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ANN CONWAY

Forget 'Ahh'--These Days Centerpieces Go for Awe

July 14, 1998|ANN CONWAY

Forget the hurricane lamps ringed with posies. Or the little baskets of foam stuck with flowers and sprigs of tinsel.

Today's centerpieces are as original as a designer gown. And sometimes as expensive.

Glitz is out. Simplicity and ro- mance are in, say Orange County floral designers. So is a little mystery.

When guests dine onstage at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's 25th Candlelight Concert in December, they'll have more than gourmet fare and the hip sounds of Tony Bennett to keep them happy.

Tables will be set with centerpieces inspired by the magic of David Copperfield, said dinner chairwoman Barbara Johnson of Tustin.

Because the center has the luxury of "theatrical lighting, gadgetry and the use of special effects," Johnson said she and members of her committee have chosen to incorporate those elements into the style and presentation of the gala centerpieces. "The centerpieces may begin somewhere other than the table," said Johnson, who once owned a floral design firm.

"They're a surprise. We're going to try it all out [at the center] this week."

Once mere toppers for tables--with wall and ceiling decorations providing the party ambience--centerpieces have taken on more of the decor role at parties, said Johnson, who last year chaired a ball for the Pacific Symphony. "Today, when you dis- cuss ideas for centerpieces, you talk about creating an 'awe factor.' Centerpieces are the design focus of the evening. Guests at a round dinner table will be staring at them all night. They make the first--and last-- impression."

When it's romance they're after, party planners head for the Urban Gardener in Newport Beach. The shop's signature look: garden baskets crowded with dozens of fresh, pale-colored blooms. Priced from about $50 to $350 each, the French Country-style flower arrangements create a "lush, low, clustery look" on a party table, according to designer Jeffrey Kerkhoff.

Another popular look: a mix of flowers with fresh fruit. On a recent day at the Urban Gardener, visitors beheld clusters of roses in hollowed-out green apples and a flower-and-strawberry composition arranged in a crystal and silver champagne bucket.

Hostess tip: Hollow out a green apple, said Kerkhoff, fill it with wet floral foam and tuck in roses, hydrangeas--you name it. Use in groups of three on a table, add votive lights--and voila!--romance.

To make a champagne bucket into a party centerpiece, fill it with ice, add a bottle of bubbly and embellish with a wreath of flowers arranged on an "oasis ring," Kerkhoff suggested. Oasis rings in varying sizes can be purchased at Urban Gardener.)

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When Steve Forbes--yes, that Steve Forbes--tossed a recent bash in San Pedro Harbor on his 150-foot yacht, the flower arrangements came from the Black Iris in Laguna Beach.

On deck: 50 arrangements of tropical flowers and foliage that had shop designers working overtime. "They were all very high-style, huge pieces," said Paul Ecke, owner of the floral design firm that has created arrangements for Bette Midler, Heather Locklear, Elizabeth Taylor and Lew Wasserman. "The yacht comes into the L.A. area every six years, and then it's off to Europe."

Most of the time, however, designers at the Black Iris are creating a variety of specialties for local hostesses. Signature styles at the Black Iris include a Provencal-style arrangement of sunflowers and lemons (floating in water within a clear bubble vase) and a Biedermeier-inspired arrangement of roses in a painted urn.

Party-givers can elaborate on a specialty such as the Biedermeier by ordering it with fresh fruit, Ecke said. At the recent wedding in Emerald Bay of a member of the Cavanaugh family, owners of Ruby's restaurants. "We did 100 large Biedermeier arrangements accented with pears, champagne grapes, apples, lemons," Ecke said. "Gorgeous."

When Janet Johnson--owned of the Ruffled Tulip in Tustin--creates centerpieces for the Waterman's Ball at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point on July 31, she'll be doing it with Tarzan in mind.

Using only tropical foliage--no flowers--she plans to combine Australian ferns with lily grasses, dracena palm and croton for 60 arrangements.

The centerpieces, about 2 1/2 feet tall by 1 1/2 feet wide, "will definitely carry the room--meaning, they won't get lost," she said. "These days, the centerpieces you place on a party table should never get lost."

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