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Q & A with Bryan Rafanelli

Event designer and party planner Bryan Rafanelli has had an amazing career putting together unique, high-profile experiences for everyone from the Obamas to the AIDS Action Committee (AAC). And of course, he was the official wedding planner for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. But he is also someone with a great love for Provincetown, something that began in childhood and extends to today. As many of us are planning parties of our own this holiday season, Rafanelli took a few moments to answer some questions about his career, working with large-scale events, and what makes the best parties.

Provincetown Magazine: How did you first become involved with the event planning business?

Bryan Rafanelli: Following the loss of a close friend to AIDS, I was motivated to volunteer with the AAC’s events committee. It was here that I discovered my knack for events and found my true calling. Serving as chair of the events committee, I learned about the world of fundraising and galas, orchestrating six or eight events a year. In 1993 I decided to start my own company – with the AIDS Action Committee as my first client. 

PM: Can you give an example of an event or party you were involved with where you made a big mistake that you learned from?

BR: I find one of the more daunting challenges in event planning is vague directions. However, I do my best to extensively prepare and avoid any major setbacks. I put this into practice with the first state dinner I designed with Mrs. Obama. The event was in honor of Hu Jintao, the president of China in 2011. As the planning began, I received a one-page briefing from the White House with a list of President Hu’s known likes and dislikes. I would get one of these before each state dinner, listing color preferences, food likes or dislikes, and preferred entertainers. But that was about it for direction. So I went out and found a book called Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, and that became my bible. I carried it with me to meetings. I presented fabric designs and color choices—and turned oranges into centerpieces because of what I learned from that book. The preliminary planning stages of planning are massively important. Familiarizing myself with a client’s cultural background certainly helps avert any potential blunders.

PM: What was it like working with Michelle Obama on events?

BR: Designing parties for the Obama White House was a very special opportunity. As with every client, we want each event to be unique, but we’re constantly reminded of where we are – a place of immense American tradition and history. I worked with Michelle Obama on seven state dinners and 15 other celebrations during President Obama’s administration. I learned quickly that the best way to present ideas to her was for me to be clear, concise, and as visual as possible. For each event we planned, we’d present at least three concepts, shown to the First Lady and her team in binders that included floor plans, design elements, sample photos, and fabric swatches. The more samples I could show Mrs. Obama, the better. She wanted to see what we were thinking and comprehend the story we wanted to tell on her behalf.

PM: Your new book, A Great Party: Designing the Perfect Celebration focuses on very high-profile events, but what are some takeaways for people planning smaller parties, like in their own homes?

BR: Perhaps my most helpful “Rafanelli Rule” for the average person to create a memorable celebration is “Something From Nothing.” Here, I highlight that building oversized, striking design elements that amaze your guests don’t always require the finest and most elegant materials. I put this into practice with my White House holiday décor. Inspiration struck on a visit to a corner drugstore, where I had the idea to create patterned pave pillars, all made from thousands of small gift ribbons. 

Another great, simple tip that anyone can implement is to change your guest’s perspective. For example, if every gala has guests entering the museum lobby up the grand staircase, we’ll try creating a path to an alternate entryway. A simple twist that upends the guests’ expectations is key to making an event unforgettable. 

Photo: Joel Benjamin Photography

PM: I know you have several tips or “Rafanelli’s Rules” in the book, but if you could pick one thing, what would you say is the most important thing to consider when planning a party?

BR: When it comes to crafting the perfect celebration, there is no secret formula to getting it right. I always stress the importance of incorporating my client’s personality into their events – making each one uniquely theirs and telling their story. For example, with weddings I begin by thinking about the story of the relationship, and how it can be told through the ceremony’s theme, décor, or food. We put this principle into practice with a destination wedding for a couple with roots in the Rocky Mountains. To reflect their love of Colorado’s natural beauty, the ceremony was held on a sprawling 48-acre ranch covered with field grasses, horse stables, and aspen trees. Dinner was accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra, and tributes to each family’s heritage, Irish and Colombian, were woven throughout the reception. We took the couple’s story, and let the guests experience it through all their senses – with a venue and music perfectly suited to the night.

PM: Tell me about your relationship to Provincetown: when did you first come, what keeps you coming back?

BR: When I was 13 years old, my aunt and uncle brought my siblings and I to Provincetown to have our portraits taken. That is my first memory of being in Provincetown, and I so clearly remember the energy of the area. After college, I started renting a house there and now I own a firehouse on Commercial Street. I’ve been vacationing/living there for the better part of 30 years. For me, it’s a place where peace and tranquility meets madness and chaos, and I love it.

A Great Party: Designing the Perfect Celebration by Bryan Rafanelli (Rizzoli New York, 2019) is available in hardcover wherever books are sold. Support your local bookseller.

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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