I’ve been lucky enough to have long conversations and get to know the lovely Alicia of styling, planning and hire business Form Over Function in Sydney while I’ve been building Polka Dot Bride. I’m always fascinated by what Alicia comes up with and always intrigued as to what she has her up her sleeve for the next celebration she produces. It’s so lovely to have ALicia join us today on Polka Dot Wisdom and learn a little bit more about why she is so passionate about what she does!
Tell me a little about yourself?
As good at being busy, busy, as I am at doing absolutely nada when the opportunity arises. I love being up pre dawn catching the sun blur the horizon between water and sky orange, and yet the late night thing has always been my thing too. A perfect combination for a job that requires a 20 to 22 hour day on many an event day! I’m passionate about books, travel, travel and more travel, food and cooking, being in the ocean and by the ocean, our cats, my friends, my mum, my husband, the beauty I see in our world, both natural and created, trying every day to make a difference for the better to someone’s day, no matter how small.
What/who influenced your decision to become an event planner?
For people who know in a former working life I was a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and ABC TV, I get asked this a lot – usually with a look of utter bewilderment that I walked away from the career I had, to start my own business. But it made total sense to me. I had shifted from print to tv, and spent a year only being 100 per cent passionate about what I did (not 150 per cent) so I knew it was time for a change. I explored running away to university to grow up to be an architect but the years of study on no income did not appeal (funny that!). What follows will sound totally pretentious – but it wasn’t, and totally what happened: I was holidaying in Manhattan, and the New York Times had a front page story on an Australian event designer who was doing really well over there. I read that story, turned to my travel companion and said: “I know what I’m going to do! I’m going to set up an event design & management business!”. And I did. And here I still am almost exactly 13 years after reading that story. I’m not sure, but I may have been the only person in my life at the time who did not think I was completely mad to be walking away from a successful media career to set up their own business, with wait for it, $5,000 holiday pay as seeding capital. Writing is creative, but I love the creative arts side of life, and it made total sense to me that I could combine the really mentally challenging joys of event planning and logistics, with the prettier side of life, have the variety that fuels my brain, and get to spend lots of time working for people looking to celebrate or mark a special milestone – weddings, birthdays, christenings, corporate dos, I’ve even had the honour of assisting people to organise funerals for their partners – and it made total sense to me that as a career it would combine lots of what I love, and allow me to be a part of lots of special days. And it has.
Ceremony flowers & wine barrel hire by Form Over Function. Image by the simple things studio
Do you have a mentor or someone you admire – who influences your day to day work?
Ok, perhaps this is a total fail on my part, but I have developed this business without the aid of a mentor (not that I don’t wish I had one!), and just had a very single minded drive to offer the very best service, the very best styling and flowers, regardless of where the event is being held (passionate about helping couples in regional Australia with our boxes of style being delivered as far afield as Tenterfield and Hayman Island), or what the budget a client has. It saddens me when clients tell me of ringing other companies and being treated with total disdain because they did not have a minimum $10,000 to spend as a starting point. I just got off the phone with someone who has been told by another supplier that they had to spend X at a minimum or “her standard would be compromised, every event has to be blog worthy”. Are these people serious?! Sometimes people don’t have the budget they need to achieve what they want. But that doesn’t mean they should be treated with anything but respect, and I find with a bit of chat and compromise, it’s possible to achieve some of the aims and everybody’s happy. At the other end, when we have clients with unlimited budgets, I take great pride in knowing we don’t set out to make them spend as much as possible, and in fact sometimes rein them, in. Ultimately, it’s about delivering the best possible style within the budget allocated. Not about how much can we get out of someone. A weird business philosophy to some perhaps, but it works for us, it works for our clients, and it means I get to sleep easy each and every night. As for influences, I tend to take them from the wider world, and beyond the wedding world too. I don’t know why I love what I do, or hone in on a colour, texture, shapes or combinations that I do. I have no doubt some are learnt/influenced by the massive amount of design media I have consumed over the years; art I love; the spaces I spend time in; fashion I have loved from the time I was old enough to work out the world would be so much more aesthetically pleasing if people worked out some colours and prints just aren’t meant to go together …although what I do know is that Martha Stewart was completely banned in this office from day one until a few years ago because I desperately wanted us to have our own voice, a look that was not the same as everyone elses, but the explosion in online media, blogs and magazines has essentially put paid to any hope of quarantining ourselves.
