Party In the Back
Design expert, Monica Pedersen, provides 3 tips to plan the perfect outdoor party
Article by Dawn Klingensmith, CTW Features
At summer barbeques and backyard parties, more often than not the guest of honor is Mother Nature, dressed in her warm-weather finery. But Mother Nature can be uncooperative, so any party with her on the guest list should also include the serenely adaptable Monica Pedersen, if only in spirit, because she brings a Girl Scout’s preparedness along with a gift for scene-setting.
“My favorite thing to do outdoors is push it a bit as far as designing,” says Pedersen, a designer on more than 90 episodes of HGTV’s “Designed to Sell.” “Instead of the super-casual barbecue with paper plates or melamine, I like to bring out the fancier stuff from inside. It definitely adds some magic.”
Pedersen is no perfectionist, though, casually admitting that she once ruined a main course and served her guests frozen lasagna instead. The responsibility of a host is not to create a perfect event, Pedersen says. On the contrary, a good party thrower anticipates that things could go wrong, especially outdoors.
Outdoor entertaining can be uncomplicated, but don’t expect it to be effortless. Details matter. Provide creature comforts like insect repellent, freestanding floor fans, misters, shade and seating areas.
“Don’t think twice about moving indoor furniture outdoors. It’s a great way to add surprise and comfort to any outdoor party,” Pedersen says.
If it cools down in the evenings, as it often does where Pedersen lives in suburban Chicago, drape inexpensive throws over chairs and porch rails. That way, “you won’t be rummaging around for extra jackets and sweaters for unprepared guests,” Pedersen says, adding that throws are one-size-fits-all and less likely than an old fleece hoodie to offend anyone’s sense of fashion.
Add some glam
While gentle breezes are always welcome, they serve as a reminder that paper napkins aren’t a suitable substitute for cloth ones, though the event may be casual. “They blow around and create litter,” Pedersen says.
A former fashion model, Pedersen is fond of fabrics and can identify classic patterns by name, so instead of buying napkins and tablecloths, she prefers to have them sewn.
Dripless, smokeless candles with hurricane shades are the safest bet for outdoors. Clip-on tablecloth weights will prevent the fabric from blowing up like Marilyn Monroe’s skirt. A layer of felt underneath the tablecloth prevents it from sliding around, protects the tabletop and is easier on the elbows.
For evening events, don’t expect the stars and strands of twinkly white lights to provide sufficient lighting. “People think about renting chairs, tables and plates but not lighting,” says Pedersen, adding that vendors will even install the rental fixtures.
Paper lanterns will do the trick, but why not dangle a spectacular fixture from a tree branch for a more dramatic effect? That’s just what Pedersen did for an evening graduation party, borrowing two antique chandeliers from a shop owner to brighten the occasion.
Run With a Theme
Outdoor parties are ideal for themes. “When you’re doing a theme indoors, you’re kind of fighting the interior design style. Outdoors is more of a blank slate, although you might need to invest in some props to drive the theme home,” Pedersen says.
Sometimes all that’s needed is a little niche or enclosure, such as a tented area where a signature cocktail is served, and the theme comes to life in a big way. “In an area that’s contained, it’s easier to create the look you’re going for, just one little area that’s really tricked out and theme-y,” Pedersen says.
While all of Pedersen’s ideas make for a nice gathering, she has two common-sense tips that usurp all the others. Most importantly, when entertaining outdoors, always have a backup plan. For a casual gathering with friends and family, that just means making sure there’s enough room inside to accommodate all your guests should inclement weather drive them indoors.
Lastly, “You can never have too much ice,” Pedersen says. “Always have more on hand than you think you’ll need.”
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