Rusty Thomas on the Elements of Style [INTERVIEW]
Rusty Thomas is a man of taste and style whose accomplishments in event design continue to elicit the admiration of his peers. Rusty earned his reputation in the most fashionable circles in Manhattan working with giants in event designs, flowers and fashion. Ultimately it was the pastoral beauty of the countryside and our gardens that charmed Rusty into making Bucks County his home. Since moving here Rusty has designed many elegant events such as the Gala honoring Grace Kelly at the Michener Museum that was attended by Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco. Recently we spoke with Rusty Thomas about his career, about the current state of event design,and about the timeless elements of style and grace that make for a successful party.
Tell us about your background. You are not a Bucks County native?
No. I was working in New York for European couture designers Valentino, Armani, and Courreges during the birth of fashion product licensing in the late 70’s. Other than being a regular at Studio 54 and going to every party I could at the time, it wasn’t until ’87 that I created my first party for the Annual Trustees Dinner of the Museum of Modern Art–an American southwestern theme. It was a huge success and quite a coup for me but I could sense the possibilities of where failures could occur after that real-time experience. Shortly after that experience I did a part time stint for two of New York’s biggest designers: Philip Baloun, and Robert Isabel (the KING of New York flowers and events at that time), who taught me about scale, before ending up at Renny at The Hotel Carlyle.
He was the only event designer (a new term at that time) who had retail shops and when he offered me his boutique shop at The Carlyle; I couldn’t resist. I was in charge of the entire hotel, the public spaces, guest suites, and parties. It was magical every day at The Carlyle. All of that history. Where ladies were ladies and gentlemen were gentlemen. In ’91 I left the hotel to go out on my own with Rusty Thomas Event Designs, after receiving the commission to design the 18 official events surrounding the ’92 Democratic Convention as well as the Congressional Lounges and overall color schemes at Madison Square Garden–over a 4-day period. It was intense!
How did you pick that one up?
Through friends on the site-selection committee and Mayor Dinkins. During the official welcoming party at the top of Rockefeller Center, Mayor Dinkins introduced me to DNC Chairman Ron Brown and I took the opportunity to ask him for the commission. He laughed, shook my hand, and six months later he personally called to offer me the job. After he passed in that plane crash, his wife Wilma wrote to me recalling that meeting. A handshake and that he honored it. Incredible.
What are the keys to throwing a fabulous party?
Relax, it’s a party. If you hire professionals you’ve vetted and trust and believe in carrying out your vision and timeline then you are ready for any contingency. If a hurricane happens to blows through on the day of, make sure you have plenty of candles, great cuisine, and patience. Just enjoy yourself and be a great host on the day no matter what.
If you could go to a dinner party with a celebrity or historical person, who would that be?
There are many historical people who interest me but for true old time Hollywood glamour, I’d have to say Gena Rowlands. I’ve always wanted to meet her. One of the things that appealed to me about her was not only her glamour in the early years but the fact that she was married to John Cassavetes and I thought he was brilliant. I remember seeing a movie they did together; it was The Tempest They were on Greek islands going from island to island. It was so brilliantly directed and I didn’t realize until then that they were a husband and wife team.
What is it about Gena Rowlands? Is it her artistic sensibility?
Yes, indeed. I was fascinated with the way that she looked along with her self-confidence. She did a film several years ago with Robert Duvall and Julia Roberts called “Something to Talk About,” and it took place on a horse farm in South Carolina. Her elegant character and demeanor reminded me of the ladies of the South, where I grew up. But being elegant and a lady doesn’t mean just being a stereotype–those ladies were strong and independent as well.
That’s a certain type of graciousness that’s just not that common anymore.
I experienced the last vestiges of that era at The Carlyle. There were great women such as Brooke Astor, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Julie Andrews, Olivia de Haviland, Jacqueline Onassis, Nancy Reagan, and on and on. That was different than Hollywood glamour and also, it was different than the Southern lady I grew up knowing but they all had the same qualities in common.
-Could I imagine a dinner with Gena Rowlands? You bet.
Tell me some more about that dinner….
Martinis at her house in the Hollywood Hills, Just she and I talking about the old Hollywood glamour days. Vanity Fair devotes an entire issue every year on the Academy Awards and one year they had the legends still with us. I’ll never forget a full black and white page of her sitting in a beautiful suit, her legs crossed at the ankles, and that gorgeous mane of blond hair, with a few leading men of her era standing around her. She liked strong men and they gravitated towards her, not just because she was beautiful but also for her intelligence and independence. So an evening over dinner with her suits me perfectly.
