Luxury on a Loan: Tips for Upgrading Your Reception Space

Martha Stewart Weddings, Spring 2010

Bring up the word "rentals" in conversation, and most people will associate it with something shoddy, tacky, banal, and lacking in personality (namely, yours). When it comes to weddings, though, rentals have the power to turn your reception into an affair that's beguiling, stylish, and, yes, personalized.

Picking beautiful china or colorful linens, unique dining chairs or cool sofas -- all of which can be found at party rental companies -- is the best way to customize your wedding. It may seem counter-intuitive (personalizing by decorating with someone else's stuff?), but the sheer variety of offerings at rental businesses means you'll likely be able to find what you're looking for, no matter how specific, unique, or unusual. You'll find tons of inspiration in their showrooms. Besides, as event designer Matthew Robbins points out, "No matter where you're having your wedding -- whether its at a full-service venue or your own property -- you'll need rental items. Its not always obvious, because catering companies will often factor the rentals into their package price, but believe me, they're there." Here, he gives you a rental walk-through: how to choose, what to expect -- and why it's all worth it.

Meet the Designer
Matthew Robbins of Matthew Robbins Design, New York City
The events expert -- and columnist on our own The Bride's Guide blog -- is a master at using rentals to create a wedding that reflects the couple's personality. Here, he guides you through the process -- from the initial visit to the showroom (more daunting than it sounds) to the party's end, when everything is packed up and shipped back.

1. Take a Seat
First things first. "Start with the table," says Robbins. "Do you want something square, round, or rectangular -- and what size? You need to know all of this before you start playing around with the china and stemware." Why? There are many chargers and dinner plates that simply don't work if your table is small. Massive chargers, for instance, need lots of elbow room.

If you're working with a very large venue, "I recommend using rectangular and square tables to fill the space. A combination of the two shapes adds a unique and contemporary edge to the event," says Robbins. A few numbers to be aware of when you're considering dimensions: Factor in two feet of table space for each guest. "If you choose rectangles, an eight-by-three-foot table works great and fits four guests on each side. If you want to seat guests on the ends, too, the table should be wider -- at least three and a half feet wide." Long tables like these create a more festive, interactive environment for your guests than the traditional round tables. Brides throwing a particularly intimate event (50 guests or fewer) can even consider having just one continuous banquet table. This can anchor a space and really create a focal point. But beware what Robbins calls "the cafeteria effect": row after row of long tables that create an institutional feel and a rowdy vibe. Adding square tables to the floor plan helps, but keep in mind your linen costs will likely increase, as most rental companies don't stock regular inventory for square tables or less-common sizes. If you have a small venue and a large guest list, go with space-friendly round tables. "Avoid round tables that seat more than 12 guests, though. Extra-large tables just aren't conversation-conducive."

As for seating options, Robbins is a big proponent of renting simple chairs if your venue's options are less than ideal; another possibility is renting chair caps (pockets of fabric that slip over the top halves of classic ballroom chairs) to hide the offending pattern or color. "I generally suggest staying away from chair covers. When you end up cloaking 150 to 200 chairs, your space suddenly becomes a sea of fabric. Besides, many rental covers are not in pristine condition and don't fit properly."

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2. Fill In the Space
For reception spaces that are intimidatingly gargantuan, consider renting pieces that divide the room and create intimate, conversation-friendly nooks. "Renting furniture is a huge trend for wedding and event decor," says Robbins. "Sometimes, the furniture itself can actually be the majority of your decor, depending on the look you're going for." For instance, if you want an atmospheric, loungy environment, you may consider elegant groupings of rented ottomans, low tables, and comfortable sofas, as well as a few area rugs. "From there, add some soft lighting and decorative pillows -- all also available at rental companies -- and you've got yourself an instant stylish lounge."

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3. Add Color and Space
Once you have the big pieces figured out, fill in the details, starting with the linens. The texture and color (or colors) you choose can be the statement-making touches that elevate your table's look. "Table linens are so important. I tend to obsess a little over them for my clients," says Robbins. "Finding the right napkins or tablecloths can make or break a table design -- sometimes an entire room! Think of them as the canvas for your flowers, china, stemware, candles, and other details."

There are endless linens options in the rental world, so be prepared for a wide range of prices. Go with basic cotton tablecloths if you're on a budget, or if you're having a warm-weather tented reception. Adding a sheer overlay is a great way to upgrade a standard solid base cloth (but if your base is a damask or some other patterned fabric, overlays will mute their appeal). Table runners are an inexpensive option and work wonders on rectangular or square tables. Says Robbins: "They can add texture, pattern, and color to your tablescape."

