2 Volkswagen Vanagons, 1 camp site, 10 people and a guitar. The challenge was to create an intimate social gathering within a public campsite. The solution was to corral the vans, pop the tent tops, park them parallel with sliding doors open–creating social space between and within the vans. Served traditional camp foods, plattered along with a single tray of Mai Tais to start, each just short of plastering. Bubbly to finish. All under the tin twinkle of a few string lights under battery-power. Effortlessly we glow camping.

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Van Parity

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40 guests, 1 band, and 1 vision to share. Farmhouse living room setup for concert viewing, and social. We did it! You can do it, too. Take action at your first instinct to share what you have, ask for help, and prepare to be delighted.

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“Communication is merely an exchange of information, but connection is an exchange of our humanity.” ~Sean Stephenson
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Living Room Concert

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Themes

Rooftop Dance Party

This party is perfect for someone who loves to dance, and wants to amongst a bunch of people that they know. The benefit of creating a party space where there wasn’t one before is that you are free from the trappings of apathy which tend to pervade places that extend themselves in a certain way for too long. You know you are in a place like this when the corners seem stale. Stale is only good for bread and for the birds.

Objective

Facilitate a dance scene reminiscent of a hot Miami night on a rooftop except on Bainbridge Island.

Details

  • Guests: 50-80
  • Rooftop adjacent to the art museum was something I had been eyeing since its construction. Several introductions, personal emails, and emails on my behalf later, I had it booked and insured–as a gift no less! The universe wanted this party to occur, clearly, and so I pressed on.  To the police station.

Note: It’s important to consider all the people you may effect and try to mitigate circumstances before they occur.  For a perceived positive impact: look to extend. For a perceived negative impact: look to hedge.  Big mistakes are made when the focus is too narrow, although one cannot avoid mistakes altogether as long as one is human, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Be merciful because the less beat-up you are, the more fun you will have.

  • Get all the permits. Meet the police. Find out who will be on duty that night, and send a personal email. Make it clear to everyone that you are a law-abiding citizen and wish to remain so.
  • Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Plan as if someone will call the police to complain.  I proposed to the police chief that callers be given options: a) attend the party, or b) a trade of 2 hours community service by yours truly in exchange for them shutting their pie hole, er…allowing the dance music to blast through midnight.
  • Assign someone to manage the police the day of the event.
  • Signs/Directions: Consider all possible entrances and exits, decide the best, and sign affectionately.

Props

  • Outfit outdoor fireplace area at the entrance with rug and throw pillows to affect a posh and inviting scene.
  • Consider lines of sight from all major areas. Adjust furniture and props accordingly. (I prefer to do this process alone because it looks weird to do, and I cannot be concerned with how I look at this stage or the space will suffer.)
  • Hand-lettered signs–food, bathroom, %alc on the beer in the keg, etc.
  • White tablecloths for food areas, patterned tablecloths and pillowed seating at cafe tables.

Note: Why mix it up, re: tablecloths?  You have a bunch of tables, why not give all tables white tablecloths? The answer is, you are communicating to people what to do within a space in a variety of ways, and if successful, you will facilitate connection between people. Using cues to minimize conflict between people and the space they are in is key.

The tablecloth color was one of the ways I communicated what was happening within each space so people could spend their energy on other, more fruitful things like socializing. Also, signage. You know how it feels when you are running around looking for the bathroom. Terrible. You’re in a panic, and probably not connecting with people as a result. Social events tend to be short and so there really isn’t time to recover from something like this: it’s a good night if you don’t pee your pants. Set the bar higher.

  • Situate cafe tables to emphasized the dance floor, like hands holding prayer space.
  • String lights, crisscrossing over the dance floor, further delineating the dance space and creating warmth.
  • Hobbled glass candle holders at tables, another layer of lighting and texture.  Ideally, there are at least 3 layers of light in any scene. This provides that comfortable feeling you can’t quite put your finger on.  It’s like a light hug, feels so good.

Note: Layer textures for delight. Take a view of a space and make it flat, like a picture. Identify the textures in the picture to see that they are alternating well. For example: floor–sandy, gritty | table–steel, smooth, hard | tablecloth–soft, flat, patterned | candle holder–nubby texture, solid | space above table–blurry mess of movement | string lights–solid, steady.

  • Pick a color palette.  I chose a sunset at the beach theme: blues up high, reds and oranges at midline, ground the color and texture of sand–this detail delighted me most because I could have it no other way without a ton of effort, and the way it was could be no better.

