Treating outdoors space as a natural extension of your home is the new way of entertaining alfresco.
Glamour in the garden
For Rima Dardenne, the Dubai interior decorator behind the glamour of many special events at Burj Al Arab, Madinat Jumeirah and Grosvenor House, and the founder of the store Irony Home, the most glamorous entertaining accessory of all is not one you can buy: her best parties are all about the sky.
"At the first chance I take absolutely everything outside," she says. "It's so fantastic to socialise under the stars: I think of outdoors as just another room - which makes the possibilities for outdoor parties endless - it's glamorous, yet casual and comfortable." Regarding outdoor space as another room - a natural extension of your home and its style - defines the new way of entertaining al fresco. It's a great way to add glamour and spice to an event - and the introduction of nature enables you to mix formal with informal, quaint with smart, old with new - knowing that somewhere in between the sky and the pool, it all comes together. With our climate we are, of course, lucky to be able to do this for five months of the year.
Entertaining outdoors is also an opportunity to imbue any occasion, from business dinner to family supper, with an instantly relaxed feel: as Dardenne says, the assumed informality of the outdoors is one of its biggest virtues when entertaining. Julia Dempster, the managing director of the Dubai-based interior design firm Interior Motives, moves her evening parties (and lunches and breakfasts) outdoors at her villa on Palm Jumeirah as much as possible, as soon as she can: "We have guests staying constantly and friends over most weekends - it's such a luxury to spend evenings eating outside, near the pool, in reliably lovely weather."
Alfresco entertaining is hardly a new idea - but for more memorable parties, it's time to move beyond the barbecue. Low-slung, close-to-the-floor-lounging style has been popping up at beach clubs from Amsterdam to Tulum for a few years now: think of canopied lounging areas, modular chaise-longues, and endless cushions, with a Miami-meets-Morocco feel. It's now finding its way into fashion-hungry homes everywhere, bringing with it that established essential for any hip hotel's poolside - the daybed. Dempster has a Gandia Blasco four-poster daybed by her 18-metre infinity pool, while Dardenne has a teak affair on her deck.
The daybed's lounge-y look and feel can easily be approximated with a few huge cushions strewn across the floor, on top of or around a rug. Big bean bags look as fun as they feel - buy children's ones, which are often adult-sized, or hire the oversized ones for a special event. Entertaining in the great outdoors does not obviate the need for prettiness; it wholeheartedly embraces and enhances it. All the details usually vital for an indoor affair are just as important outside, points out Dardenne. This detail-heavy style is worlds away from the simple barbecue and standard plastic patio furniture of old (which may not be dreadful but is not exactly the coalface of chic).
Given the backdrop of the colours of the natural environment, an outdoor party is a great excuse for bold shades. Dempster has orange lanterns from Gandia Blasco around the terrace and on the dining table - a stylish contrast with her serenely white pool and its pale blue water. Indian dress materials are a great way to transform any outdoor space - once given a hem, vivid sari silks work perfectly thrown over a large surface, from a sofa to a table. And if you have only a balcony, don't fret: fairy lights strung around it, sari material pinned to the wall or draped over the railing, votive candles at floor level or on tables - all will impart a magical effect.
Lighting, lighting, lighting is the buzzword for chic entertaining outside - it's what lifts a soirée into something more special. Dardenne raves about Ikea's simplest tealights, buying heaps and dotting them about every surface - "I'm not talking 20, 30 - I have absolutely heaps of them," she says. In her large pool she places floating candles to flicker away for as long as the guests are there, creating a dramatic after-dark focal point.
Morocco remains a great source for beautiful and interesting home accessories: the charms of hammered, antique-effect cutwork metal are many (and nothing else gives candlelight such a pretty edge). One new way of displaying Moroccan lanterns (seen in the North African-inspired courtyard of Hotel Costes in Paris) is to fearlessly group lanterns together - large, small and in-between, magnifying the reflections of the candlelight on their glass.
Could Oriental lanterns be the next frontier in outdoor lighting? The featherweight materials of Chinese and Vietnamese silk and paper lanterns, combined with their poppy colours, are dreamily sweet. Clash two or three colours, and shapes (anything from teardrop to the classic "squashed teapot" style). Like tealights, they work best as an army, rather than a sparse few - so think big and buy extra.
Marie-Inez Botha, an interior designer at Etcetera Living in Dubai, who catches "every and any opportunity" to entertain outside, is another bulk-buyer of tealights (for "huge" floor lanterns and for smaller lanterns hanging from trees) - and strings LED fairy lights in as many corners as possible. For Dempster, lighting is "the key feature" - from simple candles to cutting-edge internally lit pieces, such as her four large illuminated pots from Desert River along the steps (which, in turn, have blue LEDs built in). She adds plenty of outdoor lights from Flos - from subtle low-level lighting and an oversized floor lamp to hanging pendant lights over her covered seating area. There's also an illuminated bar and drinks chiller which, she says, provide drama and a great talking point. She places tealights in lanterns throughout her sunken seating area too, and pushes them between pebbles along the paths between the house and pool.
If you have a parasol near your dining table, a tip from Martha Stewart is to hang a selection of tealight and votive holders from the spokes of the umbrella with ribbons and S-hooks, hanging them at different lengths to create a sense of movement. The temptation to reduce food and drink served outdoors to a simple barbecue need not necessarily be resisted - the key lies in the styling and presentation, not the complexity of the menu. However, for Botha, food is all about colour: she collects all kinds of serving plates and dishes in whites and greys, mixing and matching them as a background to a chosen colour scheme executed through the food. "Outdoor food should be easy to carry, present and dish out," she says.
And who doesn't prefer casual, informal, dining - whether it's a buffet to the side, or, as Dardenne does, food arranged in the centre of the table from which guests help themselves? Stick to one large table wherever possible; don't divide the party up unless you want to make a feature of different areas with different functions - for instance, poolside, shade, eating area and a play area for children. Consider using charger plates - try gold or silver-detailed ones for swift and retro-themed glamour - so that guests can more easily walk with their supper and balance plates on their laps.
Cut flowers somehow seem extra-special when used outside. Dardenne piles fresh blossoms into a low vase or creates a tabletop centrepiece from seasonal plants and flowers ("remember to keep it beneath shoulder height so that guests can talk with ease"). If you're entertaining in the afternoon, create an arrangement that you can surround with votive candles as darkness falls. Botha always has a big bowl of floating candles in the centre of the table, surrounded by fresh flowers, petals or leaves and lots more candles.
There's something about the outdoors that inspires a dreaminess not found indoors. And since when was the temperature a problem? On cooler evenings both Julia Dempster and Marie-Inez Botha swear by their outdoor fires for a decadent and fearlessly glamorous touch - so much more a feature than just a function, they perfectly sum up the elegant fun of the new outdoor entertaining.