Bouquet by Form Over Function. Image by Bailie Photography
You have such a sense of style. Do you believe you are born with a sense of style, or do you think that it is a learned skill?
Ok, going to be brave and say I think it’s mainly innate, something someone is born with, and study can add layers, give a context, but I don’t believe you can teach someone who does not have innate style to be stylish. Think about florists. You walk into some and everywhere you look there is beauty and whimsy and style in what they do. And you walk into another and think blah. The one with the blah experience is someone who has gone to TAFE or undertaken some other floristry course, but has no innate style, as this can’t be taught. They have all the fundamental skills of floristry – how to wire, how to store and keep flowers, what all the components of the tool kit should be, but they will put together an arrangement with a mix of tiger lilies, orchids, gerberas, carnations and roses, a fern leaf, a palm frond, wrap it, put a $45 price tag on it and think done. Most people will look at it and think blah. (I just saw this very combination in a shop. Shudder)
What inspires you?
What ideas, if any, should a couple come to you with?
It’s not uncommon for couples to turn up with a full mood board – or several – but there can be such a thing as over research.
It’s wonderful when couples come to us and we just chat and get to know each other over coffee; it gives me a great feel of who they are, what they love. Everything from the venue they’ve chosen, to the dress designers the bride loves, or the colours they have just painted their new home, give me clues as to what makes their hearts sing, and allows me to go away and come up with something that captures them, pushes their buttons in a good way, and fits within their budget.
It’s always important for them to have a feel for what sort of budget they wish to work within, and what they wish that to cover. And of course a list of what’s not negotiable (for example, must have three tier wedding cake/flowers at the church are important/a chandelier over the dancefloor). Everyone has their own wish list – even if they don’t realise it, it soon starts tumbling out. And from there I can help them shape it to hone on in what really matters to them.
Buttonhole by Form Over Function. Image by Michelle Fiona Photography
What questions should a couple ask you?
1. What makes your service, floral design and your hire range different from other suppliers?
2. How long can we expect to have to wait for answers to our calls and emails?
3. What degree of experience do you have in what we are seeking you to do?
4. How can we be secure in the knowledge you will stick to our budget?
5. Will we have just the one contact person from the time we engage your services until after our wedding?
What are the factors you take into account when styling a wedding? How do you get an idea of where to start with the design of a wedding?
Always start with the venue fundamentals – if a couple have booked a very grand old home, you don’t go in and try and make it look modern. What a waste of time and energy. Just wrong. So we start with a thorough site inspection, working out everything from layout of furniture, to lighting, to anything we need to hide or disguise. During our site inspection, our thought process is overlaid with colour preferences, styling wish lists, flowers in season. Sometimes a quirk of the venue will inspire a “wouldn’t that look fantastic there moment”, or we will take our cue from what is already in there. A couple once had us create a solid wall of flowers behind their bridal table, and we custom made silk covered “tiles” to edge the bottom and top of the floral banner that were an exact match for the silk “tiles” which lined the ceiling over the dance floor in their venue. That’s not an idea that would have happened without the sort of thorough site inspections we carry out (which can also include serious just sit and think time, even when it’s a venue we’ve work at scores of times before). It’s imagination playtime!
Can you give us some styling tips to help make our weddings stylish and beautiful? What are the basics to get right?
The most important basics to get right with a wedding are to marry the right person, and invite the right family and friends. Fill your celebration with the people that matter, not the people you feel obliged to have there. That’s the secret to a happy party.