Napkins are, of course, a must. "I always lobby for linen napkins, even though they cost more than cotton ones, because they feel so refined. Save by getting them with a single hemstich instead of a double or triple one. And skip the napkin ring and go for a clean, modern look instead."

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4. Get the Dish
There's nothing wrong with the standard dishes catering companies usually offer, but if you're the type who delights in the formality of fine china and desires a luxurious look for your reception, a rental company can be your best friend. They have dinnerware in all shapes, sizes, patterns, and price points, so you don't have to resort to plain round white plates. Just be sure to bring your wedding menu to your showroom visit, as what you'll be serving at your reception will determine, to a large extent, the kind of dishes you'll need. "If, for instance, you have a course that's sauce-heavy or filled with broth, you'll need a shallow bowl instead of a flat plate," says Robbins.

To shave some numbers off your bottom line, Robbins suggests mixing up pieces as you change courses. "The first course might be fine on a basic but lovely white plate, especially if the food is colorful, like a salad or other vegetable dish. Your main course needs to feel exquisite, though, so even if you're keeping the food simple and unfussy, consider a really nice plate for this course." 

To create a more eclectic feel, consider peppering in some of your own or your family's vintage china, especially if your reception is small; for a large event, do it for just the head table. "A recent client borrowed very special pieces from an aunt to dress up the dessert table and make it more personal and memorable," says Robbins. "Just remember to appoint someone to pack up these things after the party. Otherwise, those vintage pieces could easily end up with the rental company."

As for stemware, the simplest and most budget-friendly way to add style is to mix in one special water glass or Champagne glass and keep the other glasses basic. "Things like a tinted or opaque glass will add to the decor on your table to give it a more lush and embellished appearance."

The same holds true for the flatware. "A client of mine fell in love with a mother-of-pearl design in one of our favorite showrooms. The pieces were expensive, so our compromise was to rent the dinner knife and fork in mother-of-pearl and keep the other pieces basic but similar in shape," shares Robbins. "Mixing in unique pieces pushed the place setting to a new level, and my client didn't have to rent every piece in mother-of-pearl. Thank goodness! Her parents would not have been happy with that bill." 

Before you decide on a style of flatware, check the weight and whether the utensils are basic stainless or silver plate. Stainless steel is clearly the less expensive option, but silver plate is more glamorous, as "it can be polished to a fabulous shine," says Robbins. "This will add sparkle and luxury to your tables."

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How to Rent Right
Robbins's tips for your showroom visit

Know your needs. Understand what is included in your catering or venue package before you visit the rental company. Also, ask your venue, caterer, or planner if they prefer to work with a particular rental company. "If they already have a relationship, that can mean better pricing and service."

Keep your entourage small. Don't go to the rental showroom with too many people. "I have witnessed too many bridal meltdowns over rentals. It can be so overwhelming to have seven different opinions flying at you." Bring your planner (a must) and one or two intimates, tops.

Mind your numbers. "Always ask if they have enough of everything you love, to accommodate your guest list." If you plan ahead, they can order more of the pieces, or they can help you combine two colors to get the volume you need, even if they don't have enough in the current inventory.
Reserve first; confirm later. "If you can't decide between two chairs, reserve both styles. You can always make up your mind later."

Inquire about delivery fees. Find out your venue's rules for receiving and pickup. If the venue has limited hours during which you can receive your rentals, delivery fees may increase. After the event, late-night or weekend pickups will run higher than a Monday-morning pickup; ask your venue if they can store your rentals overnight.

Things You Didn't Know You Could Rent
Lighting. You'll want to be seen in the best possible light on your big day -- literally. Create a warm, romantic environment by renting chandeliers, hanging lamps, floor lamps, or string lights. "You can also rent candelabras, hurricane candleholders, and lanterns," says Robbins.

Partitions. Big, echoing ballrooms often require a little subdividing, especially if you're having your ceremony, cocktails, and reception all in one place. Rental companies stock folding screens and drapery for that purpose. They also offer "pipe and drape" systems (a series of interlocking poles with crossbars that hold up curtains). "They are a very cost-effective way to create a partition," says Robbins.

Flooring. "I love to rent beautiful area rugs to create little vignettes." Other flooring rentals: sisal, sisal-colored AstroTurf, and dance floors in wood or polished acrylic. "You can even rent wall-to-wall carpeting if the flooring is not to your liking."

Antiques. "Ask your event planner about antiques stores that may be willing to work with you," suggests Robbins. You can find unique pieces that way, like an amazing table for a guest-book station, or cool vessels for flowers. Prop houses, which rent to photographers and set designers, are also great for finding important items that will define a space.

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