Monday, March 26, 2012

...about creative inspiration: Dining by Design 2012.

It's the most inspirational design event of the season, and invariably keeps me awake at night after one viewing, mind racing with the possibility of how I would have handled Dining By Design, the annual event to benefit DIFFA, Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. This year’s was no exception, and I was wide awake last night at 4am after attending Cocktails By Design, visions of tabletops, stemware, seating plans, construction details and floral design dancing in my head.

What started as a tabletop event (a longstanding standard in the interior design/fundraising world) has turned into a staggering feat of engineering, construction, logistics, generosity and creativity. The money is made by selling tickets to fundraising events in and around the dining vignettes, including a sit down dinner at and in these high-design spaces.

The parameters are simple (create a dining space for ten or twenty) but the end results are anything but. Much of the credit for the elevation of this event from simple to sublime lies withMargaret Russell, DIFFA Executive Director David Sheppard, DIFFA Chair David Rockwell, longstanding and outspoken champions of DIFFA and Dining By Design, giving it high praise, high profile and now, a national presence (events happen, now, in several cities across the country).

If you’re wondering now, “Well, how creative CAN you get with a dinner table?” you, dear reader, have never been to Dining By Design.

I always love seeing whether colleagues shoot for practicality or theatricality on their setups which have to be equal parts folly and photogenic, party-ready and practical. And the degrees are as varied as you’d expect. Some designs are created by companies, too, so there is of course a vested interest in showing off their wares, not just flexing their creative muscle.

And while there are NEVER any losers in this event, there are most certainly winners, where designs catch the eye, fire up the mind, and, very often, stop the heart with visual poetry fashioned from plates and textiles, light and whimsy. I always try to create my own criteria for what makes a homerun at this event, and I came up with one very unscientific, highly personal way: How excited would I be, were I invited to a party or dinner at any of these tables? Past favorites passing that test with flying color or elegant monochrome have been the center-scrimmed zen/tech combo of DIFFA Chair David Rockwell, and the sunny-stripes and interactive shades of the equally sunny Michael Tavano.

This year, it was a first-timer (to the event, but certainly not to the industry) who wowed at the get-go… Stephen Mitchell, of DESIGNLUSH, created a 70’s inspired dark and chic table that was the perfect expression of the glam/organic DESIGNLUSH look.

But where the showroom stays deep and moody, Stephen shot exactly the right amount of shine, fun and bubbly into the DbD mix: the season’s metal of honor, gold, made this a Midas-touched party that set the tone for almost the entire room with its killer placement, architectural presence, glittering pavilion and ridiculously fun GOLD SLINKIES at every setting.

Circles and hoops went from chandelier (a creation of one of the many thoroughbred talents in Stephen’s stables, Matthew Shively, of CercaTrova Design) to the overscaled gold screens. Smoky Lucite, mink-inspired coverings on DESIGNLUSH signature Modernist benches evoked Studio 54, and it seemed just a matter of minutes before Bianca and Halston pulled up a chair. (Full disclosure: Stephen is a friend and past employer… but even if he weren’t, I’d still pick this as a frontrunner.)

Toned down in comparison but sill commanding, the serene pavilion of former Ebay style guru Shawn Henderson, a slightly amorphous table shape in a slatted cube of gray wood. Shawn has a knack for saying a lot with a little, and while the word “curated” is bandied about, if the impeccable loafer fits… and here, it slipped on effortlessly. Perfect art, a sculptural vintage light fixture, and quiet details (that tureen!!) made this, simply, into a space where you most certainly dress for dinner.

Other faves… the white on white DWR table (all white is a designer staple in this event where color can be hard to compete with), a corporate table showing off their product mix and delightfully displaying a table full of iconic Vitra miniature chairs.

Ralph Lauren is always a standout, having, in the past, built a an elegant racing winner’s circle, and last year, an entire western general store. This year, they spun a winter fantasy that New York never got, with (virtual) roaring fire, stacked wood and frosted window panes. ALMOST “ski Lodge Mod,” and no detail overlooked. Of course, lifestyle is what Ralph Lauren Home does, so their consistent showstoppers here are never a surprise... and they never disappoint. It’s also lovely to see Ralph Lauren's Alfredo Paredes, DIFFA Trustee and ├╝ber-Creative, as the guest of honor at last night’s opening soiree and Monday's big dining bash.

Another product-driven table was the elegant jewel box created by Maya Romanoff. Their capiz shell tiles were used as flooring, and again, gold set the tone. I’m also always a sucker for shaded lamps on dining tables, conjuring up big-band era supperclubs.

Libby Langdon also celebrated the natural, with grassy colored Ikat chairs, water feature and a chic gray and green palette.

Ethan Allen was fresh and Floridian while still honoring their traditional roots, with pink lacquered Chippendale chairs looking very much like the flamingoes they used to style the space. A riot of tulips held their own beneath an exuberant chandelier, all very Palm Beach preppy chic... but most certainly NOT your grandmother's Ethan Allen.

Resource Furniture’s table (here, and top) designed with Marie Aiello Design Studio, was one part poem, one part tech marvel… an LCD wall washed the undersea fantasy with deep marine blues, and the iconic Tord Boontje crystal chandelier was reinvented as a branch of coral. William Yeoward stemware in watery blues extended the ocean fantasy, with airplants and protea standing in for coral and sea life. This is how a modern-day Neptune rolls, no doubt.

Proving that a monochromatic (brown) palette and limited materials can still be lush and sexy (with an eye for detail and perfect lighting), and that elegance does not preclude a trim and masculine demeanor, Mark Cunningham Inc. used teak, tortoise shell and an avant garde centerpiece against slatted walnut walls. While it defied convention that a centerpiece should not block your view, I’d still happily join this shipshape party. Plus, it gives your across-the-table dinner companions a bit of mystery til after-dinner mingling.

Other standouts included DbD veteran Eric Warner for Aesthete Ltd., who had some of the event’s most novel repurposings… riding stirrups and bridles created the overhead lighting, holding flickering votives and the full-moon globe.

The local design schools are also represented with the DbD Student Design Initiative, and among them, NYU managed to strike a lovely balance between avant garde and garden party, with exquisite floral design in a just-past-sweet palette, while stacked chairs created instant architecture and art school edge.

Lifestyle lovely Evette Rios created an entire fantasy world with her treehouse for ten, and the hard-to-photograph, but dark and stunning table for Artistic Tile showed off stone and tile surfaces to their elegant best, with unique choices of crystal and candle colors.

And transcending practicality for art’s sake, the artful installation of Benjamin Moore… an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tea party table made entirely of books, flaunting the hues of their extensive range of designer-favorite paints. Benjamin Moore, and their own Eileen McComb, have been longtime and staunch supporters of DIFFA, and of my friends at The Alpha Workshops. The New York Times weighed in with a gallery-worthy installation, both serious and buoyant, a minimal but sculptural collection of seating set against a vertical garden wall and a surreal crystal and umbrella chandelier.

In one corner of the exhibition, a banner defined the reason for all this creativity and joyous displays: an AIDS crisis that has taken many, in this industry and many others, away from their own tables and creative endeavors. While I'm sure the creativity on display will find many, many ways to live on, I hope the reason for this event some day fades away. Thanks to DIFFA, and Dining by Design, that day gets a little closer.

Admission to Dining By Design to benefit DIFFA is included with your ticket to the Architectural Digest Home Show, open through Sunday, March 25th, 2012.

Get social! Find DIFFA, Benjamin Moore, DESIGNLUSH, Shawn Henderson, Libby Langdon, Ethan Allen and the Architectural Digest Home Show on Facebook.

All photos: Patrick J. Hamilton

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