Macabre met sophisticated when we asked our experts to bewitch us with ideas for a luxurious, adults-only All Hallow's Eve soiree. Our team's winning solution: a Museum District party that combined a ghoulish menu, a befitting backdrop and a funky floral decor.
Our party "coven" included event planner Susan Eckis, floral designer Al Brockwell, owner of FloraCulture; food stylist Tanya Cauthen; and interior designer Kat Leibschwager, who with her husband, Mike, owns the new Libbie-and-Grove-area home-furnishing store Ruth & Ollie. This wickedly good foursome put the devil in the details: a Poisoned Apple Martini, black dining room walls and a nail-studded Bartlett pear. Their focus was on a fiendishly clever urbane fête, with nary a candy corn or jack-o-lantern in sight.
For this party's backdrop, the walls of Leibschwager's dining room were already painted black. "My personal aesthetic is eclectic — a mix of modern and traditional. I'm not afraid to take risks, which is why I have a black dining room," says Leibschwager.
Against the walls, inspired by designer David Hicks who was known for using dark, lacquered walls, Leibschwager added a custom-made red velvet settee to go with the black chairs that surround the rectangular table. "It was made in Roanoke and isn't as deep as normal. I wanted it to fit like a regular chair," she explains of the striking piece that seats two people.
Facing the settee is an art deco-meets-gothic dream, an ebony buffet with doors decorated with web-like fretwork. "I bought the buffet from West End Antiques Mall and painted it black," Leibschwager continues. Other one-of-a-kind finds like this complement the room — an eye-catching Diane Clement oil painting titled "Blue Moon" (borrowed from Ruth & Ollie) that sits above the fireplace mantel, as well as a modern version of a traditional tiered chandelier. Suspended above the dining room table is a 4-foot chrome rod dripping with more than 100 crystals dangling on nearly invisible wire threads.
Unleashing the Unexpected
The elongated chandelier spotlighted some of Brockwell's floral artistry. It wasn't hard for Brockwell to find inspiration for his creative accents to this spooky, upscale party. "I was going for a haunted hotel feel. The first thing I saw was the gnarly roots of some of the vegetables like the leeks. I then thought of orchids, and of purple and red, which are two of my favorite colors."
Brockwell is known for arrangements that incorporate unexpected materials. "Sometimes, I'll just walk down a path or an alley and I see something – usually an object or a certain texture – and the arrangement just evolves from there." Rose hips become disembodied eyeballs in the mantel vignette. The centerpiece uses artichokes, sage, turnips, papas grass, purple calla lilies and cock's comb that closely resembles a human brain. They all come together in a druid's flora fantasy, rounded out with Hocus Pocus tea roses, blood-red beauties streaked with white.
The nail-studded pear that graces Liebschwager's 1920s buffet is typical of Brockwell's design process. "I was in the workroom and I had a pear leftover from the larger arrangements. There happened to be a nail on the floor, so I went to my toolbox and got some more. It's just a good example of how you can get a positive effect with very little product, and you can do something creative within a budget."
Feeding the Beasts
The twisted roots in the edible floral arrangements created by Brockwell were complemented by the truly twisted menu concocted by Eckis, who had orchestrated numerous events in Washington D.C., before moving to Richmond in 1990. Devising menus is her specialty, and she put her darkest thoughts to work when planning fare for the Liebschwagers. "The visual aspects of the food inspired me," says Eckis, who also teaches cooking classes at KDW Home at Staples Mill Road and Glenside Drive. "The tentacles on the calamari, for example. Roasted ribs became a pile of bones in my mind," she adds. The fire-roasted quails were inspired by "alla diavola" cuisine served in Italy, which means spicy, or literally "of the devil."
"I was thinking of seasonal, earthy foods. Seeds came to mind and evolved into the ancient grains. Anything with rice or grain is good for a party like this because it will hold its heat. I thought of spores and that took me to mushrooms, which I included with the quails. Noir means ‘black', so I played around with a Pinot Noir sauce for the dish.
"For dessert, I was going for dark flavors punctuated by some acidy contrast. And I thought the cherries would look like bloody chunks", she notes with a smile. Her answer: Heart of Darkness individual molten chocolate cakes served with cherry sauce.
Eckis was sure to include spirits in her menu and conceived a scary presentation for the vodka bottle used for the Poison Apple Martinis. She used an old caterer's trick and designed an ice coffin filled with plastic spiders and a too-real looking snake to chill the bottle. Thinking of absolutely everything, Eckis found the perfect wine, a Vampire Pinot Noir from Transylvania (of course), from The Country Vintner.
"The beauty of these recipes is that they are all short. And they are meant to be served at room temperature," Eckis notes. Ever the practical entertainer, she knows that the key to pulling off a successful, albeit sinister, soiree is being able to do the decorating and cooking ahead of time.
After all, Kat Liebschwager needed plenty of time to transform herself from hip interior designer to the perfect hostess from hell.