9 Easy Tips for Hosting a Garden Party
Designer James Hurley gives the 411 on wowing guests with superb centerpieces, artful arrangements and playful place settings.
Image courtesy of Heidi Geldhauser
"My look is very Parisian," says designer James Hurley, who incorporated a zinc-top table, vintage bottles, boxes crafted of reclaimed wood, and aluminum canisters in the tablescape. "I wanted it to look effortless but also look like it took a while," he jokes.
When the Four Seasons Atlanta’s Park 75 restaurant decided to invite guests up to their fifth-floor terrace garden for a new dining experience, they called on designer James Hurley to create a stunning tablescape that would complement the surrounding plant life and bold cuisine. The result? A vintage Parisian look encompassing a zinc-top table, Victorian and French-café-style chairs, and a centerpiece of metallic cake platters, vintage bottles and aluminum canisters filled with topiaries, mood moss and creamy pink 'Sarah Bernhardt' peonies. Hurley’s style is enviable; naturally, we called on him to give us some pointers on how to host a chic garden soiree.
The flowers: You’ll want to know at least two months beforehand what kind of flowers will be in season at the time of the party, says Hurley. Peonies, for example, are only available up until June, and then again in fall from New Zealand when “they’re a lot more expensive,” he adds.
The linens: An easy DIY tablecloth from your local home-improvement store? Drop cloths, says Hurley, who washes them in Meyers lavender laundry detergent and softener. “They drape great and they look amazing; they look like really expensive linen.”
The tableware: No two adjacent place settings should be alike, says Hurley. At the Four Seasons, he used two different shades of chargers and napkins, as well as mismatched silverware, for an alternating even/odd look. Louis XVI, XV and XVI silverware can be “stunning” when combined, he adds.
THE DAY OF
Setup: If using a table with a metal or zinc top, don’t leave it basking in the sun during setup. You don’t want your guests sitting down to a scalding-hot surface, warns Hurley. Instead, cover tables with drop cloths until you’re ready to set them.
Centerpiece: Hurley used cake stands, topiaries, wooden boxes and vintage bottles of varying heights to create a centerpiece for the garden table. Not so much that it interfered with guests’ line of sight, though: “I still like for people to be able to see over to each other.”
Flatware: This is one of the biggest differences between a cookout and a garden party. “I love to use real silver when I can get my hands on it,” says Hurley. Don’t have a silverware set big enough to accommodate all guests? Borrow from the neighbors and to mix-and-match with your own.
Floral arrangements: Hurley went with light-pink 'Sarah Bernhardt' peonies and different types of mosses for the Four Seasons tablescape. Peonies were arranged in vintage glass bottles and aluminum canisters, while mood moss was clustered on cake platters and the tabletop. “It’s moundy and fat,” Hurley says of the mood moss. “You wet it and wring it out like a washcloth, then you can place it.” Artificial moss topiary balls in narrow wooden planters added more dimension.
Seating: Instead of numbering tables, give them memorable names, such as types of flowers. “It’s so much more fun,” says Hurley. “To me numbers are like a cattle herding, like you’re trying to get everybody through.” Handwrite table names on small chalkboard signs and place on each table to designate.
Conversation starters: Oddities and eclectic centerpiece elements are natural icebreakers — a must-have when you’ve got unacquainted guests sitting next to each other. “It will start an entire conversation about the table,” says Hurley. “That and a bottle of wine will always loosen them up.”