The Host's Secret Weapon: Merciless Perfection



SEEN ON HIGH | A buffet table should be composed like an exquisite still life. Roland Bello

Recently, Andy Warhol’s 1988 “Party Book” landed on my desk and I could not tear myself away. Partly because the how-to-entertain interviews are hysterical: John Waters, discussing plans for throwing his 40th-birthday party at a nursing home in Baltimore, notes that the element of perceived danger is a party bonus. But mostly the book is irresistible because the party throwers and goers are all game for one thing: A sexy good time.


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For a fête to be successful, it’s not enough to merely have status-confirming conversations; pheromones must be flying as well. In the event that pithy chat and nuanced flirtation falter, you’d better at least have a story-starting centerpiece on the table.

Actualizing a holiday party takes prodigious effort (if you are not in the mood to roll up your sleeves, I suggest you put on your best dress and kick up your heels at someone else’s house). The A-game approach is to channel a legendary party thrower like Truman Capote and conspire to make the evening beautiful, bewitching and memorable. That’s not to say you have to be Malcolm Forbes-style extravagant, either. Jeffrey Archer, the best-selling British author, member of parliament and jailbird, was renowned for throwing “at homes” featuring Krug and shepherd’s pie—a flawless combination of high-low. The coveted invitation instructed “regrets only” because everyone usually showed up.


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Since it’s December, inviting people over is actually slightly easier because guests and hosts know what to expect: glittering cocktail wear, silver, gold and crystal on the table, warm fires and cases of Champagne.

The classic mode for this time of year is either passed hors d'oeuvres or buffet. Both can be successful, but I prefer the latter as it can telegraph intimacy and informality, which are hard-to-come-by commodities at bigger parties.


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Buffet tables should be canvases for exquisite still lifes—like Dutch paintings. I love to see fancy silverware, cut crystal and flowers laid out on a rustic kitchen table. The friction between high shine and grainy wood is always beguiling. Conversely, a polished dining-room table is unique when ferns instead of flowers and bisque ceramic rather than fine china are deployed.


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The serving table in question should be navigable from at least three sides with a clear entry and exit. Stacks of plates, silverware and napkins should be corralled at one or both ends and food placed in the middle. In the tableau, you want to entwine flowers, candlesticks and personal objects, such as a bronze sculpture or a fleet of nutcrackers. Certain soirees call for heightened drama, in which case anchor the table with a towering centerpiece like a tall vase of branches or magnolia leaves.


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Don’t let a lack of furniture or china stop you from entertaining lavishly. I once went to a buffet party where the wily host had, the day before, bought a folding plastic table from Staples, covered it with a white canvas drop cloth and painted a grey Fortuny-esque scroll design on top. Loads of delicately etched Champagne glasses, mismatched silverware in white vases, white plates, white platters, white flowers and candelabra made it an unforgettable triumph.

Exactitude and merciless perfection are the hostess’s weapons. Get the details right and then put on your party frock and have fun. The sign of a good night is when a few people are still in your living room the next morning.

—Ms. Ruffin Costello is a writer and design consultant based in New Orleans.