By Ryan Hanson
The Mad Hatter throws a party.
Many times, in presentations or casual conversation with event colleagues, I have proclaimed my dislike for themes. Believing as I do that events exist to communicate messages to specific audiences for some purpose, Casino Night and Under the Sea have just never made sense. But despite my desire for effective design over thematic décor, sometimes we don’t have a choice. Sometimes we are given a theme and have to work with it. That is the time to come up with design strategies to turn the expected into something else. I want to share one such strategy that was hugely successful.
I was invited to design a fundraising gala event for a children’s theater. Each year, one signature show from each season is selected as the theme for the event, and in 2012 that show was Alice in Wonderland. A simple and iconic theme, right? Get a white rabbit with a pocket watch, some teacups, some playing cards and pink flamingos for a game of croquet on the grass and you have it.
But this was supposed to be a black tie gala event with a significant fundraising objective and a garden or inflatable pink flamingos didn’t seem to fit. Of course we needed to take our guests to Wonderland; we couldn’t not provide some take on the iconic representations, but that had to be translated into an environment worth experiencing. To create our solution, we implemented a strategy I like to call “characterize it.”
Our gala guests were to spend an evening in Wonderland, and our solution was to embody one of the characters of the book, define him for our needs and create our own story around this character, bringing his reality to life in an experience we hoped our guests would enjoy. We picked—who else?—the Mad Hatter, and our story was that he was hosting our guests for dinner in his home.
But a feast for 500 is not an everyday tea party, so what is a hatter to do? He pulls everything from around his home, a cacophony of objects and items near and dear, valuable or not, and even the bed sheets together in concert to set a table for dinner he is sure to be proud of. This is our character’s story and so now we design the event from his point of view.
We took the event venue and made it a Hatter house. That meant draping the double-story lobby windows in a contemporary damask print. With a story written in 1865, we wanted elements which felt Victorian and perhaps English, but maintained a mixed contemporary edge to help address available rentals and a specific budget. Our color pallet was shades of teal and robin’s egg blue mixed with taupe, brown, cream and silver to play off the venue’s orange walls. Linens were a blend of stripes with subtle polka dots and minute floral damask reminiscent of a wall tapestry. Two more contemporary damask prints on platinum and walnut color napkins set at random added texture, elegance and the right amount of wit.
To seat the right amount of guests, tables were broken up over three spaces within the theater, and each room had its own style. In the lobby, oversized white and gray village flowers filled oversized mercury glass vases, while in the mezzanine, vintage birdcages held floral arrangements of “birds” suspended on branches. A long wall held 50 photos of our Mad Hatter, pictures of himself, taken perhaps by himself, doing all sorts of things, arranged in all sizes in faux frames, while contemporary black and white baroque mirrors showcased silhouettes of key characters—Mad Hatter, White Rabbit and a friendly door mouse in a teacup.
In the primary space, long tables were set at mixed width for whimsy. Tabletop décor was varied: two table featured all thing tea—teapots, teacups, flowers in teacups, tea tins – while two others featured anything collected from our Mad Hatter’s Library including backless books, statuettes, globes, instruments, feather pens and classic books stacked every which way.
Still two more featured every picture we could find of our Mad Hatter in action framed in barnwood frames mixed with dark vases lofting flower arrangements of white roses and greens, while another was complete with clocks and wire birdcages, holding cakes of course, and two more tables featured mercury glass wine and champagne bottles with white roses mixed with baroque white candlesticks supporting mini cupcakes flagged “Do NOT eat me” signs.
The collected effect was an environment with winks and nods all over the place to the classic work of literature, while still being unique and worthy of a formal social gala. The art of capturing a character and using that character’s values, attributes and story to create a world in which to invite your guests is one design strategy which gave new life to this event. It is a strategy which is easy to try when you have a work of literature for your theme, but equally applicable when crafting any event that is for a specific audience: imagine the perfect example of your target audience. Craft a story about that character and then use design to bring that experience to life for your guests.