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How to Host a Killer Cocktail Party: PART 3 – Deceptively Simple Decor

Decorating for a party doesn’t have to mean blowing your hard-earned cash on streamers and balloons (although these seemingly juvenile party staples can add a whimsical, modern touch when used effectively). In Part 1 of this series, I touched briefly on my favorite trick for simplifying the decor for any party: the vignette.

You can make a serious visual impact by using what you already have and focusing on one or two spaces to highlight, such as the entrance, bar, or food table(s). These “vignettes” are usually small decorated areas confined to one table or corner. This is where you might hang a sign or banner (or streamers, if you’re into that), and use a tablecloth or runner to indicate that this is where the food and/or booze will go (See Part 2 of this series for tips on planning and executing the food portion of the celebration).

For a vignette location, consider moving your furniture around to better serve the needs of party–you could even move a dresser or hutch outside if the weather is nice. It may be advisable to temporarily relocate your everyday items and table-toppers to make room for food, beverages, and of course your vignette(s). Card tables and TV trays can also be very helpful for separating the food and drink stations. And again, remember to “use your village”–ask your friends if they have any folding tables or chairs you can borrow, or even a punch bowl or popcorn machine to use as a focal point for the vignette.

After you designate an area for your vignette, start assessing what you have on hand that could be useful and relevant to your theme or color scheme, if you have one. Think containers and knick-knacks, small and large; and be sure to think outside the “party decorations” box! The best decorations are often the least expensive and most unexpected.


Begin by adding color: Pull vases, jars and glassware from around the house to fill with flowers or greenery from your yard or neighborhood, or incorporate fruits or vegetables in small groupings around baskets of cut greenery. Partying in the winter, with no greenery to speak of? Try spray-painting bare branches in silver or gold for elegant organic shapes that will draw the eye upward.

If you have several vases or knick-knacks in the same color family scattered about, placing them together on your vignette table will up the ante for your color scheme. Don’t have anything to use for vases? Spray paint vases or containers from the thrift store, or look to your recycling bin or your local market for inspiration: Beverage bottles and brightly-colored cans add character to the floral arrangements. For a fiesta theme, I have even used empty cans of peppers and beans to hold mums and other brightly colored flowers.

If you don’t have any tablecloths or table runners that match the colors selected for your party, consider buying a roll of brown butcher paper in the paint section at your local hardware store. You can use it to make wall hangings, banners, table runners, door wraps, placemats, or anything else you can think of.  A can of spray-glitter is magical when sprayed around the edges of your paper decor, and chevron designs painted on the ends of a paper table runner are oh-so-chic. Likewise, a roll of burlap or other fabric can be cut in half longways to lay down the center of long tables and save tablecloths from stains at a dinner party or buffet.


A “Congratulations” or “Happy Birthday/Anniversary” sign can easily be drawn on a framed chalkboard, a large piece of butcher paper, a banner of paper flags, or anything else you can think of! I have a vintage Lite Brite that I frequently use to wish a Happy Birthday to the guest-of-honor, and for my wedding rehearsal dinner I hot-glued Scrabble pieces to silver trays to indicate the bar offerings. Creative signage will always impress your guests!

Food labels and cocktail recipes made in advance are also a great addition for the overachieving host or hostess; either write or print them on a thick paper that can be folded to stand on its own, or slice a flat surface on one side of a wine cork and a slit in the other to hold the paper label/recipe. A few years ago I asked a friend to make shallow slits in small wood rounds cut from dogwood trees, so that I can use them for signage at rustic-themed soirees. I also keep tree trunk slices on hand to use as hot pads and to elevate flower vases and food trays to add vertical visual interest to vignette tables. If you have delegated specific foods or beverages, go ahead and place labels on the tables where they should go, so that when your friends arrive with their assigned dishes, you won’t have to worry about where to place them.


For decorative lighting at an evening event, extra glasses or jars can be filled with dry goods like sugar and beans to hold tealights or votive candles (Canning jars are available at most grocery stores). To create a memorable walkway directing guests to the entrance, try making luminaries with paper sacks filled with sand and votives; you can use a hole-puncher to create festive designs on the bags. The dollar store is also a great resource for additional candle holders and paper bags, as well as other solid-color paper products.

If the party is set to begin in the daylight and end at night, designate one or two helpers who will be in charge of lighting the candles when the sun begins to set. Even if you don’t own a grill, purchase a few long grill-lighters to use for votive holders and luminaries to save your helpers from burning their fingers. Your landlord not big on open flames? Stock up on miniature string lights at after-Christmas sales. You can wrap them around railings or columns, stuff them in jars or bottles, or string them across doorways. For a lovely fairyland sky effect, drape string lights across the ceiling with sheer fabric underneath to diffuse the light.

Have an idea for a DIY party decoration, or a cool way to repurpose household items? Please share your suggestions below!

Check back next week for the final article in the series, on How to be a Good Party Guest/Host.


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