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The party planner: The casual perfectionist

At work, she's a stickler. But at her patio dinner party in Venice, she goes with the flow.

August 28, 2010|By Lizzie Garrett Mettler, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Jennifer McGarigle, just back from a two-week trip to Italy, has little time to settle into her home. She snips burgundy and magenta roses and arranges them in monochromatic bunches minutes before 17 guests are scheduled to arrive for a patio dinner party. Dozens of wasps assault the outdoor centerpieces filled with poppies. The two resident pugs, Daisy and Lucy Pickles, are getting snippy with each other every time there's a knock at the front door.

And now the heat lamps aren't lighting.

Still, McGarigle couldn't be calmer or more casual.

"Why is it that when you really actually need these things to work, they never do?" McGarigle says, laughing, genuinely thinking the situation funny.

Twenty-two years of planning weddings and other events have made her an easygoing host at home, but she says a split personality governs her life.

"I am an entertaining perfectionist when it comes to my profession. When I'm at home, I like things to be improvisational and casual," McGarigle says before slipping away to change her clothes.

At her Venice design studio, Floral Art. "It's all about the details," McGarigle says. When clients place orders for a simple floral centerpiece, she and her team will quiz them about the size of the table, its shape, even the surface material. Although it might have made the average person go nuts, McGarigle insisted on listening to the "Thriller" album four times, consecutively, while her team created the 1,500-rose installation for the Neverland Ranch gates the day after the King of Pop died.

"I know I'm freakishly obsessive because even in my dreams, I feel the need to problem solve," McGarigle says.

She recently expanded Floral Art's repertoire beyond flowers and events to home furnishings, a feat that took almost two years while McGarigle found a manufacturer who would create a piece of furniture exactly how she imagined it. The Floret chair is made with a Lucite backing that suspends a high-resolution image of a flower. There are more than a dozen variations of the chair, including a style with chartreuse wooden legs in McGarigle's living room, where a dinner party guest now sits cross-legged, sipping a cocktail as the host mingles.

"I keep entertaining simple by enlisting a tribe of friends to help out," McGarigle says.

Friends Anastasia Bowen and Allison Rivera were tapped to be the mixologists for the evening. Inspired by the cocktail menu at the Tasting Kitchen, the Abbot Kinney Boulevard hotspot down the street from Floral Art, Bowen and Rivera came up with a fruity drink enlivened with rum, grapefruit juice, lime juice, maraschino liqueur and simple syrup. But to McGarigle, the most important elements of the drink are the fresh mint sprigs and the linear orchid garnishes, which lend a sensual touch. Start the party with a signature cocktail, McGarigle says, then simply serve wine brought by guests for the rest of the night.

Even her stock of wine glasses are prime examples of how the easygoing vibe flows inside and out of her 1930s bungalow.

"I don't worry about them matching all the time," McGarigle says. "Usually people go to the wine glass cupboard and grab their glass of choice. I even have a neighbor that likes to replenish these from the Salvation Army in Santa Monica every so often."

On the food front, McGarigle's friend, Michael Karnow, is almost done making the first course and rhetorically asks, "Do you think I should put some sort of sherry in the lobster bisque?" The constant recipe for this party happens to be no recipe at all, but however nonchalant, the venue is looking perfectly chic.

As day turns to night, the wasps depart, the heat lamps are finally ablaze and the back patio is dripping with candlelight. Votives are hanging from trees and spread on the table with wine bottles.

"My love is ambiance. If the right mood is set, the party will follow its lead," McGarigle says. Candles not only help to set the scene but also make imperfect areas within the house more flattering, she says.

Imperfection within the house however, is not easily identifiable. McGarigle has converted the two-bedroom house from what she describes as a "Home Depot display" into a sleek bachelorette pad.

"I did it in stages, usually one room or project a year," she says. "It's a way to redo the house that doesn't make you crazy."

First, she put in front and rear decks to extend the small quarters and create an indoor-outdoor living space. New double glass doors leading from the house to outside make the home feel larger, let light pour in and ease party guests' journey to the kitchen for the second course.

Later, she converted the second bedroom into a dining room in order to have more entertaining space. It holds an 8-foot rectangular table at which she squeezes up to 10 people, if need be.

If guests want to sleep over, they have their own suite — bedroom, lounge area and bathroom — in the converted garage behind the house.

As the night winds down, the dessert is served in the kitchen. It's vanilla Häagan-Dazs ice cream scooped into bowls with strawberries from a Santa Monica farmers market — simple and easy. Lingering guests lean on the kitchen counter, savoring their last bites.

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