Master ClassSummer Party Planning — By Event Designer Mimi Brown
Casual and laidback—which is the spirit of summer! Everyone's calendar years are so jammed packed with kid's activities, school functions, work events... no one needs another formal event to attend by the time summer rolls around. I like to keep it simple: lobster rolls, rosé, backyard or beach blankets and oversized lounge furniture. Maybe a fire pit for smores and hotdogs and some good music.
Rosé! Or a refreshing summer cocktail. Coming off the beach or from daytime activities in the summer, it's always the best thing to put in your guests' hands to kick off a summer soirée.
Have fun yourself. The host truly sets the tone for the event so if your guests see you having fun they will enjoy themselves as well. As long as you have enough alcohol and a fun group, there is no reason for everyone not to have fun. Take your shoes off and make guests feel at home. More specific? One of my favorite things to do for dessert is frozen candy bars. Buy a bunch of your favorites, freeze them, and then slice them thinly and arrange them on a large cutting board. It is such a crowd pleaser and a fun surprise for your guests. Who doesn't want a slice of frozen Reese's Peanut Butter cup?
Relax. It's a party at the end of the day—not life-curing surgery. There is always a solution. Rain? Go inside. It may be crowded but put a kitchen rug (or bath mat at the last resort) by the front door, have everyone take their shoes off, and just pile in to the largest room in the house and keep the alcohol on the porch (if covered) and serve food off the kitchen island or dining room table. If I've learned one thing about a party, it's that people can adapt. Good wine, plenty of food and good company and they will be fine—even if they are a little crowded. Last-minute food and beverage disasters are an easy fix: just pivot to serving something else. Get takeout if all else fails. We've ordered a stack of pizzas at the end of a kids' birthday party because there were still some guests lingering and the daytime food was done. I've also never seen anyone mad at a really good sushi takeout order. Last-minute seating changes also tend to stress clients out—again, try to remember there is no bad seat in the house if you've been invited to a party.
I love Moroccan wedding blankets and bohemian beach blankets scattered with oversized poufs and pillows for relaxing. If it's cold enough I love a sheepskin on chairs that otherwise may not be too comfortable. Brightly colored Turkish towels can double as blankets, if it's a little chilly outside. Don't be afraid to bust out the disposable bamboo ware if you just aren't in the mood to pull out all of your goods... although I do love a good tablescape with coordinating flatware, plates, and fun glassware. Lighting is so important on the table if your event is at night! More on that below. :)
LOCAL! Most of my summer entertaining is in the Hamptons and there are endless local farm stands to choose from. Whatever is in season is best and I tend to use casual containers in the summer—tin cans, metal flower buckets, ceramic milk pitchers, colored glass bottles. Hydrangeas are abundant out East (and in most gardens in the summer) and there is nothing better than massing homegrown or locally bought blooms in a big, white pitcher and popping it on the bar or kitchen counter.
String lights are easy and cheap. And vendors are getting very clever with making them extra special. I was in Target over the weekend and saw them with brass tips and white hardware, etc. I'm also a fan of hanging basket lanterns (see West Elm) and setting regular lanterns around the perimeter of a pool or pathway to the beach with large pillar candles in them. They shouldn't blow out if you close the lantern door. And votive candles are one of my favorites. They come in endless sizes, shapes and colors and are an easy (and cost effective) way to add some oomph to your party. I like having different elements of light—A.K.A. string lights above and around the table, votives scattered heavily down the middle of the tablescape, and lanterns sitting on the perimeter of the party, where appropriate.
Be thoughtful. If it's a larger group you want to make sure you aren't leaving anyone out that's "part of the group" and you also want to pull together a group of people that will enjoy each other's company. If it's a seated dinner, I like to have place cards so everyone isn't standing around trying to figure it out themselves when it comes time to sit down. If it's more casual and there are multiple tables, guests will usually gravitate in their "clique" to one area. If you want people to mix and mingle then place cards are the way to go. If it's casual and buffet-style food (so everyone isn't sitting at the same time) then place cards are not necessary. Give people enough advance notice as summer tends to be a busy season for everyone. But also don't be afraid to send a mass email at the last minute and say you are doing pizza on the beach. You can put in an order for a stack of pies from your favorite local pizza joint and have everyone bring a bottle of rosé and beach blanket and meet you on the beach.
For at-home, backyard entertaining, a playlist on your sound system is easiest and most economical. You can also get a Wonderboom on Amazon and link your smartphone to it to play if you don't have a sound system. It has an amazing sound quality and reach. If hiring entertainment is in the budget, a DJ can be fun for a cocktail party or a party that's going to go all night—as the night goes on, guests can go interact and "spin" together. A smaller 2-, 3- or 4-piece group can be fun for backyard dinner parties—I like a mix of acoustic and crowd-pleasing songs. I tend to book bands only for large events like charity galas or weddings—more formal gatherings that are dinner and dancing. There are some great options for kids' parties that play all of the popular "Baby Shark" songs, but also throw in a cover song or two so the adults don't go crazy! Music does a lot to set the tone so work on your playlist with a friend or, if you've hired someone, give them a handful of songs and let them create the mix for you. I always love learning new songs or artists by giving a professional a short list of some of my favorites and letting them run wild. Hire good people and let them do their thing!
Whatever it is, just be sure you have more than enough. I tend to overbuy when I entertain because the stress of having to run out for more alcohol is something I don't ever want to be faced with. To me, a summer menu begs for rosé, Aperol spritz, a mini lobster roll, a panzanella bread salad, fresh corn salad, watermelon feta arugula—I am somewhat obsessed with vegetables so any veggie-heavy menu, with some fresh local seafood mixed in, is my dream.
Veggie heavy tends to also work well if you have guests with a variety of allergies, plus—bonus—it keeps better if it's a little warm outside. For serving style, I like passed bite-sized canapés and then a casual buffet full of salads and seafood and then passed desserts. If it's a seated dinner, French-family style is a casual way to serve your guests and keep the table somewhat clean! Bar wise—I like a combination of passed drinks and open bar. Don't feel pressure to stock an open bar with six different kinds of gin and vermouth and bitters, etc. A good rosé, white, red, and maybe vodka, tequila and some summer mixers are enough to me. I do like to pass rosé and a specialty cocktail, if servers are in the plan—both crowd pleasers and a good way to keep the bar line to a minimum.
I am not a fan of games. AT ALL. But most people would probably argue with me! Everyone loves Citizens of Humanity and a good game of Celebrity (celebrity charades). I don't mind having games out—that way, if you have a crowd that is into them, they can start a game up without everyone feeling pressure. I am obsessed with the new ombré Jenga set—now that I can get into! To me the best icebreaker is a cocktail. If you are the host, make sure you make thoughtful introductions if you know two people who haven't met yet who would adore each other. I also tend to keep my eye out for anyone who is attending alone so I can pay special attention to make sure they have someone to talk to or a group to fit into.