Under the Big Top: At Roundtop

Known for creating memorable occasions, Rebecca Gardner pulls out all the stops for her own circus-themed soirée at the annual antiques fair.
Rebecca Gardner laughs cheerfully as she pretends to drive a horse drawn carriage.
Rebecca Gardner of Houses & Parties holds the reins and welcomes guests to her Circus Soiree from aboard this vintage Barnum & Bailey caravan.

Mick Jagger was once overheard pronouncing confidently, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” That sentiment is embraced by Rebecca Gardner of Houses & Parties as her professional mission message. But don’t be deceived—her version of overdoing entails more of a tastefully considered, whimsical, and sometimes irreverent maximalism. Rebecca, with a Southerner’s sense of story and a love of antiquity, layers every scene, shop corner, party plan, and home design with compelling cues that woo the viewer into further examination and appreciation. One is intrigued.

A native Texan who was raised in Mississippi, Rebecca has been dreaming of parties since the age of 7 and realized the inherent thrill of gathering guests around a theme— be it a pink-and-green-colored Barbecue Field Day ice-cream social complete with piglets or a “styleshow wedding picnic” where she dragooned the local news broadcaster into playing emcee. Early on, she also understood the power of the party, as evinced by her cajoling a cookie from a cousin with the threat of this cousin being crossed off the guest list of one of Rebecca’s upcoming fêtes. Pair this innate love of exuberantly entertaining others with an encouraging mother and a grandmother who was steeped in party-ready practices and elegant entertaining style, and you have a hostess for the ages.

Table setting for a circus-themed party at Round Top, Texas.
Each dinner guest was treated to a souvenir—a marbleized party cracker containing edgy party games and shiny costume jewelry. Reminiscent of faience, the colorful Izmir dinner plates were from Laboratorio Paravicini. Vintage Moroccan tea tumblers were used as votives, and the tables were dressed in cloths from Houses & Parties’ Traveling Salvation Show Collection.

As for the “Houses” part of Houses & Parties, Rebecca attributes that to her uncle, W. Gardner, who instilled in her a love of good design and antiques while she was still in high school. “He travels around the world buying antiques and has the best imagination and the finest taste,” she says. “He knows absolutely everything regarding design and furniture and its history. He’s the twisted, indulgent, opulent, devil-may-care part of me. When he bellowed, ‘Get your L.L. Bean backpack off my Fortuny cushions,’ I wanted to know more.”

A woman with long brown hair and a bandana
Lighting the candles is Houses & Parties lead designer Sophia Uribe.
An invitation sits next to a pool of candlelight on top of a graphic teal tablecloth.

Fast-forward to Texas’s Round Top Antiques Fair and an opportunity for Rebecca to take her show on the road. “The fair is a riot!” she says. “Women (and a few men) descend on the small strip of Texas farmland—whose motto is ‘Big Time Small’—to shop, eat, drink, see, and be seen.” Once purveying simpler fare such as Blue Willow platters and French armoires with chicken wire, the event now includes an updated designer inventory with such notables as Kelly Wearstler for Royere, Alessandra Branca for Casa Branca, and Bobby McAlpine and Suzanne Kasler giving book talks. This is not your grandmother’s Round Top. It is, however, the ideal location for a heaping dollop of Houses & Parties’ playful hospitality.

Two women in pink dresses browse antique home goods.
Party guests peruse the treasures in the Houses & Parties tent. “Our shopping experience features all things to make memorable occasions, such as unusual continental antiques and copper bathtubs cooling cases of champagne,” says Rebecca. “We reupholstered some of the antiques in wild tiger stripes, chartreuse duchess satin, and yards of passementerie. Hundreds of scaled model hot-air balloons hung from the ceiling and around a giant, fanciful Italian breeding cage from the 19th century. And we sold nostalgic sugar eggs, Elizabethan dog collars, and molded plastic piggy banks from Germany, along with costume jewelry that rivals anything J.R. gave Sue Ellen.”

