Show Jumper

New Jersey Life
November/December 2005

If you’re a high-end party designer scouting places to throw a holiday bash, an old stable smelling faintly of damp hay may not be at the top of your list. Then again, Reed McIlvaine isn’t just any event designer—and the stable at the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone isn’t your average horse barn.

McIlvaine’s design firm, Renny & Reed, has thrown events in Southampton mansions, in ivy-covered Princeton University buildings, and aboard a yacht in Turkey. You could say he’s a guy who’s pretty much seen everything. But when he walked through the USET stable’s yawning brick archways, his jaw hit the terrazzo floor.

Built in 1913 by financier James Cox Brady as part of the 5,000-acre Hamilton Farm estate, the stables are awash in ornate tile, sage-colored railings, and brass hardware. Still, for all its loveliness, the space offers challenges to even the most talented party designer: Strips of overhead fluorescent lights are more Home Depot than House Beautiful, and the long, narrow corridor between the horse stalls, while dramatic, makes a commuter-train car feel roomy.

Undaunted, McIlvaine set about designing a fabulous holiday dinner for 24, along with an intimate cocktail hour in the building’s trophy room upstairs. He was a man on a mission: to prove that with imagination, patience, and a lot of candlelight, you can mount a fabulous holiday gathering in any kind of space. “This isn’t a ballroom,” McIlvaine says. “The last thing it was built for is throwing parties. On the other hand, the place already has so much great character. And we have clients who appreciate creative venues.”

McIlvaine has come prepared for the task. He whirls around the stables, directing the unloading of truckloads of walnut bent- wood chairs; juicy apples and pomegranates; linen napkins; heavy burlap; silk; fat, cream-colored candles; potted trees; and buckets of blood-red roses. His vision: pastoral chic.

“We wanted to maintain the rustic feel of the stables while throwing in a few elegant touches so that this still felt like a special occasion,” says the boyish designer, who with his windblown sandy hair looks like he just sailed in from Nantucket. Although purists might raise an eyebrow about whether a burlap tablecloth can possibly hold its own against elegant place settings, the commingling of the folksy and formal is one of McIlvaine’s trademarks, a strategy he often invokes in more formal settings to impart a sense of warmth and whimsy. Years ago, he shipped in beach balls and lifeguard chairs for a ritzy bash at Lincoln Center.

His design philosophy is a simple and practical one: When you’re hosting a holiday party fussiness and pretension are about as welcome as the Grinch. “A lot of our clients have money” he says, “but aren’t interested in throwing the kind of event where the first reaction is, ‘Oh my God, how much did they spend?’”

McIlvaine always keeps three aesthetic elements in mind: color, scale, and lighting. When dealing with a narrow venue, like the USET stables or an L-shaped living room, the trick is to channel those elements into a single dramatic focal point. In this case, McIlvaine’s three-man crew chooses a 24-foot-long dining table, deigning the space immediately surrounding it as the room’s crown jewel.

Rather than going with the expected (candy-apple red, kelly green), McIlvaine takes a less-obvious approach to holiday colors. In the main space, he drapes his King Arthur—like table in burgundy-toned burlap, topping it with a luxurious maroon silk runner bunched length— wise along the center. It’s his opening salvo of how rustic fuses with refined to create casual luxury.

Over the runner, he layers fresh evergreen vines; red amaryllis and rose blooms; and Granny Smith apples and pomegranates. The cocktail area in the upstairs trophy room continues the theme, with a leafy Solanum topiary tree accented with white hydrangeas and ruby-colored cockscomb. This is not your Aunt Edith’s pinecones and holly.

Indeed, the key to using color for holiday decorating, he says, is to let go of seasonal convention. “You can even stick with mostly white,” he says. “Do lots of paperwhites and white- and-green amaryllis, then use napkin rings trimmed in pepper- berries for a very subtle red accent.”

One of the reasons McIlvaine’s color scheme works so well in the stable space is because of his liberal, unexpected use of scale and texture. He places tall shrubby ligustrum trees, imported from Renny & Reed’s Pennsylvania nursery on both sides of the dining table, bringing the bucolic indoors. “People assume that big plants like these have to go away during the wintertime,” he says. “But it’s really a wonderful way to warm up any room.”

Of course, when there’s not much floor room to work with, the most inventive use of scale and height winds up unfolding at the table itself—and in the space above it. McIlvaine’s team eschews smooth, linear design and plays with height instead. Spools of wire and ties in hand, they teeter on ladders, using adhesive hooks to hang round candles. The end result: a beautifully bumpy landscape of fruit, prickly pine, and vinelike iron centerpieces dotted with votives. Several wide gold ribbons are suspended from the ceiling, spreading like a canopy above the table. It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets A Christmas Carol.

Alas, the glaring fluorescent bulbs overhead are anything but dreamy— and McIlvaine doesn’t have the luxury of ripping them out of the ceiling. “It was either on or off;” he says. “For a party, the answer is always ‘off.’ “Which means candles —lots and lots of them. The design team anchors cream-colored pillars along the surface of the table. They then dangle orb- shaped candles from the centerpieces, and place flickering tea lights just about everywhere else, washing the area in a soft, flattering glow Racing to the cocktail space in the trophy room, McIlvaine hangs still more “candle balls,” his term for orblike candles, from the topiary centerpiece. “There’s really no such thing as too much candlelight,” he says. “It can transform a space.”

Like any man who runs with an A-list crowd, McIlvaine—a witty urbane sophisticate who mischievously recounts the time he decked out a party in Cooperstown with banana trees and bamboo — knows how to make an entrance, literally No matter whether it’s being held in a tiny townhouse or a sprawling mansion, a good holiday party he stresses, begins at the front door, not in the living room.

“The entrance to your home,” he says, “is what gets people excited and intrigued about what’s to come.” Here in the stables, McIlvaine has gotten off easy: The high arched doorway to the building doesn’t need more than a couple potted blue plumbago trees to dress it up. For the average home, he suggests a tasteful twist of small white lights around porch columns to do the trick. (He warns, though, that going overboard on the packaged lights can easily make your house look like a used-car lot.)

And there’s nothing wrong with a wreath tacked to the front door. Just don’t rely on the ordinary McIlvaine begs. Try he says, “a bittersweet or grapevine wreath rather than the typical green garland. I tell people to open up and say ‘This year, we’re going to try something a little different.”