Memorable parties mix refined with relaxed

Memorable parties mix refined with relaxed
Patrick Sutton, left, and friend Christopher Jensen chat during Sutton's 50th birthday party. (CHIAKI KAWAJIRI, BALTIMORE SUN)

For his 50th birthday, Patrick Sutton got down — but not dirty — on the farm.

The Baltimore interior designer is known for his elegant, understated and carefully curated spaces. To celebrate his milestone birthday, he and his girlfriend, Tracy Kwiatkowski, kept the elegance but added a few rough edges.


That approach — mixing high-end style with less refined elements — is a popular one among Baltimore's party planning elite.

Sutton's "Rustic Renaissance" birthday festivities took place outside, overlooking the rolling hills of Sagamore Farm, the Reisterstown horse farm owned by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank (and decorated by Sutton).

"I wanted to impose something opulent on this rustic setting," explains Sutton. With the help of Kwiatkowski and caterer/friend Jerry Edwards of Chef's Expressions, Sutton combined sophisticated elements with down-home details to create a party that was lovely, fun and memorable.

The menu, designed by Edwards, played off the season and the setting, mixing high-end ingredients, such as Champagne and oysters on the half shell, with casual details, including post-dinner s'mores by the outdoor fire.

The dress code, Fancy Farm, encouraged cowboy boots and plaid; the catering staff was decked out in denim and gingham.

True to Sutton's style, even small details encapsulated the event's elegant-meets-rustic vibe — right down to the tablecloth.

"Of course the setting was perfect," explains Edwards. "Patrick wanted everything to look rich, yet casual. On the table, he had this beautiful violet pintuck linen and on top, he put plain old burlap. That laid the foundation for rustic elegance — contrasting looks that work together so beautifully."

Caterer and restaurateur Sascha Wolhandler, of Sascha's, likes menus that inject comfort food into dressy settings. "I love having chic food on the main buffet and passing little hamburgers and hot dogs on serving trays. That's always fun," she says.

Sky Blue Events owner Jennifer Grove agrees that everyday food adds an element of fun to upscale events.

At Pints & Pinstripes, an event benefiting "The Wire" star Sonja Sohn's Baltimore-based charity, ReWired for Change, Sky Blue and Chef Beej Flamholz served well-executed, but low key food, like white truffle popcorn in individual paper boxes.

"Food presentation is very important," says Grove. "At the event, everything was in a unique vessel, like popcorn boxes. You can get very creative."

For his party, Sutton raided the Chef's Expression warehouse for worn-out serving pieces. "He found a bunch of old silver we've used," says Edwards. "We used that, plus old wooden planks and boards, for the table. The food was made with sophistication. It was very elegant, and it glistened on these wooden planks that were probably 150 years old."

During the fall and winter holidays, Wolhandler hunts for rustic décor right in the backyard.

"Get a big vase," she advises, "and go outside and get wonderful branches of multicolored leaves. Create a dramatic arrangement going all the way to the ceiling. Add pumpkins, gourds and squashes for a wonderful centerpiece."


When hosting parties in their own homes, Wolhandler's clients sometimes get creative, mixing high and low out of necessity: "One woman I know wanted to host a sit-down dinner for 50 people. She has a beautiful house but didn't have room inside, so she used her garage. She placed plants in the corners — and for once, her husband cleaned out the garage!"

At Sutton's birthday party, the acclaimed band Bob Perilla and Big Hillbilly Bluegrass provided the entertainment. The guests agreed that the music was wonderful — and just right for the horse farm setting.

At home, setting the mood via soundtrack is as easy as creating an iPod playlist.

"Mix it up," says Wolhandler. "If you love jazz, maybe someone else is into be-bop or hip hop. Combine jazz with opera. Make your playlist a variety from the '40s to the new millennium. There is nothing more fun than going from Frank Sinatra to Otis Redding to Kanye West."

Wolhandler believes that the best parties mix high and low in every way — down to the guest list. "The key to a good party, whether it is small or a big bash is a diverse group of people." She says, laughing, "Highbrow, lowbrow and unibrow."

Sutton agrees that at their core, parties are about more than just the food, or the décor. They're about people. By resisting the temptation to go glitzy for his birthday, he and Kwiatkowski created a laid-back vibe that allowed their guests to relax and have fun.

And thanks to that low-key atmosphere, Sutton's end-of-evening surprise felt super-charged. After bourbon and cigars by the fire, Sutton asked Kwiatkowski to marry him.

With an excited, "Yes!" Sutton and Kwiatkowski proved that even in the most rustic settings, the right party can shine like a diamond.

Tools of the trade

With the holidays approaching, seasonal soiree planning is in full swing. Here, local party experts share secrets for high-impact party accents that are simple enough for the at-home hostess.

Invitations: "Mail something!" says Jennifer Grove. "It's always nice to get something in the mail. The invitation sets the tone of the event. Create a custom invitation to get your guests really excited — a theme, a color palette or just custom language will get them intrigued, setting a higher sense of drama and anticipation."

Ribbons: "There are so many beautiful ribbons available," says Sascha Wolhandler. She creates dramatic spaces by stringing yards of gold and silver ribbon from the ceiling to a buffet or dining table.

Balloons: For New Year's Eve, Wolhandler empties the furniture from a room and fills the ceiling with dozens of helium balloons, strung with long ribbons. "Make people walk through it," she suggests. "It creates a fun, fun mood."

Fabric: At his birthday party, Sutton's layered burlap-and-linen tablecloth helped set the mood. Large swaths of fabric are dramatic, but even small pieces of fabric in fabulous patterns add interest when draped over buffets or bars.

Lighting: Wolhandler is a big proponent of candlelight and, when candles aren't an option, dimming the lights. "Nothing is a bigger buzzkill than walking into a bright room," she insists. "Women look so much prettier in low light. Men, too!"