Sitting down for dinner in a sea of tall grasses and wildflowers might seem unusual to most of us who are accustomed to eating indoors for the holidays, but visionary husband-wife design duo Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, the founders of New York City-based Roman and Williams, have been throwing transportive outdoor parties like this for years, many of them taking place at their beach house in Montauk, New York. “There’s something so romantic and simple about being in a field or any kind of natural setting, like a lawn or a little garden,” says Standefer.
The pair has plenty of experience setting the scene. Before heading up the design of iconic spots like Le Coucou, The Dutch, and the Ace and Freehand hotels, they created worlds from scratch for feature films (Standefer was a production designer; Alesch an architect and art director). “I really think that dinners are like scenes,” says Standefer. “It all has to be pretty seductive.” At Roman and Williams Guild, their 7,000-square-foot destination restaurant and retail space in Soho, opened in 2017, you can shop everything you need to recreate their famous nature-inspired gatherings, as well as their collection of hand-crafted furniture, lighting, tabletop, found objects and accessories. Here, the pro entertainers teach us the ins-and-outs of bringing nature to your holiday table, whether you’re hosting in a small apartment, on a spacious terrace, or out in a majestic garden.
Simplify Your Stem Count
Putting one giant vessel filled with flowers in the middle of the table poses an immediate problem: You can’t see the people across from you. Standefer suggests opting for vases of varying heights (she’ll mix their short Hitoshi Kato vases with narrow and tall Akiko Hirai vessels) instead, each one holding just one stem of evergreen or red bittersweet. “I have this obsession with making a meadow on a table,” she says. “I like to call it ‘growing your own table.’” (You can use your own glassware. Wine bottles, olive oil bottles, drinking glasses—they all work, especially when your resources are really tight.) “Suddenly, you have something thriving on your table rather than one clumsy, singular centerpiece,” says Standefer.
Given blooms are happiest in the cold, plop a few into whatever cooler or bucket you’re using to chill the vino. “Add three beautiful stems to your bottle of wine or Pellegrino and you have instant decoration,” says Standefer.
Take Your Candles to New Heights
If you’re hosting indoors, mimic the look and feel of knee-high grasses with extra-long tapers (Standefer’s favorites are from a brand called Creative Candles, which she’ll combine with their extra-tall blackened brass and silver holders). “They look like reeds on the table,” she says. Don’t congregate them in the middle: Just like with the flower vessels, create an organic look by creating a landscape and mixing up the sizes.
Use Food as Sculpture
“Gathering is the whole point of entertaining,” says Standefer. While groups will be a lot smaller this year (maybe it’s just you and one other person), bring everyone closer together before the meal by setting out a sculptural giant hunk of cheese, pile of grapes, and a large loaf of bread—special items that are delicious (read: not wasteful) and easy to interact with. It can go directly on the kitchen island or even directly on a stump outside. “It’s a very rustic but elegant way of hosting,” she says. Skip the complex charcuterie and just do Parmesan (Standefer’s go-to pick). You can send guests home with their own cut-offs at the end of the night, plus it’ll stay good for weeks.
Ditch the Placemats
In lieu of traditional chargers or mats, Standefer will put a guest’s plate, the utensils, and a napkin all on one large wood platter (sometimes adding the bread and butter on there, too). It’s an efficient way to consolidate everything each person needs, plus you can carry everything in one shot. To simplify things even further, Alesch will make a stew or a pasta directly in a donabe (a Japanese cookpot made out of ceramic) and then serve it. “It makes it feel less formal,” she says.
Go Beyond Evergreen Garlands
When decorating indoors during the winter, Standefer taps into her past as a film production designer, when she would create whole worlds for an audience from scratch. Kumquat branches and jasmine weaved around kitchen island pendants or garlic strung across cabinets transports guests. “The room becomes a garden,” she says.
Standefer doesn’t need a special reason to celebrate: Anytime the couple gathers with friends or family is a holiday. “I want to make them happy,” she says. “We think because the temperature has dropped that it means we have to be inside. In a way, this moment is giving us a reason to be a little braver and go outside. The meadow is just the kind of antidote we need.”
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