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Flowers and Champagne: A Party Chat With Party-Thrower Julia Lake

Edith Zimmerman: Julia! You’re a professional party planner based in New York, and I happen to have profited from your expertise just last weekend. It was incredible — there were silver punch cups (!) and popcorn in sconces (!?) on the wall, and a trillion gorgeous appetizers, and drinks, and lovely lighting, and everyone looked so nice, and it came together so beautifully, and a wonderful time seemed to be had by all. Very impressive … you jerk. Haha, no, I want to be at parties with you for the rest of time.

Julia Lake: Oh my! Thank you! I tried really hard. Also, one of my secrets is telling everyone how to dress.

Okay, teach me how to party: If I wanted to invite a few people over for a low-key thing, say, four days from now, is it too late to send invites? Is everything ruined before I even had a chance to properly ruin it?

A low key thing with a few friends? Don’t overthink it. If it’s supposed to be more than that, ask yourself if you can turn your “vision” into a reality in a few days. If sorta yes, go for it. At a minimum, send a clever invite (easy with Paperless Post), tidy up the place, buy flowers, a couple bottles of bubbly, crudité, mixed nuts, maybe some fancy cookies, and throw a handmade sign on your front door to set the tone.

If you’re worried people will be too busy and you don’t give the standard 2-3 week warning, start your party early, say 5 p.m., so you’ll likely get people popping by on their way somewhere else. Then ditch your party and crash wherever they’re going. 

Tiny apartment (i.e. studio) entertaining — thoughts/tricks/max number of invitees?

If you’re doubting yourself or your space, direct your attention to the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Holly Golightly throws a big party in a small space. There’s wine stashed in the shower and champagne under the bed — true signs of an epic party.

Spend a day or at least a couple hours decluttering/’primping’ your home so all the rooms (or corners) look their best. Stick extra chairs in a closet so there’s more standing room, and clear surface spaces so you have space for refreshments — and so guests can roam around discovering hidden gems, i.e. bowls of candy on your bedroom dresser, or nuts on a bookshelf beside your family photos. I stuffed caramel popcorn into an antique mail bin hanging on my wall because I ran out of table space. Try to designate a bar area somewhere. Just get creative with where you stick goodies; it’s always fun for guests to find surprises in different corners of the room.

As for invites, if you think you can comfortably fit 15 people, invite 25. Ten won’t be able to come, and people always bail last-minute. Plus, people come in waves.

There are degrees to which you help people plan their parties (hands on, hands on-ish, hands hovering in the background) — do you have a preferred method, or is it all good?

Well, it totally depends on what you need and how much effort and/or money you want to spend. For people who just need some guidance, creative ideas, or don’t want to spend a lot, I offer a “DIY” package, which is a consultation with step-by-step instructions. Or sometimes I’ll help with developing a vision or underlying theme, and find decorations that create the right ambiance.

For some people who don’t have the time or know-how to throw the kind of party that they’d like, I offer a full-on bespoke planning service in which I do everything from start to finish. You give me 5 adjectives of what you want, and I take it from there. You can be as involved (or not) as you’d like to be.

One of my favorites is the ‘fairy godmother’ service, though, where I sweep in, set everything up, and dash out the back door just before your guests arrive, and you take all the credit.

I also give ‘How to Hostess’ tutorials for total newbies (i.e. always put flowers in the bathroom and offer your guest a drink within the first three minutes of arrival), and my blog covers the same idea.

Should all parties have a theme, even if it’s just, like, Scruffy Winter Cocktails, and no one knows it but the host?

Yes. Yes. Yes. In my mind, it’s not a party without a theme, even if it’s just for planning purposes to set a cohesive tone or cast a color palate. The invite can set the vibe with colors, wording, and attire request — i.e. “Festive attire or party dresses.” It gives guests an excuse to wear something fabulous and ultimately adds to your decor. I planned an all white wedding once where guests were asked to arrive in white, head to toe. It was insane. Not only was it stunning to see everyone all together, it definitely set a mood that no decor could replace.

