- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A small sprig of rosemary is tucked into the pocket of each flat folded white linen napkin just so — vertically, pointing toward a low green, purple and yellow floral centerpiece — infusing the room with its enlivening scent. Light blue stemware shine above a lush blue patterned cloth covering round tables set for eight.

The theme at this recent National Gallery of Art event was a 19th century New England lunch held for members of the institution’s Legacy Circle in honor of donor-scholar John Wilmerding and his collection of American art.

Directing the scene was Genevra O. Higginson, her formal title is NGA chief, protocol and special events officer,, whose research in planning these affairs is prodigious, her attention to detail renown.

The menu included foods in season that relate to the region where Mr. Wilmerding has a summer home. A vase of flowers identical to that found in one of the collection’s paintings greeted guests at an entrance table. Thirty minutes before the guests arrive, Mrs. Higginson carefully applies fingers to flowers in the centerpiece to open them another degree.

Most hosts, of course, don’t have to deal with matters of protocol when it comes to designing tables for special occasions — and few people have a greenhouse on the premises, as the gallery does. Imagination, however, is available to everyone, as Mrs. Higginson and other professional event planners attest.

“We don’t give parties at the National Gallery, we celebrate art,” Mrs. Higginson likes to say. In 22 years at the gallery, Mrs. Higginson, who has taught art history and traveled the world with a diplomat husband, has handled events for as few as two people and as many as 560. Any setting should be both a visual and an olfactory feast, she says:

“People should have an experience that is complete,” she says.

Her family’s Thanksgiving tables at home tomorrow will be decorated with small hallowed-out pumpkins filled with all the colors of autumn — rust-colored roses and leaves — set on hunter-green tablecloths. The children present will do place cards containing names and their own drawings.

You have to know the rules in order to know how and when to break them, say caterers and consultants of note who routinely advise on such matters. Having a theme helps in the planning, they say. “But Thanksgiving doesn’t have to mean putting an extra [fake] turkey as your centerpiece,” says Aniko Gaal Schott, an interior designer who specializes in embassy residences and events.

“I’m a strong believer in the unexpected,” she adds. “Good conversation is first on the menu and it can be sparked by the table itself.”

Everyday items in season — the gourds and fruits of autumn, for example — make wonderful arrangements, says Mrs. Schott, noting that fall and winter holidays are great occasions for entertaining in style since many decorative items are at hand or available in stores for relatively little cost.

“You can go out in the back yard and get some branches of maple leaves,” she says, warning people to be aware of the importance of room proportions if branches are used upright in vases.

Build with color, either in combination or in contrast, she advises. For a function at the Brazilian Embassy one time, she used massive mounds of red apples and magnolia leaves. Another time, she used green apples on top of a darker green cloth.

“Berries this time of year are especially nice. Boldness can be effective — and simplicity is enough of a drama,” she says. “If you are short of berries or leaves, you may have collections — even books massed by color or subject can be attractive. Or put a sculpture in the middle of the table relating to the theme of the day or night.”

If music is being celebrated, she suggests using toy musical instruments or rolled up music sheets tied with ribbon.

Her personal Thanksgiving table will consists of pear branches and red pears, along with sterling silver candlesticks and white candles. Anyone with crystal and silver should be sure to use it.

A recent formal benefit dinner at the French ambassador’s residence on behalf of the Alliance Francaise Educational Program featured bowls full of roses in every rusty hue with leaves of matching color scattered on the white cloth underneath. (It just happened, too, that the roses also matched the chairs and draperies.)

Votive candles are popular among professional designers. One reason, points out Eric Michael, co-owner and founder of Occasions caterers, is because “there is no such thing as a truly dripless candle.” With tall candles, there always is the risk of getting wax on a tablecloth — say antique linen — that a person really cares about.

There also are considerations of height.

“The flame should not be at eye level so as not to disturb the guests and obstruct vision,” says Bill Homan, partner in Design Cuisine, who prefers using a combination of pillar or column candles cut to different heights. “Votive candles give you light off the table and throw interest on the table as well.”

Christmas tables, says Mr. Homan, might feature solid gold or silver decorative balls glued together to form large spheres that then are placed three or four down the center of a rectangular table and set off by multicolored votive candles.

Where napkins and napkin rings are concerned, Mr. Homan urges less conventional treatment than a vertical fold. “Try folding in a perfect square for a more contemporary clean look or Asian feel,” he advises. Instead of old-fashioned rings, he suggests putting a decorative accessory atop the napkin such as old brooches attached to pieces of velvet or satin ribbon.

Mr. Michael met recently with Mary Alice Nay, director of special events at the Phillips Collection, to plan several future gallery functions at the Occasions office on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. One table for dinner in a private home had a “masculine” feel — a tan faux suede cloth combined with a copper base plate and black main plate. The other larger function, which was taking place at an embassy, was a dramatic combination of amethyst and brown inspired by a striking floral centerpiece of similar colors. They chose a tablecloth, then napkins, napkin rings, plates, flatware and stemware.

Mr. Michael says he believes in making at-home events as personal as the host can. “People think formal dinner has to be starched white table cloths with porcelain, but the fun of being personal is you can do anything — butter plates or not, napkin rings or not. Use things that you love and be aware that, inevitably, some things will break,” he cautions.

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