Shared, Lived, Felt: David Monn and the Art of Celebrating

All humans are united by a desire to party. Regardless of age, culture or class, we all possess a need to gather together, to celebrate special events or rites of passage, to feel like we belong and, ultimately, to tell the stories of who we are. What defines a good party, or a great party, for that matter, has evolved through the millennia, of course — yet the essential elements have largely remained the same.

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Photography by Jean Pierre Uys

David Monn, one of New York’s most sought-after event designers, has made it his life’s study to understand the art of celebration. He has been responsible for some of the world’s most “jaw-dropping” soirées: a state dinner at the White House, the New York Public Library centennial and countless high-profile fêtes, from the 100th anniversary celebration of the Plaza Hotel in New York to galas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum and the grand opening of the Time-Warner Center in New York. These events possess a sort of innate magic, impressing even the most seasoned, seen-it-all socialites. Vogue’s Billy Norwich once called him the “Architect of Style” — a title that makes much more sense if you have experienced a David Monn party yourself.

“Over the years, so many people have asked me, ‘What is it that you do?’” he says. “It’s very hard to define. I’m not just an event planner or a decorator. I try to turn things in our environment into the way we live. The way we live always has architecture and a framework to it. How does it become our style?”

Monn’s “architecture” consists of finding the natural rhythm between scent, sound, sight, touch and taste. He views his events as “experiences” meant be “shared, lived and felt.” In David Monn’s world, birthdays are not just parties but “milestones of accomplishment and growth.” Your home is not just a series of rooms, but “a living environment.”

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“For an event to be a success, you must have authentically answered the question, ‘Why are you here?’” he says. “What’s the story you are telling? Only then does the experience start to happen.”

We recently sat down with Monn, fresh off the debut of his new book, “David Monn: The Art of Celebrating,” and asked him to reflect on the architecture of style, event planning and hosting an authentic party at home.

It has been said that your designs are more than just events; they are inspirational architectural showpieces. What makes your events architectural showpieces from your point of view?

When I go into a room and plan an event, I never leave it as it is. I transform it. There is a completeness to anything and everything that we do. I want you to feel like an event or a space has never been done before. I never duplicate anything I’ve done, either. But that’s a high standard to meet all the time.

In my book, I wrote about a wedding at the Plaza Hotel. For this particular wedding, I knew there were going to be a lot of people attending. But my challenge in taking on the project was: How do I reinvent the Plaza? The bride said she chose the hotel because she wanted a place to take her future children and show them where their parents got married. I loved that idea. The Plaza’s ballroom is a classically French room in the form of a pavilion. So, I thought: “Let’s take it and turn it into a French conservancy, as the French would have done.” We filled the arches with lattice and took all the drapes down. We built arches and a gazebo in the center of the room, where guests would dance around it. Cherry trees filled the entire room. I took an existing space and brought design to it; yet it was still authentic to that space and told a story.

#8045: Sip and See/Nursery Decor, Private Brooklyn Apartment, Dennis Williams

You are influenced by classical design. Can you talk more about where you find inspiration for your events?

David Monn We all go to our toolbox and apply it to whatever the situation may be. My toolbox has been cultivated over the course of a lifetime, as I was exposed to and taught by some of the most talented, world-traveled people — people who have had lives of seeing, questioning and implementing, like Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Gayfryd Steinberg. People who have had a passion for things of beauty.

History tells you what is worthy of time because it is still standing. We look at Greece and Italy, and we see what has stood for hundreds of years, and it was good enough to withstand the test of time. Leonardo da Vinci’s and Picasso’s works are classical in that there is a rhythm to them. What I’m trying to discover in my own life at this time is the idea of marrying the soul with science. Proportion and scale are mathematical. Asymmetry is also balanced.

So how do we make these classical ideas pertinent for today? The soul part of us must still engage with them.

Whether it’s a table or a room layout, or the sequence of a location and how it’s sited on the land, there is balance to an event that is always necessary. That is the single core tool that I use in every part of our event design. If something isn’t balanced, it will be felt. We feel it in our body. We don’t experience life in one dimension. We experience it in five dimensions — through the senses. I care about these things more than most do. People may not always know why something feels a certain way, but I’m always looking and observing.

I can walk into a space and, in 20 minutes, I can see it completely finished. Up until the very last minute of an event, I can see that vision. But I’m constantly editing myself.

Everyone needs editing. It’s that old Coco Chanel quote: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I’m always looking at a room and saying, “What can I rid of?” You want the purest form of your vision.

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Speaking of classical design, how did the White House state dinner in 2010 come to fruition?

I had a relationship with the State Department. David Adler had reached out to me to see if I would give some guidance on planning the dinner for the visit of President Calderón of Mexico. This visit was very important to President Obama and the First Lady.

What was it like, planning such a historic event?

I can’t even describe it. It was surreal. To be given the opportunity and the honor to be creating something on such a world stage was almost like a high.

How did you end up approaching the State visit?

I didn’t want the event to just be pretty. To me, the beauty and uniqueness of something are diminished if they are only on the surface. For me, I always ask myself, “Does it have substance? What story is it telling? Is it rooted? Is it grounded?”

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What was your planning process like?

