As seasons change and holidays beckon us to gather in cozy homes with family and friends, our thoughts turn toward togetherness, comfort foods and feelings, warm aromas and twinkling lights.
As you swoon over dreamy banquet settings and lavish holiday affairs, thinking “I wish,” have you considered that exquisite events need not be expensive nor excessive?
How can you create impressions that inspire and bless your guests in a memorable way?
Some people are just gifted when it comes to hosting and setting a delightful atmosphere. For others, experience or economics may feel like a setback to setting the table of their dreams. Some basic cleaning, thoughtful preparations and intentional, joyful living sets the scene for memorable gatherings.
“It smells incredible in here.” “What a lovely home you have.”
“It’s so peaceful here.”
“I like that music, what are you playing?”
“I laughed so much tonight!”
“Wow, look at that feast!”
“This was a really special time.”
These are the comments you want to hear from people who enter your home. If you invited them, they are important to you, and you have hopes and expectations for the time spent together. You want it to be enjoyable relationally, and you also want to make a backdrop for this event that speaks value, intention and care without words.
Do you need a home makeover and a big budget to set this stage? I suggest not.
Enter the art of ambience.
Ambience is the character and atmosphere of a place, most often experienced as the mood that comes from your surroundings.
The heart of ambience precedes the art of ambience. Your attitude, manners, and way of welcoming your guests sets the tone for any gathering. It makes or breaks your guests' experience. Be sure to relax, enjoy, and let love shine through all you do.
Ambience goes beyond food to invest your interests and talents into an experience that will please your guests. It is a reflection of diverse people coming together in harmony. It is an expression of generosity and care.
I became attuned to the pleasure of ambience as a small child. After enjoying rich and elegant holiday feasts at my aunt’s house, I would go home to my simple little bedroom, arrange my few belongings and recreate the mood she had so gracefully supplied. I played with soft lamplight and peaceful strains of Christmas hymns, soaking in the cozy feelings of red winterberries and feathery pine branches dancing shadows on the wall. I noticed how a careful sensory arrangement could make me feel.
Function often takes precedence over feelings, but as hosts, it is worthwhile to consider the experience we provide for our treasured guests. I think beauty is as necessary for the soul as food is for the stomach. Instead of scarcity, I think contentment and gratitude have a way of multiplying and expanding what we have, whether little or much.
The best way to get a feel for ambience is by practicing on yourself and your family. Dress up simple meals with nice dishes, candlelight and music, and notice how the mood changes.
Embellish and experiment as you go. Consider the theme of your food, the decor of the room, and the people present. How will you illustrate the intended theme or the mood? You can do this with colors and music.
Play Background Music
Sound creates mood, inspiration, and filler for conversation.
In our home, we often play Italian opera or Jerry Vale when we have a pasta or pizza night. Or Spanish guitar when enjoying traditional rice and beans or enchiladas. If we want to set the mood for a fun party we play upbeat tunes, or relax the mood with soft, soothing instrumental. During dinner, the volume should never compete with conversation.
Setting a lovely table, using fine china, lighting candles and playing music during a meal tells people: "This moment is special, you are wanted here, please stay a while and enjoy yourself." In our home, we don't wait for holidays and huge life events to do this. We celebrate a rainy day at home, or a bright day outdoors, or an evening where everyone just needs a little extra care. Life is made up of all the little moments, not just the big ones.
Smell triggers desire, appetite, intrigue. Pay attention to aromas as you walk through your home. What smell greets you at the door? Make sure it is clean, with no lurking odors from the bathroom, the fridge, or waste cans. To ensure a pleasant welcome to your guests, burn a scented candle or diffuse essential oil in the gathering space and in the bathroom. Be aware that some people are sensitive to chemical fragrances. Think of other ways to enhance the aroma in your house, by baking fresh desserts, simmering a pot of mulled cider, or displaying fresh flowers or herbal potpourri.
When serving a meal, consider burning scented candles that complement and don’t overpower the foods served. Vanilla is usually safe. You can even layer fragrances by having a distinct but complementary scent in each room.
Dress up your Table
Let the table take center stage! If this is the gathering place, it deserves to be the center of attention. You can accentuate the surface with a table runner, centerpiece, and candles. I often use tablecloths when serving guests. Starting with neutral linens, you can build a table scape with a table runner, placemats, chargers or a centerpiece, and the twinkling ambience of fairy lights or real candles. There are endless options for accessorizing the table from garlands to confetti and everything in between. When decorating, consider how the food will be served. Because the goal of gathering is to connect with people, keep centerpieces below 12 inches high to avoid obstructing conversation.
Balance colors and shapes on the table, from decorations to food. Presentation enhaces the simplest meals.
Lighting truly sets the mood for a cozy gathering. It creates welcome, openness, visibility, and interest. A gathering area should be well lit so people can see clearly, without being harsh. Overhead lights and accent lamps help create a comfortable atmosphere. You can up the ante with candle light and soft twinkle lights on the table and around the room.
Texture adds depth to a room through both aesthetic and tactile appeal. Look around your room and notice the surface textures. Is everything smooth, rough, chunky, shiny, brushed? Do you have interesting textures that compel you to look closer, to touch? I really like neutral colors in my home, adding interest with a few pops of color and contrasting textures. Cream fur throw pillows on a slate blue velvet sofa. Ornate patinaed silver platters contrasted with smooth white linens and rustic wooden pieces. You can choose items in similar colors but contrasted textures to add visual depth. You want to create distinction and cohesion with surfaces that make you want to look closer, to touch, to appreciate difference.
Decorate in 3's
When decorating, follow the rule of three! We process and remember things best in groups of three. Arranging a group of three items in different sizes and textures creates visual interest and impact while avoiding clutter. If you have more than three items, you may go up to 5, or delegate everything to three distinct groups which can then be arranged.
Use Triangular Arrangements
Draw the eye up and create interest by displaying items in groups of three or more in staggered heights with the tallest item in the back or center, forming a visual triangle or cone. You can elevate focal points with pedestals, stacked books, or candle holders.
Ask the question, "How can I tie the room together and make it cohesive?" Look for shapes and colors that can be repeated throughout the room. Even in a room of mismatched furniture and random collectibles, continuity can be produced. In one room, I have used large green moss balls placed at various focal points, with additional circular patterns like a large round clock, a sphere sundial, and a vintage picture of a sphere sundial. These repeated shapes and colors provide rest for roaming eyes in an interesting space. It feels intentional, balanced and secure.
Work with what you have, not against it.
Rarely will everything you have be everything you want. Innovation and resourcefulness are key! When hosting events at home or for clients, I have to be creative with what is on hand because the setting and the accessories available are not always in line with my vision. Sometimes you have to compromise, and sometimes you come up with something better than you imagined!
Once I was asked to design an elegant banquet setting in an outdated building. The pink carpet and floral curtains were decades old in an oversized, empty room. I couldn’t fill up the room or replace the decor. Scratching my original ideas for an ornate and intimate atmosphere, I went for garden minimalist. Large round tables were set with simple white tablecloths. Considering the carpet and window dressings, I drew the focal point down to simple centerpieces of floating fresh pink roses and twinkling tea lights in riverstone lined glass bowls on wreaths of green ivy. Fresh and simple accents played on existing colors and patterns in the room. The overall result was harmony and elegance.
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