Sunday, March 31, 2013

...table hopping for DIFFA: Dining by Design 2013.

The tables may be cleared, but the inspiration is still being served up. Dining by Design, the annual tabletop design extravaganza to benefit DIFFA, Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, is one of my favorite events of the year, for its inspiration, cause and hot-ticket parties. And while it’s short-lived (a mere few days, during the run of the Architectural Digest Home Show), it does manage to linger on the memory... only fitting, since the tables and environments created around them no doubt take months of thought, planning, soliciting, fabrication and then finessing.
The entrance gallery was custom created by Clark Gaynor Interiors and Input Creative Studios, and framed the Ralph Lauren dining pavilion.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of attending the New York event (or companion events in one of five other cities), the premise is simple: create table-based vignettes, high on creativity but with a dose of practicality: the tables have to host an actual dinner. And every year I’ve attended and secretly scored and ranked the tables, it’s been based on two main factors: who has assembled something particularly creative, and who has created a table, were I invited to dinner, where I’d be particularly happy to turn the corner into a dining room or home and see the table before me. The table, to me, has to look like a party you want to be invited to.
Clark Gaynor Interiors and Input Creative Studios gave the event's entryway the buzz of a broadway marquee, setting the event's color story-- AIDS-ribbon red-- in motion.
The successes this year were a mixture of both, while overall it seemed in some ways a return to the roots of the event, with emphasis squarely focused on the tablescaping. In years past, there have been herculean efforts by companies like Disney where the set-ups were almost as much about the architecture of the space as the setting of the table. (I’ve joked in the past that the event is almost Habitat for Humanity). I’m a tabletop fanatic, so I love the return to basics. Well, if you can call any of these gorgeous creations “basic.” But you can't Blanche, you can't!

Here’s my tour of the top designs, and some trends I was both happy, and not so, to see.

Ralph Lauren
Pride of place and my top honors went to the folks at Ralph Lauren, whose desert-driven dining pavilion was the anchor table set at the event’s entrance. In the past, Ralph’s people have created saloon porches, a rose-laden equestrian race-day and last year, one of my favorites, a chic apr├ęs ski set-up (one step away from ski lodge mod!). 

This year, in spite of scale, the table was remarkably understated, and my favorite for its earthy, sandy colors, running water wall, palmetto trunks, and flower arrangements that, while simple, garnered the praise of many an astute colleague, including Ken Wampler of The Alpha Workshops. “Those are some ranunculi!” he marveled, at the opening night dinner, even among the considerable distractions of the evening.

It seems a tad unfair to give top honors to Ralph Lauren, since, well, this is what they do. It’s a bit like praising an Olympic marathon runner for finishing first at a charity 5K. But, assuming plentiful resource, they showed an elegant restraint, with lots of tricks to take home: limit but repeat your elements, mix high and low, pay extra attention to texture in a simplified set-up, and watch your scale.

Moody, interactive, elegant and CHOCOLATE. Gensler Architects went dark, swanky and glamorous without losing the celebratory sense of the event. That gorgeous purple back wall wasn’t some Swarovski indulgence: It was purple-foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kisses, which people were invited to unwrap. 
The wall then became a living art piece, and took on the wild beauty of a fading bed of tulips, more exuberant in its demise than its original state. It was an idea as brilliant as the crystal candlesticks, and a testament to the ingenuity of using a humble material in a most remarkable, memorable and engaging way.

With such a big idea behind it all, they kept everything else clean: simple shapes and repeated blacks, in both matte and gloss, another way to keep a limited scheme from falling flat, tabletop or room.

Benjamin Moore
Party designer extraordinaire David Stark once again took the colorful helm of the Benjamin Moore booth, and this year went literal: this table vignette about paint was, well, about paint. Colorful, fun, but missing a tiny bit of the clever wit of past designs that featured last year a colorful library, and my favorite, the year iPods took the place of candles on candelabra to celebrate the then-new Benjamin Moore app. 
But it was still fun, lovely and with an Alice in Wonderland feel that style and brand blogger Jan Maclatchie has noted popping up just about everywhere.

David Rockwell for Maya Romanoff
Long aligned with DIFFA (he was Chair for ten years before passing the reins to Interior Design magazine’s Cindy Allen), design Renaissance man David Rockwell channeled his sets for Cyndi Lauper’s new Broadway endeavor, “Kinky Boots” at a table enlivened with Maya Romanoff’s “Stitched” wall covering in Candy Apple. 

Laces, boots and corsets were all evoked, in a ruby-red room where you half expected to see Sally Bowles or Bob Fosse spin a chair around after a quick eight count. And while she didn’t do a number, Cyndi herself made the ultimate (and gorgeous!) centerpiece on the night of the dinner gala.

Inson Dubois Wood for Fendi Casa
Black, white and chic all over: show house vet Inson Wood created an enclosed dining room to showcase the collections of Fendi Casa. While the sense of enclosure is a tricky risk for the main public viewings of the show, I can tell you this: It made for a wonderful dinner venue, as I was honored to join the likes of Inson himself, Holiday House impresario Iris Dankner, designer Kara Mann and the charming hosts from Fendi at the actual dinner. 
As always, Inson makes traditional look fresh. And in a deft display of form following function: those stripes on the wall? A super-graphic extension of the Fendi F.

