How to level up your intimate summer gatherings
A jazzy music playlist plays softly in the background as guests dressed in summer brights mingle before taking their designated seats. A long table is decked with crisp white linen and fresh, seasonal flowers, each place setting with a name card, a copper shaker set, ribbed glass tumbler, pre-sliced lemons and raspberries, mixers on ice, and a few chosen bottles of Courvoisier within reach. A mixologist will be showing a group of 10 friends how to mix the perfect French Twist and Gala, while they nibble on artisanal breads, dips and crudités and spicy cocktail sausages …
This is the summer of intimate, curated gatherings outdoors.
Not only are smaller gatherings the more responsible choice in this current climate, they feel more meaningful and it doesn’t mean they can’t be indulgent.
In fact, says art director and stylist Sanri Pienaar, if ever there was a time to really do things grandly, it would be now – when small gatherings at one another’s homes are all we have to look forward to socially. In this instance, grand doesn’t mean big; but rather putting more thought, time and effort into curation and execution. It doesn’t have to be a baby shower or a milestone birthday, simply a lunch with friends and family or braai at yours will do.
“The golden thread is this idea of slow living,” says Vika Shipalana, founder of VS Luxury Group, which curates luxury experiences for corporate and private clients. She says there’s an art to it and it’s not about breaking the bank to pull one together. “Money can’t buy experiences.” She recounts one of her most memorable experiences – learning how to make sourdough at a private home in Houghton, an event curated by Soho House’s Cities without Houses initiative. “Now, I have no intention of ever kneading my own dough at home but this experience was unmatched. As soon as I walked into this beautiful private home I took off my shoes to feel the grass underneath my feet; that’s how comfortable I felt. The host and the environment was so welcoming. The presentation of the food, the dialogue, the people, the music, being in nature, and just authentic beauty – we simply spent an afternoon, chatting, sipping and sharing ourselves with the handful of carefully chosen invited guests.”
Pienaar says hers has always been the place her friends come to. “All you really need is good people gathered round fresh blooms and good food with conversations that go on for hours and hours. And as I’ve grown older I’ve started cooking more, making things like waterblommetjies, which are a labour of love because the preparation time is so long.
“Covid regulations-permitting, my friends and I are planning a year-end get together and the theme is Senior Prom. It’s deliciously tacky but it will still be sleek and most importantly, fun. Themes introduce a sense of humour, and you can allow it to influence the food, the drinks and the music being played,” she says recounting a Dorm Room-theme party for which they covered the whole floor in sequins, filled the room with helium balloons and ordered giant slices of New York-style pizza.
She shares these entertaining tips to take your gathering from ordinary to extraordinary:
More colour: The dress code has been muted for so long and now is the time to bring in more colour, bold stripes and prints – it’s uplifting, and creates an opportunity to be more playful. Interesting, contrasting colour combinations make for memorable sensorial moments.
Personal touches: Incorporate elements that make your guests feel special like handwritten name notes and cards, use linen fabrics with no hems, wild or garden flowers instead of buying… We can’t do big things or make grandiose gestures so bringing back that olde-world way of entertaining and embracing those things that worked well, instantly elevates a tablescape and warms the heart.
Make it formal but keep the feeling informal: It’s all about dressing the space you’re working with. If it’s your table, glassware placement is key. Place different glasses for wine, water, and champagne, especially if you are outdoors, where it will reflect and play with the natural sunlight, creating dappled light on the tableware and a magical feel. Choose food that plates beautifully, like an unpacked salad, edible flowers…
Mix and match: Don’t buy everything new, repurpose what you have and mix things up when setting your table. Stack gran’s fine bone china with contemporary, handmade crockery.
Functional pieces as decoration: Fabric napkins casually thrown on a plate become little statues, or fold them into the wine glass like they used to do in the 80s or research napkin-folding ideas from the 50s to bring in a sense of humour. For those backyard braais, roll out the rugs and poufs for people to lounge on for those who’d rather not hover around the fire.
“Creating memorable moments are so much about the choices you make that bring you joy,” says Shipalana. “For me, that’s in nature. And if there’s freshly baked bread, wine, and I’m surrounded by incredible people, that’s heavenly!”