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Event design is so much more than fleeting ideas that bring spaces to life. From the Roaring 20s to events that now live on into the future, every era has its preferences.

By summer of 1919 the Spanish Flu epidemic had subsided. After over a year of wearing masks and being cooped up in their homes, Americans were itching to get out and party. But that’s about where its similarities with our current circumstances end, for now.

The 1920s were steeped in excess, postwar giddiness fueling gilded debauchery and illegal drinking; a carefree time eventually called ‘The Roaring 20s’.

But now, in the 2020s, we’re a bit more cautious about what the future holds, especially in events and when considering event design.

A More Accurate Comparison

The heady Roaring 20s could be likened to the ethos of the 1980s, a consumerist Bonfire of the Vanities era where overconsumption was en vogue. The 1920s loved a theme party; the 80s loved its aesthetics. (The 1920s also loved things suspended in aspic. Some trends don’t age so well.)

“In the 80s, the biggest thing was that people wanted an atmosphere,” says Joan Steinberg of caterer Sonnier & Castle. “But an atmosphere could be, ‘Let’s make everything red silk.’ It was more about color and vibe.”

Food was less about nutrition and provenance, and more about contributing to the decor.

“Let’s say a makeup designer was introducing a new lip color collection, and the lip colors were based on flowers,” Steinberg says. “They would want things in the food that would tie in with the overall color palette.”

“In the 80s, the biggest thing was that people wanted an atmosphere … It was more about color and vibe.”

– Joan Steinberg

Partygoers and party throwers alike clamored to be first in the new, hot space, continuing this clamoring well into the mid-2000s.

“One of the big things was to be first at something. The something was generally a space that people hadn’t been to before,” Steinberg says. “A new gallery, a new museum or a club.”

Clubs were in high demand for corporate and PR-focused events, generally because they held a massive amount of people. With built-in sound systems, clubs were especially useful if you wanted to hire talent.

“Prince, Donna Summer, the Beach Boys, they all performed. You had sound, you had lights, you had cavernous space. You had venues that the average person couldn’t usually get into on their own, either because they were prohibitive with their lists on the door, or it was so expensive that the average 20-year-old couldn’t afford to go.

“So if you got invited to a private event at a place like that, you were an A-lister for the night.”

Enter the Experiential Event

The move toward experiential events came as Manhattan ran out of new spaces to see and be seen.

“Even in New York, which is maybe the hippest city in the world, it’s still a small town. You have X number of venues that people can go to, and you can only reinvent them in so many different ways,” Steinberg says.

“Event design is still restricted by walls and ceilings and floors and entrances. Over the past 10–15 years, it’s more about creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience that never existed before. It’s not necessarily about being at a certain trendy spot.”

Today the ‘experience’ also incorporates photography and social media, ensuring the event lives on long after it’s over.

“The first thing clients ask for is an Instagrammable moment,” Steinberg says. “So instead of florals just being a centerpiece or signage just being informational, one of the things you’re charged with is, ‘What’s the Instagram shot?’”

Where before you wanted to make sure you have a lovely menu and pretty flowers and amazing food, now it’s really about creating these iconic looks and these designs.”

– Allison Winn Butler

Designer Allison Winn Butler of Allison Butler Creative also notes how the reach of social media influences event design.

“Obviously aesthetics are always important, but in the last several years, especially with all of the social media outlets, and how everyone is constantly sharing experiences on social media, it has become so important,” she explains.

“Where before you wanted to make sure you have a lovely menu and pretty flowers and amazing food, now it’s really about creating these iconic looks and these designs.”

She’s learned the mantra ‘more is more’, adjusting event design for the gaze of the phone camera.

Dummy Copy

“My design aesthetic is simple, modern and clean. I very quickly realized that that shows up as blah at night and with event lighting,” she says.

“I think one thing that has happened and will stay is that everything is going to be a little extra. You’re going to have that bright, bold tablecloth. You’re going to use more saturated colors, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Individualized and Flexible Design

“Everyone loves little details, and everyone loves their own personalized thing. Individualized servings started out like, ‘Oh, this is cute, this is fun’, and now I think it’s going to switch to that out of necessity,” Butler says.

Grazing tables will be put on hold for now, with a move toward attendants doing the serving.

“Years ago there were buffet attendants, so someone was always serving you. And over the years it has become much more of a self-service thing, which is what individuals want,” she explains.

“They want to get what they want, however much they want. I think as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic we’re going to see more individual setups or people serving the individuals. Even with so many people vaccinated, I just think people are so much more cautious now.”

Take this summer’s Central Park hat luncheon, the first major gala on the charity circuit to return. Rather than the usual one party under a massive tent, it was broken up into several spaces in the park, which took place over the course of two days.

We’ve gone very quickly from talking about the size of the space and how many people we can host to the flexibility that we offer in terms of space.”

– Jack Guttman

Micro weddings will be favored and the design of spaces themselves will incorporate segmentation, a natural next step from the wristbands designating comfort level that were prevalent earlier in the pandemic.

“There was an article in Architectural Digest, I believe, that was talking about how even flooring and carpets and rugs are going to be used to designate areas and the flow of traffic,” Butler says.

“And a lot of rental companies do that now. They’ll almost create zones, if you will, utilizing design in a fun way to direct people and make it as safe and seamless as possible.”

And there’s no space more flexible than The Glasshouse. “People have been thinking about events completely differently,” Glasshouses Partner Jack Guttman says. “We’ve gone very quickly from talking about the size of the space and how many people we can host to the flexibility that we offer in terms of space.”

A Different Time

An event that would ideally be for a thousand people could easily be adjusted to 500, just by moving a partition, and the views would be just as spectacular. And if the actual attendees are only 250 because of safety concerns or changing vaccination requirements, that’s no problem either.

“To have a space like ours where yes, we have a massive amount of space, but the way that we can curate our mobile partition system and doors to preserve the views or to be opaque, that offers a lot of comfort to the customers,” Guttman says.

“So if we have 250 people we have a great solution at The Glasshouse. If we grow to 500 or 1,000 people we have a great solution at The Glasshouse.”

Not to mention the venue’s many attractive features, such as a highly sophisticated audiovisual system, and unique amenities like the outdoor and ancillary spaces to provide guests with a variety of experiences within a single venue.

While we’re not experiencing the same flamboyance as the Roaring 20s, with flexibility and creativity we’ll get there.

“My sense of what happened in the 1920s was that they repealed Prohibition, the Depression was over and everyone went out and danced and drank,” Steinberg says.

“There’s some of that, but it’s not that kind of an easy seismic shift. I think it’s got to be a little bit more thought out to justify what they’re doing. It’s going to be a gentle incline.

“Having said that, anybody who gets an invitation is excited. We miss the party invites, we miss the first-look opportunities. We miss the opening-night events. They signify everything that’s great about New York.”

This post was first published on the Glasshouses website and is republished here with kind permission. Visit www.theglasshouses.com for more information.
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