How long have you been in Bucks County?
I’ve been coming out here since ’84. I’ve been living here permanently….(thinking) when did I move here from Tribeca? 1997.
What was it about this area that attracted you?
I’m curious what was the most elegant event you ever participated in?
(Pausing) That’ s a hard one….
I’m thinking it was the imaginary dinner with Gena Rowlands…
But that’s imaginary (laughing). I’m thinking one of the Newhouse parties with Max Hansen Catering. The lime green carpeted luncheon that was my modern pop art design, or the tangerine carpeted Tuscan design over the pool. Pictured above is the magnificent Levy wedding and pictured below is the Rorer wedding at the Merion Golf Club where I took a nasty old dirty permanent tent at the Merion Golf Club and lined the ceiling in about 4000 yards of pink fabric and lighted it between the tent and fabric. Everyone looked so beautiful in that lighting. That was a beautiful wedding.
That brings me to the next question: what was the coolest event?
Hands-down a second marriage for both. Those are the most fun. This one came with a 6-figure budget and a nearly impossible a 5-week timeline. YIKES! Conan O’Brien’s orchestra, safari reception/dinner, 350 guests, for an all day affair including a separate venue for kids. They rocked it out and like all great parties, no guest wanted for anything.
What are some of the biggest mistakes that people make when planning a big event?
Over-planning and yet they don’t plan for weather. We have weather here. This is not Southern California. Everybody wants an outdoor garden wedding. No matter what your budget is, we have weather in the Northeast, so plan for it.
What is your favorite wedding trend or design trend for this year? I don’t do trends. Whatever my client wants, any time of year, is what they will get.
Do you have a favorite flower?
I love all of them but I am partial to lily of the valley and fragrant roses.
If you could throw an event/wedding anywhere in the world what would be your dream destination?
The Academy Awards Vanity Fair Party, or something in a desolate, pristine place like Patagonia, or Iceland.
What are your favorite local / regional wedding venues?
A tent anywhere with Max Hansen and Rita..
Because it is a blank canvas?
Exactly, and also so many brides think of Bucks County, and why shouldn’t they dream of an idyllic country wedding in a barn and garden? However,in reality those are so rare. This is where Bucks County becomes difficult as a destination wedding. It’s almost “too historic” in that sense.
Serving alcohol to guests before a ceremony? Yea or Nay?
Depends….”Yea” as long as they behave. But we know ahead of time what that means. People toss a lot of money at events, sometimes at the last minute for the sake of their children and their friends to have a great time. And why not, but we pay attention and must call it at all times for what it is and In that case, all of our vendors from the valet parking to every other sector of service are on full alert. We are not there to judge, but on the flip-side We are there to serve and to protect the clients and their guests—and ourselves.
What are most extreme or unusual requests you’ve gotten from brides?
To do their own flowers. I think that is the oddest thing to be asked and it has happened several times. Why would a bride want to add that kind of stress to her special day, or to her friends?
What is the difference between a NY wedding and Bucks County wedding?
Money. Stress. Delivery. Breakdown. Servicing a NY wedding is really difficult. I’ve always offered the father of the bride a successful strategy on the day-of, ” I need a fistful of $100 bills” “Why?” they ask. “Because if FedEx is in the service elevator and I need it, I’m going to be throwing money at people.” The most experienced of hosts understands and appreciates that on such an important day.
Any words of wisdom for young event planners or designers who are just breaking into the business?
We are in the service industry. Never forget that housekeepers, property managers, etc. are there for the same result. Treat them with the utmost respect. They will end up making your life easier. Never forget that you are not a peer of your clients. The best party planner expediter is sitting right there at that desk (pointing to Max Hansen Caterer’s own Rita Gekht) I’m serious. That’s something I want you to put in here. I’ve actually said it in print before but I want this blog visitor to know that I’ve had the privilege of working around the country with many party planners and catering “expeditors” and none of them has what she has in terms of understanding how an event works and if some sort of hiccup happens (and it can and will) of how to handle it. And yes, sometimes irritatingly so. (laughing out loud) but I always feel better when I know Rita is on the premises.
Thank you Rusty!
John Armich, photographer- AD Wedding Photos
Courtney Winston, photographer – Courtney Grant Winston Photography
David Campli, photographer- Campli Photography
Kevin York, photographer- Kevin York Photography
Brian Toner, lighting- Eventions