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How to Create a White-Hot Table Setting for French-Inspired Picnic ‘Diner en Blanc’

Paris, 1988. When François Pasquier returned to the city after a stint abroad, he invited a handful of friends to Bois de Boulogne for a picnic. When a handful turned into a horde, guests conspired to dress in head-to-toe white so they could spot each other among the conifers.

“I’m wearing X, let’s meet up near Y” — remember that old line from the pre-cell phone days? Twenty-five years later, that chic pique-nique is now being replicated in cities around the world, as Dîner en Blanc. There are a few tweet-friendly ways to sum it up — “pop-up picnic,” “culinary flash mob” — but basically Dîner en Blanc is an outdoor dinner party hosting anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people dressed in all white in a beautiful public space.

Locations have included Lincoln Center in New York, the JFK Bridge in Philly, and the Louvre in Paris. Each couple brings their own food, drink, table, chairs, (non-disposable!) place settings and other dinner accessories. Picnic baskets are highly recommended. Live music is decanted under the stars (or skyscrapers), and white napkins are waved at the start of the meal. At the end of the evening, guests stow their belongings and take their trash with them.

Also, the location is kept secret until the moment of arrival; guests only know to convene at a certain meeting point. The entrance fee, paid in advance, comes out to about $30 per person. Attendance is by invitation only, and the waitlists are formidable.

We were honored to be invited to San Diego’s Dîner en Blanc, happening (who knows where?! But we have our suspicions…) on Thursday, September 19.

We’ve also been asked to provide some design inspiration for the event’s table settings.

Because…

There will be a Best Centerpiece of the Night competition. And we’ll be judge of that! The guests who win will receive entrance for themselves and another couple to next year’s DEB for free.

And…

We will also be giving away a centerpiece that we designed and built! Expect it to embody the modern “garden-surplus” design aesthetic of Horticult co-editor (and better half) Ryan Benoit. You can find a few of his previous designs here, here and here, to get a sense of what we’re working on.

Registration ends tomorrow, September 14. For some monochromatic inspiration, plant ideas, and details on how to win, read on…

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1. LINENS (AND THINGS): Your tabletop will be inventive enough, so consider keeping your linens simple. (They’re supposed to be all white anyway.) Find your cloth napkins and tablecloth at a party supply store, Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s. If you’d rather buy than rent your picnic furniture, Ikea’s Härö collection includes white folding chairs ($14.99) and tables ($24.99).

2. PLATES: You don’t dine out with 2,000 strangers every day. Choose some dinnerware with flair, why don’t ya — like these plates and platters from Anthropologie, pictured above ($10-$38). We love the subtlety of its white-on-white fleur de lys pattern.

We’re also sweating these kidney-shaped plates and servers by Alessi ($10.50-$38):

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A midcentury-flavored table setting by cerebral Italian brand Alessi.

3. UTENSILS: In our minds at least, this dinner will be set in a fairytale woodland dreamscape under the stars. That’s why we’re so charmed by this “Twig” collection of utensils from World Market. The right mix of rustic and understated, each utensil is sold in a set of four (on sale for $12.76), so you could go halfsies with another couple.

4. GLASSWARE: For wine, go ahead and bring a goblet — it’s a feast, after all! The combination of the flickering candles and faceted wineglasses (like these Godigers on sale for $35.99 at Kohl’s for a set of four) will make your table sparkle like an ice sculpture on the Champs-Élysées.

5. VEG/MEAT/CHEESE BOARDS: Crudités will pop against any pristine cheeseboard, like these white marble ones from Park Hill Collections ($45-$55 at Horchow). The handles make it easy to share, which happened a lot last year; we hear even a fresh-caught uni made the rounds.

6. WINE TIME: On a table that’s limited to 30” by 30” max, an ice bucket will take up valuable real estate. A close friend recently gave us this ingenious Corkcicle, which you freeze beforehand and stick straight in your bottle of wine to keep its temps under control.

7. COFFEE SERVICE: If you’re drinking coffee or serving a scoop of ice cream (or are just a pinot-gris-in-the-old-teacup type, after our own hearts), your china cups should reflect your personality. Maybe that entails some Delft from the attic, a chipped estate sale find or this teacup by Blaue Blume ($59 at Supermarket), which, alas, doesn’t ship promptly, but serves as a powerful inspiration point.

8.  FLOWERS: Dahlias, yarrow, cosmos, gerbera daisies, chrysanthemums, Asiatic lilies, gomphrena, tuberose, garden roses and hydrangea, which can all grow in white, are in season right now to varying degrees. White lavender is wonderful. And so are phalaenopsis orchids. If the cilantro in your herb garden has bolted (i.e. flowered, as ours has), the teensy, cloudy blooms will work too. Plus, you can use it as a garnish on your meal!

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Our cilantro plant is currently in bloom.

Are you a succulent lover? Species of Mammilaria cacti are known for being covered in a dense white “wool,” as is our old man cactus, Cephalocereus senilis. Plant a few in a terrarium with the white sand, twigs and/or stones from Pigment’s “Plant Lab” to create a tabletop desert.

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Old man cactus.

Also, do not shrink away from baby’s breath! One thing we learned last spring from famed NYC florist Bella Meyer is that the once-maligned filler can shine as its own medium. Remember when she doubled down and put it in the hand of a moss angel?

Bella Meyer's Art Alive Rotunda installation

9. VASES: The bud vases sold at Vitreum in Little Italy will make any low-slung arrangement a work of art. This “Pond” style ($15) equals instant serenity. Dadaists can bring the whimsy by picking up a Jonathan Adler banana bud vase ($48) from Nordstrom.

If you’re working on a tall arrangement, note that handblown Eiffel tower vases are sold locally ($2.99-$7.50) at Wholesale Flowers & Supplies in Old Town, and it’s open to the public with no minimum purchase.

 

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If you’re adding feathers to the mix, we found two online sources that sell cruelty-free ostrich and cruelty-free peacock feathers.

10. LIGHTING: Finally, don’t forget to light these babies up! We’re picking our favorite table setting of the night — and our eyes aren’t what they used to be — so make sure it can be seen from outer space. If you’re feeling spendy, this Fornasetti “Bacio” lidded candle ($215) from Barneys will add a cheeky note.

Meanwhile at West Elm, these blown mercury glass candleholders ($5) are romantic and accessibly priced.

If you’re not in the mood to play with fire, one of our favorite home shops in the area, Progress, sells these battery-operated LED Woodland Nightlights (about $10) that nestle nicely on a table. Who cares if they’re for kids? Either way, it’s playtime.

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Who said Woodland Nightlights are just for the nursery? With the right styling, these will glow lovingly against your bouillabaisse.

If you want to win a centerpiece built by The Horticult, keep an eye on the Facebook page for Dîner en Blanc San Diego. Next week we’ll post a garden/design-themed question, and one lucky, correct respondent will win! Bonne chance.

—TH

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