While you may assume what you serve your guests to eat and drink is of paramount importance to a successful party, interior designers know the secret to hosting a party that will be talked about for months is developing a theme.
No one is suggesting that you should redecorate your entire home before a party, but furniture, lighting, music, food, drink and some inexpensive accessories can be used to create a theme and carry it throughout your home.
Step 1 in party planning is to determine the party’s purpose - book-signing, a baby shower, a holiday party or simply a friendly gathering.
“You’ll need to decide if you want this to be a formal occasion with linen napkins and real plates or a casual gathering with paper plates and plastic glasses,” said Kelley Proxmire, principal of Kelley Interior Design in Bethesda. “Then you can decide the theme, which can be as simple as a color scheme like black and white, something centered around the season or something more elaborate like a ‘Mad Men’ party with your guests dressed up to fit the theme and music and food to match.”
Shanon Munn, an interior designer and principal of Ambi Design Studio in McLean, suggested establishing the theme at the curb with a sign or balloons and continuing to the front door and throughout the home.
“You can color-coordinate everything, including plates and napkins,” said Amanda Welch, an associate designer with Ambi Design Studio. “You can inexpensively order personalized items online such as napkins, stickers and even coffee mugs that can become a keepsake from the party.”
Elizabeth Boland, a partner with Design in a Day in Chevy Chase, suggested having a supply of white tablecloths and adding color appropriate to the theme with candlesticks, votives, vases and serving pieces.
“Our three favorite party elements are good silver, great serving platters and a freshly ironed tablecloth,” Ms. Boland said. “Accumulating a good collection of platters and candles allows you to be creative with party planning on a whim. You can just pick up flowers on the way home from work, and everything else you need is already at home.”
Ms. Proxmire owns a red tablecloth with attachable bands in white, green and blue to fit different color schemes, and she layers more color with flowers, balloons, votive candles and napkin rings enhanced with ribbons.
Jeff Akseizer, an interior designer with Akseizer Design Group in McLean, suggested bringing some nature inside, such as hydrangea blossoms or forsythia branches wound among the serving platters.
In addition to establishing a theme with accessories, Mr. Akseizer said hosts and hostesses can purchase a throw or some fabric to add extra interest to the furniture.
“You can find a faux fur throw for $35 online or re-cover your dining room chair cushions to fit a theme and then push them against the wall to create more space,” Mr. Akseizer said.
When hosting a party, he said, he spreads the theme throughout his home and invites guests to explore each room.
“Don’t close the doors to your bedrooms,” Mr. Akseizer said. “Let people experience your home and go on an adventure. I leave a dim light on in every room so people know they are welcome. People are uneasy if there are rooms that are off limits.”
Ms. Munn recommended keeping lights on in the party rooms and the draperies open so guests know they are arriving at the right house. She suggested directing guests to the party spaces with music and lighting, switching off lights in the bedrooms.
Rearranging furniture and lighting can help create flow for a party.
“Great lighting is always the key to any fabulous party,” Ms. Boland said. “I know it sounds crazy, but every light switch in your house should have a dimmer, even in the bathroom. When party time rolls around, dim the lights, light some candles - unscented only - put on some tunes and let your guests be the focus.”
Depending on the type of party you are hosting, you may want to add or eliminate seating.
“The way your home is furnished [for a party] is not necessarily going to be the same as everyday life,” Ms. Boland said. “For example, if you are hosting a first Communion brunch, you might have to bring chairs up from the basement for additional seating, especially if you have older guests like grandparents in attendance.”
If you want more space for guests to stand, Ms. Proxmire suggested removing a coffee table or other tables for the party. Moving dining chairs or a set of folding chairs into the living room works if you need extra seating.
Mr. Akseizer said homeowners who entertain often should think about alternative seating when they design their home. In addition to a sofa and dining chairs, he has several ottomans and a built-in bench in the kitchen. He recommended purchasing slipcovers for folding chairs to add style.
Ms. Munn recommended having an extra ottoman or two tucked away that can be pulled out for a party. She suggested experimenting with regrouping the furniture during a party for better flow and covering a desk or an end table with a tablecloth to extend the color scheme and provide an extra space for food or drinks.
“You can extend your seating groupings outdoors, too,” Mr. Akseizer said. “An outdoor heater can be a great investment for parties, because people like to get fresh air in any season. I always put ice, drinks and glassware outside, but it’s better to keep the food indoors.”
You can create party flow as well as decorations with the placement of refreshments at a party.
“It’s generally not a good idea to place food and drink in the kitchen, especially if someone is still doing meal prep,” Ms. Boland said. “You can put the bar and food on a sideboard or perhaps a kitchen island if it’s not in the way. You should place food for a buffet on both sides of the dining table to eliminate lines.”
Separating the bar from the front door and kitchen helps create flow, because all three areas naturally become congested during a party. Mr. Akseizer recommended placing serving platters on several levels, using jars or risers underneath if necessary, to make the buffet more visually interesting.
“Always have a signature drink at your party and make sure it is different each time,” Mr. Akseizer said. “It’s a great way to establish your theme and get your guests to try something new.”
Mr. Akseizer said he uses Pandora radio to create party playlists, and other hosts use an iPod with speakers for their music. The important thing is to plan the music before your guests arrive.
“Music is extremely important, and I think it helps people relax even more than alcohol,” Mr. Akseizer said. “At a party, you need to appeal to the sensory elements with the scent of good food, dim lighting to rest your eyes and the right music.”
Regardless of the type of music that appeals to you and your guests, it is key to have music playing from the moment the party begins to set the tone.
“The most important thing is to plan ahead,” Ms. Proxmire said. “If the host and hostess are comfortable and relaxed, then the guests will relax, too.”