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Your Home: Holiday Entertaining
Thursday, December 5, 2002

Party secrets are at your fingertips

Expert snoops for your personal style Basement treasures can make great décor


So you think you don't have what it takes to host a wonderful party? Think again.

Most people already have all they need, says Barbara Stuart-Peterson, owner of Stuart and Saladino Catering, Gifts and Style. But it's usually tucked away in the back of a cupboard or the corner of a basement.

...She can find the treasures they've relegated to the junk pile. Clients are usually pleased, but surprised, by the items she's used. They tend to exclaim: "Why didn't I think of that?"

For instance, there are the rubber boots she found in a garage and filled with flowers for a backyard barbecue. "Sounds weird, I know, but it looked great and very much in keeping with the party."

It's this spirit of adventure that marks Stuart-Peterson's style. It's simple, she says, and it requires looking at your things with a new eye. It's about order and balance and proper placement.

"Think Greeks, and you get the idea," Stuart-Peterson says. "Everything they did was in terms of the 3:5 proportion. For example, the knives and forks on the table — it's not what they're made of, it's how they're placed. The distance between the knife and the fork is what makes it look either attractive or squished."

Stuart-Peterson says she looks at everything as "a blank canvas." When she starts off with a client, she tours the principal rooms to see which is the real draw. "Is it an amazing kitchen? An alcove filled with gorgeous plants? A darkly exotic dining room?

"Once that's determined, I then figure out what's the focal point in the room — the fireplace, the magnificent coffee table, the large bay window. And that is where I'll place my energies as far as décor. I then search for the pieces, the pillows, platters, whatever, will enhance that focal point."

She describes it as a little like producing a life for people from the elements they already have on hand. How that translates specifically into a table set perfectly with things you have around the house is, to her, quite simple.

"Say you have 12 serving platters, but nothing matches. It doesn't matter. Just haul them all out, and put them on the buffet table. See how they look, then slowly remove the ones that clash. You're looking for colour, reflective qualities, texture, something that ties the pieces together. Eventually, you'll have an assortment that looks beautiful together.

"People say to me all the time they have nothing to decorate with, but I say: `You didn't look.' We fly through life so fast we don't look to see the beauty in what's around us. We also bring preconceived notions about how to use things, and it doesn't come from what the arbiters of taste decide in the magazines. It comes straight from how your mother did it."

And so, Granny's silver tea set becomes a gorgeous flower container in Stuart-Peterson's hands. Or:

  Christmas tree ornaments become whimsical table arrangements.
  Beads are placed on side plates, or over napkins.
  Vases are filled with nuts, or fresh fruits and veggies.
  Ornaments are nestled in napkins placed in wine glasses.
  Wrapping paper is used to make napkin rings.
  Parchment encircling glasses filled with water and tea lights makes beautiful votive candles.
  Drapery tassels decorate platters, plates, or napkin rings.
  Glass blocks left over from renovations elevate serving dishes.
  Name cards stay fixed in the leaves of an artichoke for a summer party, while antique toy cars prop them up for a retirement celebration.
  Leaves are placed under a clear, organza cloth for a natural look. This also works well with university or high school exam papers, if it's a grad party.

Another trick is to fill cylindrical glass vases with water, put in orchids or snowberries upside down, place a lampshade on the top and float a tea light on the surface, so you have flowers, light and vase all in one.

Stuart-Peterson has also raided people's linen closets and used bedsheets to drape tables or wrap around potted plants. If there are tablecloths, "sometimes I'll tie them in rosebuds either at the corners or on the diagonal."

Nor is the natural world off limits to Stuart-Peterson's eye. She uses branches, pine cones, leaves where suitable. Leaves are easily waxed and scattered about the table.

Food is also a prominent theme. A silver ice bucket and chalices suddenly become a piece of art filled with plump fresh cranberries.

All this rearranging only takes about 1 1/2 hours before the party begins. But Stuart-Peterson will have already made forays into the client's home to hunt down what she needs.

Some clients ask her to bring everything, and she can easily comply. But she'd much rather use elements that are telling of the client themselves. "If you find out what a person cherishes, then you can decorate for them."

Proportion and balance shouldn't be confused with symmetry, she says.

Everything has a weight. You can take a large basket of bread and place it next to a small bowl of salad, then balance with a slightly larger bowl of something else. The triangle works well together in art, and this is what you're aiming for on the table as well.

"You see a lot of people make the mistake of spreading their dollars too thin," she adds. "For example, you buy three plants and spread them all over the house, when they'd really make a stunning statement clustered together."

When it comes to food, Stuart-Peterson notes "you eat with your eyes first. And if you spend a bit of effort and make things handsome, your guests will enjoy the food all that much more."

The menu depends on a client's style and comfort zone. She doesn't want them feeling nervous or intimidated.

On one end of the scale, she can pull out menu items like poached quail eggs in brioche toast with caviar, or lobster tempura with grapefruit-ginger dipping sauce. On the other end, there's beef tenderloin and roast potatoes.

Stuart-Peterson's passion, though, is for making things look good. Her sense of order underlies the food, table and décor.

hat's why she'll walk into a client's home and see what needs changing — though she does ask first if they mind her rearranging things.

"Everyone's home is inherently beautiful," she says emphatically...

Barbara Stuart-Peterson can be reached at 416-955-1360.

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