical setting.
- To add a little extra interest, scatter embellishments on the table like smooth rocks that you can find at Dollar Tree, pine cones, flower petals, confetti, nuts, or even candy. The possibilities are truly endless.
Now that we have gone through the process of planning and executing your dinner party décor go spend some time on Pinterest to get your juices flowing. You can do this!
In Part 4 of "Tips for Feeding a Large Crowd", I will help you through the hours leading up to your party.