When you throw a party, do you spend the entire time worrying about every little detail rather than enjoying the gathering itself? When you see Martha Stewart gliding through her perfectly light-filled spaces gently placing “a simple tray of handmade pasta purses stuffed with gorgonzola and pear in a buerre blanc” on the outrageously complicated tablescape she just “threw together,” does it just make you want to spit nails? Take heart! It is possible to throw a stunning soiree that will impress your guests.

Let’s be real. Madame Stewart has an army of helpers, so why shouldn’t you? Enlist a helper. If you love cooking, get down and dirty in the kitchen while someone else frets over the frills. Or if you loathe cooking, but delight in decor, hire a caterer and immerse yourself in the delicious decoration details! The bottom line is don’t buy into the fantasy that one woman can do it all as she casually glides through her sunny home. Take shortcuts, have fun in the planning and, most importantly, don’t worry about details while you’re surrounded by friends and family. As our party-styling experts will remind us, while dapper decor and fabulous food are great, the most important part of gathering together is enjoying the company of dear friends and loved ones.

Preeminent tastemakers Danielle RollinsJane Scott Hodges and James Farmer share the tricks of the trade for hosting—and enjoying—your next gathering.

Danielle Rollins

Let Others Do the Heavy Lifting

It’s not what you serve, it’s how you serve it! When entertaining, it’s perfectly fine to use store-bought items. The key is to add that little extra touch that gives it a homemade appeal. Take your serving dishes to your favorite restaurant or caterer and ask them to create a lovely epicurean presentation. Make a homemade whipping cream with a splash of bourbon, vanilla extract and cinnamon to top a bakery-purchased pie. Buy a flowering plant, and place it in antique cache pots. You get the picture. If someone else can do it better, or even make things a little bit easier for you, for heaven’s sake, take advantage of that!

Let your caterer and bartender worry about creating the perfect seasonal cocktail, and you focus on the finishing touches—the silver tray, the cute straws and edible flowers.

A Lot Goes a Long Way

You can never go wrong with simple elements used with enthusiastic abundance and heavy-handed repetition. That rings true for food, flowers, alcohol, candlelight and hospitality.

If you love bold colors and a nature-themed motif, take them all the way! Host an alfresco gathering complete with natural elements in your favorite bright hues.

Focus on WHY You Entertain

Celebrate for the hell of it. Life is short. There are plenty of things in this world to worry about, but a dinner party shouldn’t be one of them. Invite friends over on the spur of the moment and for no reason at all, pick up your favorite takeout and serve it in your finest china with grand linens and great champagne. Focus on why you entertain, not what you serve. Putting away the cell phones and truly connecting is the greatest joy in the world.

favorite china and silver, pretty linens, pots from the garden and vegetables stuffed into a silver cup. Easy!

Respect Your Budget

You can’t eat the flowers. Yes, they’re pretty, but when budget is a concern—and really it is for everyone, so it’s okay to admit it!—go for what is simple, seasonal and easily obtained. And put your dollars where it counts: the food and wine.

Danielle allows friends to help her style her party, which lightens her load. She utilizes her creativity what she has on hand to create a beautiful tablescape that is an expression of her personality.

Embrace Your Inner Party Stylist

When you entertain, it is a personal expression of you, not the caterer you hire. It’s OK to direct the look and feel of your party to make things feel like they reflect your own personality and the style of your house. Give yourself permission to be the expert!

Danielle Rollins images: © SOIRÉE: Entertaining with Style by Danielle Rollins, Rizzoli New York, 2012.

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Jane Scott Hodges

Founder of couture linen company Leontine Linens, Jane Scott Hodges, signs her new book, Linens: For Every Room and Occasion, which details how to incorporate gorgeous linens into everyday life.

China, Redefined

I’ve never understood why we register for china at our wedding and then never consider it again. I have a collection of multiple patterns and styles in a multitude of color palettes. It’s amazing how well they mix and match, giving me endless opportunities to create a unique setting every time. Nothing demonstrates your sophistication as a hostess as much as richly layered colors on the table. The china and linen become playful companions.

