summer parties with rachel ashwell holding flowers

Summer is one of the best times of year to entertain. During this season, life slows down a bit, providing plenty of time for planning an unforgettable celebration – as well the right atmosphere for hosting one.

“There’s something a bit more gentle about a summer situation,” says Rachel Ashwell, founder of the celebrated Shabby Chic® design style and couture brand. “Being outside, near a garden, on a balcony…it lends itself to interacting and catching up on the year’s events.”

There’s a relaxed sort of elegance to summer gatherings that also allows for a bit more whimsy and possibility when decorating and entertaining guests. Being outdoors allows for nature to set the stage blossoming trees and colorful blooms.

As the proud caretaker of a lush rose garden at her Santa Monica home, Ashwell says her favorite summer parties have always been held outdoors. “I like to let the roses and flowers be the star of the show.”

Details make the day

Ashwell has a few signature elements she often likes to include when entertaining: “I use scraps of fabric for bunting, which is an affordable way of creating a great decorative element.” The British-born Ashwell points out this décor tradition began in England after World War II, when citizens took to displaying small Union Jacks strung across long pieces of twine and hung like banners. Bunting was just about anywhere a string could be affixed and it became an informal and quintessentially English way to dress up an event.

For me, parties are all about intimacy, and hosting is all about the simplicity of making a space that supports people connecting.”

Rachel Ashwell

For themed parties, Ashwell suggests tying the bunting style to the concept. A white garden party may call for a uniquely textured white fabric; for a traditional garden party, a specific floral fabric that complements your yard’s live blooms might be more appropriate. Ashwell also is a fan of décor that combines charm and utility. “Placing parasols in the garden is a very summery party element,” she says. “You could attach flowers, or even fairy lights, to make it actually useful in the evening.”

Setting a summer table

Though a lifetime admirer and collector of vintage china, Ashwell says one of her favorite elements of a hosting an outdoor summer party is the option of using paper plates, customized in an inspired manner. “You can really make a white plate come to life by personalizing it. Decorate them beforehand using an embosser, or buy them already embossed with an icon, maybe a certain flower, or a person’s name — or even have the plates custom made.”

summer parties with vases of flowers on a table

Blending formal and informal design elements is a Shabby Chic® trademark, which, in this case, Ashwell says can be applied to choosing the rest of your table settings. “I also like to layer in things that have more substance, so I prefer cloth napkins. They could be floral, or little plaids, not always just solids.”

Keep your theme and palette in mind when choosing items for your table, such as beverage bottles and any packaging. “I try and keep everything that’s in view aesthetically pleasing, so I’m also mindful of the attractiveness of the bottles of wine, water, and drinks, as there are really pretty drinks out there these days.”

Keep things cool, light, and lively

Above all, Ashwell believes that a great party gives guests room to communicate and engage with one another.

“Sometimes you go to a party and can’t see people, or you can’t really talk to them,” she says. “For me, parties are all about intimacy, and hosting is all about the simplicity of making a space that supports people connecting. So I make sure to remain mindful of practicality, not just aesthetics.”

To her, the idea is to plan an outdoor celebration by working with your environment and making the most of what nature has to offer. That means building shaded spaces in your layout and keeping an air-conditioned indoor room near the action for folks who need a breather.

Ashwell’s mantra of beauty, comfort, and function begins with seating and surfaces: Having a round table at a party tends to make it easier for guests to communicate with one another, and using low floral displays on the table allows for better eye contact.

summer parties with a memory board at a family reunion

At an outdoor summer party, don’t be afraid to encourage little playful moments that make people feel at ease. “I personally have a massive collection of vintage floral hats, and I always have baskets of those for my guests to wear. It’s not quite dress-up, just something nice and festive, and it makes for great photos,” Ashwell says. “People can often be inhibited about ‘Smile for the camera!’ and this can loosen the atmosphere a bit.”

A reunion to remember

Summer is also prime season for class or family reunions, celebrations that are about collectively experiencing the past, in the present. To aid in this process, Ashwell suggests assembling a “visual memory lane, or a little exhibit of what your reunion is about that represents your shared memories.” Try building multiple memory boards on eye-level easels that feature photos and items from the past, and suggest on your invitations that guests bring their related materials to post. This, Ashwell says, sets the scene for “an interactive ‘Oh my, you still have that?!’ type of scenario.”

Let the fun in the sun commence

At day’s end, Ashwell finds the key to hosting a party that entertains and satisfies is creating an environment that brings people together to recount shared memories while inspiring moments that create new ones.

She says, “I’m all about the meaning of gatherings. So anything you can arrange that jogs memories, causes reflections or communication, enables meaningful conversations, makes a much more successful party than some major, fancy situation with loud music and so much space that you don’t get to see anybody.”


A former arts & culture writer for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's Pulitzer-winning Patriot News, Jonathan Rowe is a New York-based editorialist and cover writer for SPIN, Men's Fitness and WONDERLUST travel. He has crafted original content and news for Sony Music, Live Nation, Spotify and ESPN and works as a songwriter in conjunction with multiple Grammy winners.

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