Honouring the Five Senses within Event Planning & Styling
"It was less about aesthetics or appearance but much more about how to create an environment that made people feel better after being there than when they had arrived. It's all about well-being. They don't know why they feel the way they feel, but it's all been orchestrated!" - Ilse Crawford.
When cruising for new and inspiring material, I stumbled on a Netflix series called "The Abstract of Design" - an extraordinary stumble. The episode about interiors caught my attention because the featured designer was the editor of ELLE Magazine. When growing up, my mother had a deep affinity for décor magazines, and I distinctly remember liking this magazine [the E's inspired my first signature as a young adult].
During the episode, Ilse Crawford discussed her number one strategy when styling interiors: "prioritizing people in the design process; putting the human experience at the beginning of the design process; designing with the human experience in mind."
"One of the qualities that distinguishes her work from that of other interior designers is that it's about how we experience a room and how we feel in a room to satisfy the subconscious" - Sarah Medford
As Crawford described her strategy in detail, the words perfectly tied together many thoughts and ideas about how I also strategically go about Event Planning & Styling - without method, there is chaos. So, how do you balance the aesthetic with the needs of humans?
Well, researchers have theorized brainpower is what separates humans from other animals. Over time, we have established traits like self-analysis, mental time travel, imagination, abstract reasoning, cultural establishment, and morality. And yet, with all these human advancements, something can still be said for animals: without these distractions, they live according to and rely on their senses more than the average human.
When humans overthink, the body has not entirely switched off our sensory perception - the mute button is turned on! Because of this imbalance between our hyper-thinking and the natural senses of how we experience the world, it feels comforting [in a way many people cannot put their finger on] when something has been designed to fulfill your sensual needs:
"Ilse's approach is much more subtle and sensual. It's about how things feel and smell as much as how they look. She wants to imbue people with a sense of well-being, empowerment, and a sort of gentle joyfulness." - Martyn Thompson
In my area of design and decor, most of my days are spent creating artistic and ornate table settings for micro-events, including elegant but petite Toronto wedding styling! Every client is different, and therefore every scenario is different. When you begin with a consultation, every individual's answers make the chances for repetition nearly impossible.
Now, let's flow into how I work with & honour the human experience when creating a design plan by incorporating the five senses and utilizing them as my guide.
Sight is an essential sense to consider when planning a table setting. It's also the most requested consideration I receive from clients.
Can guests see the other guests, or are they in solitary confinement via flowers? In most situations, the point of having a dinner party is to converse, rejoice, eat and be merry - together.
I can tell you this: I naively blocked a few views in my early days. As a result, I had a few arrangements moved for violating this rule with clients who prioritize sight over aesthetics [most]. And I like to think of these as learning pains. But I did take in the lessons.
"May I see photos of your table? Please provide the exact table measurements."
Utilizing these photos for many purposes, I first calculate if the number of requested guests will fit at the table. Then, comparing the [minimum] amount of dining space a human requires at the table with the table measurements creates an apparent blueprint of the table.
Based on this visual, I know what space I do and do not have to decorate. Even more importantly, this first step allows me to see what decor height will be appropriate for this table. For example, if two people are required to utilize the heads of the table, I automatically know this will be an entirely low-to-the-table [6-8"It's maximum] display.
When the table is enormous for the number of guests [my favourite] or the heads of the table can be empty, I tend to incorporate height into these areas, where the guest's line of sight will not be blocked.
Lastly, as a rule of thumb, when popping an elegant display into a home, it is better not to "fight" the existing decor. Therefore, I take notes from the photos about the colour and texture swatches [paint, metals, wood tones], the lighting fixtures, and the room's overall style [classical, mid-century, modern white, art deco]. This way, a table setting feels like part of your home instead of awkwardly placed within it. And trust me when I say: This makes a difference.
Picture this scenario:
You are set for a big evening. The menu you have created with Chef is perfection. The sparkling wine is chilling. You come down the staircase to take in the ambience, and AHHH-CHOO, The entire room is loaded with flowers you are allergic to. Guests are arriving shortly, and your nose is stuffed. You try to enjoy the evening, but it seems to be a wash when you can't taste the menu.
And so, as an Event Planner, I enquire about any allergies/aversions to the flowers/tree pollens of people at the table. When we circle back to the point of having a dinner event, it ultimately is to enjoy the food and wine. To attempt this with a stuffed nose would be a cruel twist of fate.