Outfit

Vintage silk shorts/tank onesie in a flowering squash pattern with onyx buttons cast in gold frames down the front; black-glitter keds; spray tan.

Food & Entertainment

Interactive Art

Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company. – Rachel Naomi Remen

It started with a couple of extra large picture frames, burning a hole in my garage:  an interactive art piece to be created at the party.

I had two existential-type questions that I had planned to fashion the words out of felt or wire and affix to the top of the frames.  With my dear neighbor during the odd hours, we made die-cuts in two shapes, one to represent each question on which guests could write their answers with a hearty ballpoint pen, and affix somewhere within the respective frame. One frame was black, one what white, I had mats made (Julie’s Frames) to bring the initially blank visuals up a notch. I eyed them for weeks. I was thrilled.

As it happened, I ditched this idea in favor of keeping the dancing interaction, front and center.  Sometimes you will find that more is more, and thank your lucky stars when you do.  Just because an idea is great, doesn’t mean you have to use it.  This is one of the most important lesson I have learned in curating parties.

Any unanswerable questions?  I’m yours.

xx

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Themes

Camp Beverly Hills

What I love about this party theme is that it takes advantage of the warm weather–a prize in the Northwest, a fun mix of women, and a particularly landscaped backyard, effortlessly.

Objective

Create an outdoor space to promote social connection in way that had likely not been experienced before, and in a fashion that would engage every guest for the occasion of a birthday.

Details

  • Seated dinner for 8-10 people
  • Make use of a backyard with graduated landscape, including large boulders and mature, evergreen trees.
  • Pick on an outdoor theme that excites me, which is something nearly over the top, that I have most props handy or borrowable for (in an effort keep the proverbial bank intact), and I can imagine each guest being engaged within.
  • Discover enough about each guest in advance of the party so I could imagine how they might act in the party scene that I was slotting for fruition.

Note: People are the hardest part about throwing an effective party. More on this in my next article about the power of one dud in eight to ruin things. Joy! Right? Hey, we can’t prevent what we don’t talk about.

  • Seed the party theme with guests by sending invitations written in the form and style of a camp call (the bugle not withstanding).
  • Figure the arrival experience.  At the side of the house there was a gated arbor entrance with a stepping stone path that bent around to the backyard.
  • Create element of surprise. Contrary to the popular guest-receiving at the front door of any house, I presented a shuttling the guests around back as a finer, more on-theme experience.

Note: Creating the element of surprise if often the hardest won detail of any party.

  • To accommodate the entrance surprise, I create several visual directives, aiding the guests to come around back by the path and not up to the front door. We had nary a folly. Note: If I had to do it again, I would have included auditory and olfactory cues as well, such as music and fire.
  • Consider transitions and only take the absolute necessary or pleasant ones. For instance, if guests went through the front door, they would have had to find their way through the house and out the back, to get to the backyard.  This would have been too much transition, and also, we could have lost a few.

Note: If you are OK with losing a few guests, those are exactly the people who you ought not to invite in the first place. Don’t miss the point of the party for the social pressure. Invite only the people you want to connect with now.

  • Select and fashion props to look like a girl scout setup camp except for a few finer details.

Props

  • Large canvas tent, covered on all sides
  • Indoor dining table and chairs
  • Bandana napkins
  • Cowhide rug
  • Flag pole and flag fashioned with bamboo pole, guy lines, and staked out. (Higher budget: custom flag and shirts)
  • Vintage Hudson’s Bay blankets
  • 60’s kitchen cart
  • Gas fire pit
  • Gas lanterns
  • Music: campy, 50’s 60’s tunes

Outfit

Long button-up linen dress, extra-wide brimmed hat, compass necklace, clipboard, lace-up boots, lipstick.

Food

  • Appetizer: nuts, cheese, fruit (Town & Country Market)
  • Vegetarian chili in sourdough bread bowels (Cooks Illustrated)
  • Layered chocolate cake with wildflowers (Blackbird Bakery)
  • Drink: Local boxed wine and natural sodas in cans (Badger Mountain, Hansen’s)

Game

I’m a sucker for games, or some planned part of the event that is designed specifically to draw members together. Games provide a focus and certainty about connecting people, and are not for the faint of party hosts.

For this event I initiated “camp stories” which provided that we go around the table, taking turns telling a personal story. Guests could pass when their turn came if they chose. All guests shared, there was hooting and hollering, and we laughed until we cried.

The neighbors offered-up the next morning that we sounded like we were having a great time, and they were glad.

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“Never miss a party… good for the nerves… like celery.” ―F. Scott Fitzgerald
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