Let your inner artist take center stage. Be fearless as you mix and match elements of your tablescape!

Become a Cocktail Napkin Collector

Linen cocktail napkins are a quick and easy way to add a thoughtful touch, and they are so collectible! After all, they are not meant to match a china pattern or wallpaper – they can be any color and style you wish. I have drawers-full at my bar and use them for all events, big and small. Mixing monograms, colors and patterns for any one event makes your gathering feel a little less prescribed and more at ease.

Don't be afraid to mix cocktail napkins, using different colors and patterns. This is a great way for guests to keep track of their drinks!

A Personal Touch

Place cards add a personal touch and can be used in formal or casual settings. I keep beautifully embellished blank ones on hand, making it easy to quickly add that special touch to the table.

This elegant peacock place card is the perfect touch for a ladies' luncheon.

Powder Room Hospitality

The powder room is the perfect place to add your own decorative touches. I always stack a variety of linen and terry towel options to make my guests feel right at home.

Don't be afraid to mix colors in new ways. This playful combination of colors is striking and gives one the feeling that this is a happy space!

Novelty with Napkin Rings

Napkin rings are a fun way to add another dimension to your linens and table settings. I have a variety, from silver to acrylic and even rope for more casual outdoor settings.

This rustic napkin ring of rope adds an element of handmade charm.

Jane Scott Hodges images: Sara Essex Bradley, Paul Costello and Joseph Rey Au

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James Farmer

Tastemaker James Farmer is author of six books, including his most recent ode to Southern garden-to-table style, Dinner on the Grounds: Southern Suppers and Soirees.

First and Last Impressions

I love to make a statement at the door—a garland, a wreath, a basket filled with greenery on the door or an entry sideboard table laden with a big arrangement. This is the first and last impression your guests have of your home, so make it fab!

Choose seasonal door decor that really speaks to you and celebrates the season.

Mantels Aren’t Just for Christmas!

I love having fresh flowers on my mantel. I keep a classic trio of an oil painting and two blue and white jars as my permanent fixtures, but for a party, I fill a container with flowers and even let some greenery or a garland droop along the mantelpiece. It’s romantic and unexpected, which is always fun!

A garland of lemon leaf and 'Mint Ice' Cymbidium Orchids is draped along the mantel. Roses, orchids and hydrangeas fill the vessels with flowers and aroma.

Powder Your Nose

Everyone will use the powder room at some point during the party. Don’t forget to have a pleasing arrangement in there!

A simple potted fern and a few lemons are an elegant grouping that echoes a turn-of the-century still-life painting.

Let’s Table This Topic

If you’re using your dining room table as a buffet, then let the food be the centerpiece! We eat with our eyes first, so sometimes spreads and collections of fruit and simple greenery are just as spectacular as flowers. If you’re sitting at the table for a dinner party, then a collection of small arrangements dotting the table and intermixed with votives is perfect! Everyone can see over these smaller bouquets—think julep cups, rose bowls, mason jars. Plus, everyone looks better in candlelight!

This elegant china paired with rustic, woodsy elements is perfect for fall.

Always Have a Wingman! 

Whether it’s your spouse or BFF or the head caterer, always designate someone to be your wingman—your aide de camp—to fix you a drink, to check in with guests if you’re busy, or to make sure there are towels in the powder room. This is the person you can trust to be that much-needed extra set of hands, allowing you to enjoy the party that much more knowing you’ve got a wingman!

James has a pint-sized cutie for a wingman at this gathering of hunters and farmers.

James Farmer images: Kristen Scott, Emily Followill and Maggie Yelton

Now, call all your besties and ask your hubby to order takeout from your favorite restaurant. Break out the china, dust off that tablecloth that you love but never use, grab a beauteous bunch of veggies for a creative centerpiece and have fun! Then light the candles, turn on the music and get ready for an evening of sharing stories and laughter with your favorite people in the world.

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Meet the tastemakers! Danielle Rollins, Jane Scott Hodges and James Farmer will be at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Antiques at the Gardens annual event on Saturday, October 3. They will each speak, followed by a book signing and reception at the IBERIABANK presents Taste in Spades lecture series.