A second consideration regarding the sense of smell:
Always avoid the use of scented candles. It will disrupt your tasting experience and distract you from the natural aroma of the [subtle] flower arrangements. When there is an option in life, I always take the more natural, less artificial route; candles are no exception.
A prominent architect once told me he designed this [points at a 100ft tall chainmail-link floating wall] assuming one-out-of-a-million people would be driven to touch it. It was a highly-revered corporate building in Manhattan, after all.
Long story short: I turned out to be that person.
We had a big laugh as the chainmail [satisfyingly] clinked around. If I am not clear enough: the TEXTURE IS EXCITING!
Using our sense of touch to navigate the world of quantity versus quality is an adventure in and of itself. So how can touch and texture be incorporated into an artistic table design?
I ask the human planning the event for details regarding the reason for having the event and details regarding a person of honour [if there is one]. How is this linked to one's sense of touch? Because this is when I understand how I can load the table with details that add a textural dimension that adheres to the concept I want to create:
What is the desired mood and feeling of the event [professional, romantic, family, etc.]?
What are prioritized/least desired colours?
What vacation spots are they drawn to?
What restaurant decor has blown them away?
Are they artistic/into books/want to own a farm/adores cycling/etc., etc.? Hobbies and general interests, please!
Tell me about what inspires them or brings them to a happy place.
The texture is something we typically associate with quality. But, again, think back to when you bought your last sweater: most times, we unconsciously inspect and touch the material while contemplating the style, cut, colour, etc. But we always judge how it feels [or try very hard through a screen].
As an Event Stylist, my texture toolkit includes tablecloths, glass ornaments, strategic lighting, choice of flowers [mixing dried elements with fresh], metal, moss, carved wood, and everything in between. And I find that the more I have played into the idea of texture in design, the more people physically begin to explore and [gently] touch the table.
When groups of people sit at a table for 3-4 hours, I find the best aesthetic designs stimulate their minds during downtime between courses. To overhear guests talking about the tiny details they see, gently picking up objects to study how I have put them together or what their original purpose might have been - this is my happy place.
The library's rules should never apply to the laws of a social gathering: Silence is not golden. And in practice, I have witnessed some highly awkward scenarios where a little bit of music would have gone an extra long way.
Why? Because it has been scientifically found that tempo directly affects people's moods. So with many events now, I aim to provide the soundtrack.
Now, there are distinctions to be made when it comes to adding sound and music to any event: time and place. Another way of putting it? Let's be sure to read the room.
For instance, I do not tend to advocate for blaring Death Metal during dinner - unless that's what brings you peace and joy. But the other question would be: Does it also get your guests peace and joy?
What brings many [a keyword in event settings] people happiness is a volume-moderated, curated playlist that falls within the genres of Jazz, Funk, Instrumental or even cover bands. I say volume moderated because it's best to turn the volume down during conversations with our Chef & Sommelier and back up during other parts of the evening. And I say curated because, in this way, there are no surprises during your event. Sound is one of the most potent inhibitors of memory, after all.
As an Event Designer, I offer my clients access to a range of playlists I have curated for different tastes in music and various reasons people have for entertaining [business, romantic, friendships, etc.]. Music tends to be the last thing everyone thinks about when hosting, but it has one of the most profound impacts on the overall mood of the engagement.
Awkward silences become movie scenes with a soundtrack - that's all I have to say about that.
The main benefit of working as a team in this industry is sharing the workload with others:
Thank you for taking the reins on this one, Chef Eyal Liebman & Sommelier Rebecca Meir!
Taking the time and effort to collect the correct data from your clients separates an excellent design from a great design. Because akin to most logic in this world, when we focus on the details that go beyond the obvious, that is where we find the magic in our craft. And in Event Design, when we begin a project around the five senses, we end up with a design that honours how we feel at the dinner table.
Humans [read: high processors] operate from a mostly subconscious headspace, especially when it comes to events and gatherings because of the amount of brainpower we allocate to socializing and fitting in [yes, you're busted]. But that does not mean a person doesn't notice when they feel comfortable on top of seeing that the room looks good.
The next time you host a gathering at home, implement the five senses when creating a plan of action - sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. Blending them into your hostessing ideas will make your event flow more comfortably and enjoyably.
And let's, of course, if you don't want to do it yourself - and want an expert's touch - you can reach out to me, and I'll create this magic for you!