To tell her company’s story throughout the two weeks of the fair—and especially on the twinkly party evening—Rebecca came up with a circus theme. She ran to ground an early 20th-century Barnum & Bailey caravan and positioned it at the edge of her site to signal something special. She imported a tranche of her magical Houses & Parties inventory and styled it with chic and allure in a red-and-white striped circus tent. Guests of the event shopped the enchanting emporium, had their fortunes told to the strains of flamenco guitar music, and sipped Sofia Blanc de Blancs from ruby red cans, as well as Ginger Margaritas (Rebecca’s favorite from Jean-Georges’ ABC Kitchen in New York City).

As “liquor” was not allowed to be served on-site, Rebecca, ever the rebel, had cups fashioned with a French phrase straight out of the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp’s playbook: “Ce n’est pas une Margarita”—but of course it was.

A man in a yellow shirt strums a red guitar.
A guitarist serenades guests with exotic flamenco tunes.
A soft glow comes from a floral patterned lampshade.
Rebecca designed exotic lampshades to create pools of light in the space. This shade is made of cotton from Décors Barbares with Samuel & Sons fringe.

Dinner was set in an adjacent tent under multicolored cantina lights, low-hanging painted panels that came from a 1920s French carousel, hot-air balloons made of rattan that housed blousy wildflowers, and romantic 19th-century Spanish iron chandeliers. “We covered the tables with mismatched textiles with folkloric charm as if on a clothesline in the clouds,” says Rebecca. “The Gypset print tablecloths are part of our Traveling Salvation Show collection designed especially for the occasion.”

Bright yellow flowers sit on a table with rattan lamps and a bright blue floral patterned tablecloth.
“The fair is a riot! Women (and a few men) descend on the small strip of Texas farmland— whose motto is ‘Big Time Small’— to shop, eat, drink, see, and be seen.” —Rebecca Gardner
Gypsy dressed party goers jovially belt "Deep in the Heart of Texas."
Rebecca Gardner and designer Max Sinsteden lead the post-prandial singing of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

To interpret Rebecca’s food vision, she called on KB Table out of Austin. The spread had to encompass her personal provenance: Texas, Mississippi, and, most recently, Savannah, Georgia. Platters were passed from the beds of nearby pickup trucks to the tables. The menu featured tiny ham biscuits, a wedge salad with ranch dressing, fried chicken from Bush’s (a Round Top favorite), green bean salad, and Savannah Red Rice with pickled shrimp. During a dessert of regionally sourced Blue Bell ice cream sandwiches, Rebecca, the ringmaster, stood and gave a handful of poetic and affectionate toasts. She began by proclaiming to the party, “You are ALL my greatest show on earth.” Post-toasts, she joined with one of the guests to lead everyone in a jolly round of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

A pile of ice cream sandwiches sits atop bright red strawberries.
For dessert, guests were offered a Texas favorite, Blue Bell ice-cream sandwiches along with fresh strawberries.

Rebecca had compiled a rich stew of guests who were as colorfully and thematically attired as the tents. And they came from all points of the compass, all fields of art and design, and all different parts of Rebecca’s life: Ken Fulk and Alexis Traina from San Francisco; Lucy Harte, Illa Gaunt, Bailey McCarthy, Wendy Konradi, Lindsey Looke, Linsay Radcliffe, Fern Santini, Augusta Hoffman, and Leslie Pitts from Texas; Alessandra Branca from Palm Beach; Nick Olsen, Eliza Harris, Max Sinsteden, and Zach Weiss from New York; Colby Goetschius from Savannah; and lastly, from Alabama, me and my husband, Gates. There was a palpable air of love and just sheer fun throughout the evening, attributable to Rebecca’s generosity, creativity, and humor.

Man stands in front of a colorful carriage in a pale blue striped blazer.
A dapper waiter serves Sofia Coppola’s Blanc de Blancs in lustrous red cans as guests arrive.
Gypsy dressed partygoers stand in front of a colorful caravan.
A group of merry party-goers costumed for the occasion: (left to right) Zach Weiss, Illa Gaunt, Leslie Pitts, Natalie Steen, and Bailey McCarthy.

Rebecca paraphrases and tweaks another favored quote, this one from P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey: “Fortune always favors the brave and rarely helps a man without dear friends.”

By Margot Shaw

Photography by Adam Kuehl

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