Federico Delrosso for Corinthian Capital Group
Most interesting construction went to Federico Delrosso, hosted by Corinthian Capital Group, a spartan but still elegant table seeming to sprout up from the floor of a an actual water tank. 
I especially loved the lighting, three tiny halogen spots from a wood light bridge, the whole thing scented with fresh wood, and later, the free-flowing wine of one of the event’s main sponsors, La Crema. I'd love to be invited to this table, and any smart restauranteur with some space to spare should snap this idea (or the tank itself) right up as the perfect private room.
Other Tables of Note
Barry Barr Dixon’s new line for Arteriors was minimally styled but with artistry, and created a tiny corner of Qarth itself, framed by his carved screens, and a counterpoint of simplified stools. It managed to be evocative, mystic and mysterious, fit for a Khaleesi.

Lighting is key at this event, and Beacon Hill used it theatrically, to create a moonlit garden.

Elizabeth Bolognino Interiors created a bronzed and burnished dining nook centered on circles.
A pair of high-backed banquettes framed out the space for Croscill.

Kenneth Coponbue created an entire pavilion from his signature woven materials. The table's clipped corners were a stroke of necessary genius, giving access and squeezing in two more seats. 

Vern Yip created this flowered-drum song for Fabricut, including a centerpiece made from fabric rosettes.

Marc Blackwell was busy: Host Committee, DIFFA Trustee, Student Initiative table mentor, and he had time to create this sunny little ode to orange, where high and humble mixed happily.
Marimekko took a moodier-than-usual look at color, inspired by the grays and blues of a changing sky. It was an interesting alternative to their normal boisterous, joyous color stories.

The table for Architectural Digest used one of my favorite tricks: build a neutral, low-key envelope, and you end up getting a LOT of mileage from whatever color you introduce. Lighting was key to making this grown up in spite of its obvious playfulness.

Student Design Initiative
Each year, the gap between student tables and the creations of design pros and veterans narrows, and this year, the students had some of the most successful, creative, and conceptual tables, in an event where some of the other corporate endeavors were heavy-handed with product placement and branding. These students should be proud.

Pratt Institute, with mentors Arpad Baksa and J. Josephson Inc.
New York University, the Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons and Pratt Institute all turned it out and held their own, under the deft tutelage of professional mentors like David Rockwell (with Barry Richards, for NYU) and 2Michaels, the ladies themselves no strangers to Dining by Design or theatrical, poetic presentation, for Parsons The New School for Design (the cloud-formed organic/geometric exercise.)
ALL wire hangers: with mentor David Rockwell, NYU students created chic from humble: that architectural grid was all coat hangers, beautifully enlivening the freeing concept that "closets are for clothes, not people."

What I especially loved about the student tables was the head-on addressing of the main reason for, and heart of this event: the social issues surrounding AIDS funding, awareness and remembrance. In years prior, AIDS was absent in theme and conversation. Kudos to the students and mentors for making sure the A of DIFFA was honored, with grace, elegance and respect. The tables they created kept those in the industry lost over the years in the hearts and minds of many. It was a lovely reminder.

Corporate Tables
This is a fundraiser, and to be honest, participation ain’t cheap. So it’s no wonder that the corporate sponsors really want to get the biggest bang for their branding buck. But that can sometimes mean a table or room that looks more like a well-designed trade show than creative fete. While I am a huge fan of Design Within Reach, the chair graphics on the walls made this look like a store window. A bit of a shame, since the styling of their catalogs of late has been remarkably gorgeous, curated and art-directed to true perfection. It would have been great to see, for example, an architectural slatted wall, or even one of their own pre-fab buildings as the backdrop or setting. The tabletop itself, monochrome and architectural, was perfect, with an understandably mismatched suite of iconic chairs. So close! (but don't misunderstand: there are no losers here).

Lee Jofa was another display where product placement almost overrode artistry, but it still managed a garden-party-pretty setting with the allover fabric from their line designed by Aerin Lauder. It was proof, like Gensler, that repetition of one element can give a space architectural presence, even if in this case the repeated thing is organic and floral.

The Non-Table Dining Set-up
This year, for the first time, two tables weren’t tables at all: Charlene Bank Keogh, Adeline Olmer and Blane Charles teamed up to create “Dinner in le Boudoir de Madame,” and Thom Filicia, for The New York Design Center, created a living room, plenty of seating but no dining table in sight.
I love Thom and his work, but I don’t love this trend, at all. Don’t get me wrong, his room was GORGEOUS (perfectly appointed, dramatically lit, an amazing assemblage of high-personality pieces from NYDC showrooms like Designlush and Profiles), as was the bedroom set up (which, in fairness, did have one small table). But to take the dining out of Dining by Design just doesn’t work. It’s precisely that common denominator that showcases the creativity of the participants each and every year. And it needs to remain a baseline. It’s a bit like the trend at this year’s Holiday House... where some designers seemed to slide from actual holidays. That just takes the fun, and the core differentiating brand, out of both events.

Missing this year also were the “entry level” five-top tables, which in years prior have showcased up-and-comers. Perhaps a casualty of the cost of the event, and the need for bigger tables and bigger sponsors to generate funds and justify real estate. Maybe DIFFA will consider a scaled down “Luncheon by Design” to give a new generation of designers and vendors with slightly more shallow pockets the opportunity to serve up some serious tabletop design. They’re already doing a summer “Picnic by Design.” Maybe Luncheon by Design could become their fall signature event. I’d go. Even better, I'd design!

The slight lack of tables aside, I’m still dreaming of what I’d create, given the chance (this event is squarely on my design bucket list). The party guests might hate me, but I’m thinking canoes. Around, of course, a dining table.

Get Social! Find DIFFA, Clark Gaynor Interiors, and the New York Design Center on Facebook.


  1. Nice post, Patrick. You answered all of my questions in your commentary. I was wondering what happened to the smaller tables that were available for entry level costs? I saw the coverage in Interior Design magazine and it appears that most of the participating designers had corporate "hosts" or sponsors who perhaps shared or covered the costs? - KT