James T. Farmer, professional designer, author and editor-at-large for Southern Living magazine, joined staff writer Jura Koncius last week on the Washington Post's Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: I'm throwing a holiday party, but entertaining makes me anxious. I have another week to prepare. Food is taken care of and the house is ready. What else should I do now ? What can I skip?
A: My grandmother always said, "The best thing to serve is confidence." Make sure you've got plenty of cups, napkins, toilet paper and paper towels, and rest knowing you've got the big stuff checked off the list.
Q: What is your secret for keeping a home with antiques fresh, updated and not looking "granny-ish"?
A: One of the top styling tips is to not collect pieces all of the same era or finish. For example, all brown wood furniture will quickly look like your grandmother's attic, but throwing in a painted piece or contemporary art over an antique chest, or Lucite bases under a jar or vase, keeps things fresh. It's all about that base! Mixing family pieces from different generations, whether furniture, silver or artwork, is a hallmark of Southern style.
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Q: Do you have a rule of thumb on how many guests to invite to a party?
A: I like to remember that I, too, am a guest at my parties, as well as the host. Think about who you want to see and the conversational dynamics among guests.
Q: I have a small home, don't entertain a lot and do not own enough chairs for everyone to sit on. What is the best way to entertain occasionally on a larger scale without spending a lot of money?
A: That's easy - a cocktail buffet! Serve food that doesn't require a knife, fork or dinner plate. Small plates and bite-sized appetizers go a long way. Better yet, be sure to have a bar and serve good wine! I guarantee it'll be a hit. After all, no one goes to a party to sit, so don't worry.
VIDEO: How to style a mantle with James Farmer
Q: Our casual cocktail party has turned into something more. Do you have ideas for elevating the experience? We don't want to make it stuffy or formal.
A: That's a bit of a challenge. A signature cocktail is always fun. I love a champagne punch or Christmas sangria. You can add a sprig of rosemary or other garnish to the cocktail or food. It's super easy and adds a very intentional touch. Music always makes an environment great, so don't skimp there. Even if you have someone playing a classical guitar, it adds a little something extra. Drinks and music aren't stuffy one bit!
Q: I grew up with very formal dinner parties and no kids around. I now live in a Mid-Atlantic university town and nobody seems to have dinner parties. Is it just me or is this a trend?
A: People do entertain less formally nowadays; however, I think with your background, you should throw a dinner party and become known as the best entertainer in town! Decorate the mantle, pull out the china, and raise a glass! It can be soup and corn bread or a full diplomatic formal dinner, but make it your own. I think the bar was set by your family and now it's up to you to carry on the tradition in your own style.
Q: I'd love to get some greenery to go above a headboard. What would be good and where could I find it?
A: I like traditional evergreens, like Frasier fir, which probably has the best scent. Seeded eucalyptus has a nice scent as well and not as strong as other eucalyptus. All these are readily available at holiday markets and floral shops.
Q: I'm doing some holiday entertaining and all I have so far is a green wreath and some mantel greens. Do you think a simple Noble Fir wreath is OK or do I have to add a bow or pine cones to it?
A: I'm all about a good-looking bow - they are festive and the holidays are a time to be festive. The bow doesn't have to be red velvet. It can be green and still have a great tone-on-tone impact. If you do add pine cones, after the holidays, you can spray paint them silver or gold and your wreath will be festive for the New Year! I can be swayed either way, but why not spruce it up?
Q: If I am burning fragrance candles in a container, where should I place them in my house? Do I need to worry about someone spilling hot wax?
A: Have a candle lighted in the bathroom and on any side table, chest, or serving piece that may not be a collection place for drinks, plates, etc. That will help with the risk of hot wax. Since the candles are contained, don't worry about the hot wax too much.
Q: My husband and I love throwing parties. We're hosting a New Year's Eve party this year, and I was thinking I'd try to do something different, like decorating and having a game. Any suggestions? Usually we'll play beer pong or flip-cup before going out.
A: How about a good theme? Chili and Cheetos, or one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures and favorite childhood snacks, mac and cheese with a gourmet twist. Any menu makes things a little nicer and feel more upscale. You could handwrite place settings or menu cards for each person. And certainly, decorate!
No offense to beer pong, but maybe a game like Catch Phrase or Heads Up! would elevate the "activities."
Q: Do you have any holiday table-decorating tips?
A: I like a twist on traditional, but holidays are about tradition and that "same ol'" is what makes it great. If you're looking to mix it up, blue and white with touches of dark green, green and pink is kind of fun. Red and pink, and orange and red with greenery is good too. I love to incorporate natural items, especially seasonal fruits like oranges and pomegranates.
Q: Pantone announced that Living Coral is the Color of 2019. Do you have a favorite coral paint color?
A: I love this year's color! I've been known to pronounce coral like "Carl," as my mother did, so I've officially started saying #LivingWithCarl as a nod to this year's color of the year.
I love Copper Canyon by Valspar, Persimmon by Sherwin Williams and, for more reddish hue, Benjamin Moore's Geranium.
Q: What's an easy idea for a Christmas dinner centerpiece?
A: A wreath lying flat on the table with a glass hurricane and candle in the center. You can do one, two or three glasses. I also love adding silver julep cups with short-cut red roses, amaryllis or berries.
VIDEO: Fruit, flowers and foliage with James Farmer
Q: I am thinking of having some people over for New Year's Eve but I want it to be relaxed and comfortable. Any ideas?
A: Make it a Southern-style dinner with some casual but delicious food such as collard greens, black -eyed peas, etc. You can serve that as a dinner and I guarantee it won't be too stuffy. It also encourages people to linger there into the new year. Another opportunity would be to plan your party for the morning after and do a New Year's breakfast! Who doesn't love champagne with pancakes? As long as you let people know the style will be laid-back, your guests will arrive knowing what to expect.
Q: I'd like to add a few holiday touches to my guest room. What would be some things you might suggest?
A: Guest rooms should be neat, tidy and accommodating, with all the things a traveler would need. Simple fresh flowers with holiday or seasonal nods are all you need. If you make it too inviting, they may stay . . . and require their own stocking!
Q: If you are having 10 or 12 people over for dinner, is a buffet better for conversation? I could squeeze them at my table, but it will be tight.
A: I like a tight table! I also like a progressive dinner. After dinner at a tight table, have dessert and coffee in the living room, or have the men go to the study. Serve from the buffet and eat at the table. The upside is that tight tables always make for great conversations!
Q: Do you prefer real or faux trees?
A: I lean toward real, but a really good faux one is nice.
Q: I think my main challenges to entertaining are (1) my husband is not very social, (2) clutter and (3) my husband and I have no mutual friends together. Any suggestions? I'm worried about throwing a party for several groups of people who don't know one another
A: That's why it's a party! Mix them together, add a great drink and have a good time. And who says you have to invite your husband? Do an all-wives party!
If it helps, rent a private room at a restaurant where you're just the host. It takes the pressure off and changes the atmosphere.