I have always been intrigued about how we show our country to others in the world through State visits. With the dinners that are hosted at the White House, they typically do not have a historical reference point or rhythm. But there is a protocol of where people are placed. The actual elements of the State dinner are left to the choice of the First Lady. It’s interesting, because I believe that the actual elements we use to entertain are as important as the tools we use to negotiate with. What I mean by that is, when someone sits down to a table, it is the representation of who you are. If you look at the evolution of society and the way we have progressed, it often comes down to how we sit at a table, how we eat and the elements on that table. From ancient kingdoms to today, the same is true. Our tables show who we are and how we care about that ritual. When we go through the ritual of dining at a State dinner, every single element — from the fabric of the tablecloth to the color and the decorations adorning the table — represents a story that you want to tell the guests about you. You want every single person who sat at the table to know that he or she has been thought about, and it takes effort to do that. So, I used this discipline when I planned Mexico’s State visit.

Every single element was considered. I researched the culture and history of Mexico. I learned that the Incas believed that color came from the sun and the gods. Even if you had nothing, you were rich if you had color, because the gods were giving you color. That concept alone is beautiful. I paid close attention to the history and background of President Calderón. He was born in the Michoacán Peninsula, where the monarch butterfly makes its pilgrimage. After dinner, we ushered all the guests into a tent erected on the South Lawn. We covered the entire inside of the tent — ceiling and floors — in black and hung artistically rendered monarch butterflies on monofilament in the air as a surprise and tribute to his birthplace. Later, I received a personal note from President Calderón, telling me how honored he was to have Mexico’s heritage treated with such dignity.

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How do you balance formality and decorum with comfort?

When something feels warm and comfortable, whether it’s black tie or summer whites, there is a secret: lighting. I only use incandescent light. I learned a very long time ago that incandescent light creates something we feel, beyond just illumination. I’ve asked why that is. The conclusion I’ve arrived at is that we, as humans, are made up of energy. We cannot live without the sun. When we don’t have light, we become depressed. All of us have sat in front of a fire or near candlelight, and we become transfixed by it. The power of the flame is actually speaking to our energy, giving us that energy that we need for ourselves. When you look at the Edison bulb, it’s the same science as candlelight.

So back to your question — how do you make an event warm, cozy and inviting? It all comes down to the proper lighting. What temperature is the light at? If we create a room full of bright light, we’re energized. If we create a room that is dim, we feel relaxed and sexy. So much of what I do has nothing to do with the beauty of the table linens or flowers. It comes down to these two questions: How is the room lit? And how far is the room lit? Because if it is lit, it is in your guests’ experience. If your party is in the pavilion and there are trees in the distance, you’re going to want to light the greens, so there are layers of what you’re seeing to give them dimension. What’s in and out of focus is as important as what you are touching.

How did the experience in our nation’s capital shape who you are as an event planner?

It allowed me to do what I do, and for it to be seen and understood by others. I have three core principles: authenticity, scale and detail. Every element, whether it’s an invitation and that very first piece of paper received, or the very last sight someone sees at the end of the night, must answer to those three things.

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In your book, you talk about this idea of a home being “a living environment” rather than just a series of rooms. This seems especially relevant as we move into entertaining season in our homes.

I think the home is a living environment because it is where we are nurtured. How a home feels is how we feel. The day you clean your apartment or house, it feels better. And when our homes feel better, we feel better, and that’s who we are. When we are entertaining inside our homes, it is how are we living. How does our home affect us? How are we moving through it? Life is a storybook. Every event we do is a story we want to tell. We don’t make it up. We just put the story in place. When we come into our apartments or our home from the very first moment, the story begins.

I think our bodies are led by our senses and not our brains. Our brains only log memory and connect the senses in a sequence — first by smell, second by sound and next by sight. We must engage those things in that sequence, and we must apply equal importance to all three of them. When we greet someone in our home, we must make sure we have the proper smell, sound and sight, so we can set our guests on a journey. They are in an experience.

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Photography by Allan Zepeda

What about touch or taste?

Touch happens when we shake hands or kiss and say hello. When we are sitting at the dinner table, what’s the fabric of the table linens or the chair we’re sitting on? And when we engage with taste, it doesn’t work without smell. Together, they are an entire rhythm that is moving. That is the single most important component from the book — to understand the senses and engage them. When we connect the senses with authenticity, scale and detail — if I’ve thought about all of those things — then you will find magic.

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Photography by Allan Zepeda

As a guest, what do you appreciate from a host or hostess?

I love this question! I appreciate when a host has placed me at a table, and I know he or she has thought about me. Today, we are much more casual about setting tables for our parties. Maybe we don’t have the time, or maybe because the effort is so overwhelming. But when it comes to setting a table for a party at my house — even for good friends — I tell my guests where I want them to sit. This simple gesture shows them that I have thought about why they are at my house. Maybe I want one friend to have the best view in the room, or I want another friend to sit next to someone who will help them in their career. It’s not about the finest wine or prettiest flowers. It’s about the process and taking the time to care about why you are hosting the party in the first place.

What are the main lessons you would like to impart to people?

David Monn Use authenticity. Tell the truth. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who are you? That is the starting place for everything.

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