It all began with a dog-eared page in a design book. A well-known Charleston hostess had admired the elegant garden party pictured, so she approached event designers Mary Ruth Miller and Heather Barrie of Gathering Events to help her host a party of her own. She didn’t necessarily have a special occasion, holiday, or milestone, but she didn’t need one. Her gorgeous and meticulously tended garden was cause enough for celebration.
Designed in 1947 in the style of renowned American landscape architect Loutrel Briggs, the garden is a hybrid of European and Southern styles. The formal bed lines, lush shape, and balanced plantings of mature camellias, holly ferns, and agapanthus create cocoon-like privacy in the heart of Charleston’s historic district. At the center of the garden, a carpet of grass lays the foundation for alfresco fun.
“The neutral backdrop kept all eyes on the colorful peonies. After all, they’re the guests of honor.”—Event Designer Heather Barrie
For the past 10 years, family and close friends have flocked to the urban oasis to kick off peony season in style. The name Peony Party was coined for the gathering of 60 as a nod to the hostess’ passion for the luscious blooms she grows at her country house in Maine. Since its inception, the décor, palette, and menu have been driven by exotic cultures. This year, inspired by their client’s recent trip to Mexico, Miller and Barrie conceived a sophisticated fiesta to celebrate the country’s bright colors and bold flavors.
“Our goal was to create an intimate evening steeped in Spanish Colonial elegance,” Barrie says. “We achieved this by creating a setting that recalled the rustic romance found along the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende versus the crowded beaches of Cancún. Instead of the usual go-tos, like ponchos, piñatas, and paper flowers in primary colors, we incorporated artisan-made elements and fresh flowers and foliage in neutral tones and warm pastels that subtly evoke Mexican flair. From there, everything else seemed to fall perfectly into place.”
At the start of the evening, wide-eyed guests were lured through a wrought iron garden gate by the sultry rhythm of classical Latin guitar music and tempting craft cocktails and hors d’oeuvres passed by servers wearing crisp white guayabera shirts and embroidered blouses.
At dinnertime, instead of traditional escort cards, guests were given wooden maracas with copper tags directing them to tables marked with numbered paper fans handmade in Mexico. Natural oak farm tables and round skirted tables with crocheted overlays were set with gold-toned flatware, shimmery clear glass goblets, white porcelain plates, and fringed apricot napkins.
“The warm flicker of candlelight combined with layers of texture, mellow music, sweet floral fragrances, and spicy flavors add up to far more than just a pretty party. Together, they create a complete sensory experience.”—Event Designer Mary Ruth Miller
Humble terra-cotta pots held a festive mix of parrot tulips, ranunculus, gloriosa lilies, asclepias ‘Beatrix,’ hellebores, viburnum and, of course, peonies. The feature flower was represented in nearly every variety, including ‘Command Performance,’ ‘Coral Sunset,’ ‘Odile,’ ‘Paula Fay,’ ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral,’ and ‘Red Charm.’
“One of the things we love most about working with this client is that she truly trusts our vision,” Miller says. “Others might have snubbed the idea of using common terra-cotta garden pots for such extravagant arrangements, but she embraced it. The simplicity of the container and the complex mix of textures, colors, and forms of the flowers that spilled out of them presented a beautiful juxtaposition along with the rustic and refined styles and natural and luxe finishes we incorporated throughout the décor.”
Scenes from the Party
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Terra-cotta pots hold parrot tulips, ranunculus, gloriosa lilies, asclepias ‘Beatrix,’ hellebores, viburnum, and, of course, peonies, including ‘Command Performance,’ ‘Coral Sunset,’ ‘Odile,’ ‘Paula Fay,’ ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral,’ and ‘Red Charm.’
By Margaret Zainey Roux | Photography by Gayle Brooker