“Hostess with the mostest”: one of the most obnoxious phrases in all of phrasing. True/false?

Word.

Do you JUDGE people at their parties, if you didn’t have any hand in them (or, actually, if you did?)? I’m getting excited thinking about this hypothetical Scruffy Winter Cocktails thing I’m going to throw at my microapartment in 45 minutes (sending the invites out in a few!), but then I’m picturing you there, because I like you, but then also there’s this mental shriek, because you’d be noticing all the details I missed! But also I’m not actually worried, because that would be really nice.

A lot of people ask me this. It depends on my mood. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, but mostly I just pick up ideas on how to improve. If friends ask me for tips, I’m happy to give them pointers — hint hint. Friends often call for advice, and I’m “consulting” for two of their weddings as we speak. The end goal, though, is for people to have fun, so that should be the biggest priority — not necessarily having the best glassware. People go to parties to party, not to be serious, so you have to set the mood, and if you’re stuffy or stressed, your guests will feel it. Also, we can’t all be great party throwers — then I’d be out of a job.

Details people frequently miss when preparing? Enough toilet paper, etc.?

– Clean bathrooms (add flowers by the sink).

– Lighting is key!

– Prepare all food in advance. The last thing you want is to be frantically cooking while your guests are having fun without you.

– Paper invitations sent via snail mail — a lost art.

What are three easy yet stunningly impressive appetizers you make?

– Salmon blinis are super easy. Crème fraiche, smoked salmon, blinis. Done. (On the same note, potato chips with sour cream and a dollop of caviar if you want to splurge.)

– Warm roasted nuts. Pop in the oven and serve warm in individual ramekins.

– Champagne. Not a food group but should be. Always, always essential, unless you’re having a backyard kegger, of course.

How do you clean those crazy popcorn sconces??

Turpentine. (Jk.)

On your website everything looks ridiculously perfect. What’s a dark secret of something gone horribly wrong?

Things gone horribly wrong? Luckily, nothing I would classify as horrible. I had a wedding once where the musicians were late so we grabbed a guitar and asked one of the guests to play. Once I made a punch that turned out dark brown (because of the creme de cassis) so I had to add food coloring to make it look drinkable. Yep, that was last weekend at my holiday party. #Nbd

It’s hard work to pull off a spectacular event, but for me it’s thrilling and a great excuse to get my hands dirty and be creative. In my earlier years of hostessing (’cause I’m so old and wise), I was terrible at enjoying my own parties because I was constantly micromanaging. At one party that I threw, I was so exhausted by the time it began that I snuck away to lie down for a few minutes only to wake up the next morning having missed the entire event. For weeks I heard tales of crazy things that went down that night, but I had missed every second of it. That was hilarious slash weird. But now, at my own parties, I’ve learned to drink plenty of champagne and just let go. Like who the hell really cares if no one’s eating the dip?!

Any additional dark secrets in general?

Considering we’re talking about throwing parties, I crossed out the word “dark” in your question. It doesn’t get too dark unless you’re not prepared or you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Having help is key — whether it’s a good friend, a loyal partner, or someone you pay, help is always a plus. But letting go once the party has begun is key — as long as you have someone keeping an eye on the punch.

Other tips for becoming a better entertainer:

– If you have room, start collecting glassware, dinner plates at flea markets, Craigslist, fancy places if you can afford it, etc. … And ask for that stuff for your birthday instead of a new winter coat. Maybe you’ll be freezing, but at least you’ll have champagne flutes, right?

– To start conversations among guests, introduce people to one another with something they have in common — i.e. something wicked like, “Oh, Henry here used to sleep with your ex-girlfriend. You two should compare notes.” ;)

– Above all, get your guests tipsy and, again, learn how to make a mean punch.

Julia Lake can help plan your party.

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