When it comes to styling, less is more is the oft repeated detail, but should be your guiding light. If you’re having a sit down reception, start at the tables, then work back. If the budget does not stretch to beyond styling beautiful tables, that’s totally ok. There’s no point spending budget on some large arrangements around the room, if it means scrimping on what people will spend most of the night doing – sitting at the tables. Make them feel inviting, warm, special. Like the ultimate dinner or lunch party.
If our budget is small, what do you suggest spending our ‘styling the reception’ money on?
If you’re hosting a night time reception, forgo flowers and dedicate your budget to doing something like covering the tables in a beautiful overlay and creating a candlelit centerpiece with one style of candleholders, in a range of sizes. It will look really warm, inviting and special – and not at all like you are cutting corners. We have lots of options that would work beautifully in our hire range, and you don’t even need to engage us to set it up for you. Try to make your budget stretch across all these things plus flowers and it is likely to end up looking stretched, with not quite enough of the right things.
Now I know it is blasphemy for a stylist to write this, but seriously, the most important thing about your wedding day is your marriage. Don’t ever forget that, when you’re fretting over styling because you’ve spent too long looking on overseas blogs at weddings with a $2m styling budget!
Tablescape & flowers by Form Over Function. Image by Matt Johnson Photography.
How do you keep the styling ‘personal’ for each wedding?
It all goes back to the initial chats we have with our couples (and one of the reasons I am a bit ambivalent about mood boards). The only way to avoid a cookie cutter wedding, is to not turn up with a mood board saying “I want my bouquet to look exactly like this, my centerpieces to look exactly like this, and my husband-to-be’s buttonhole to be exactly like this”. Mood boards are great to gather your inspiration on the things you love and inspire you, and for us to get a feel for the things you love, then it is a matter of spending the time together getting to know each other, learning a bit about the history of how you came to be a couple, the things you love doing together, your heritage, where you grew up – these are the things that are personal that we can use to help to shape each wedding to be truly individual.
We did a wedding earlier this month with an Irish groom – I worked sprigs of molucca blam (bells of Ireland) into the bride’s boquet and shared that with her when I delivered her bouquet. It made her cry. In a good way. It’s these sorts of personal touches I strive to sprinkle throughout the day as much as possible.
But having written all of the above — I am currently bemused/pondering the incredible popularity of a range of candleholders and vases in our range called ‘rustic lace’. We have not been able to keep these on the shelf for most of last year and their popularity shows no sign of abating in 2013 (they’re going out this weekend!). It doesn’t matter how many other options I put forward to some couples, they love these. And ultimately, if they love them, and they choose them, then that’s what is personal to them, even when I can offer many other alternatives.
How do you keep your ideas fresh for each wedding?
The couples I work for make it fresh, because I have never, ever lost my deep seated belief that everyone deserves to have a wedding day that is uniquely theirs, and that’s what I work to do, each and every time. And I am blessed/cursed with an imaginative, day dreaming kind of brain. Always thinking what if….imagine if…wouldn’t that be great with….what if we used this for this instead of that…
Do Australian brides and grooms have a distinctive style?
Am I allowed to say they used to? There has been an absolute explosion in Australian couples taking their cues from America – a nostalgic, Mom and Pop idea of America. Barns/popsicles/VW wedding cars/lollipops/balloons/suitcases/old books/blackboards/stripey socks/letterpressed stationery. It’s fun, it’s cute, it’s whimsical. But it is definitely not Australian. It’s a style that has been around for quite a few years now, but again, the explosion of net based sites/instagram etc have seen this style spread and take hold in a way that it would not have even five years ago.
What I think remains distinctly Australian is the desire for the reception, the celebration, to be a real party. There is not the stuffiness of protocol to be followed so much here. No matter the budget or the style chosen, this is something our couples share with us all the time. For them the reception is about having the party of their lives.
You have a hire arm to your business. Can you ship anywhere in Australia?
Absolutely. And do it regularly. We think of them as “boxes of style”. A lot of hire companies will not hire out beyond their city borders. And given what we go through with courier companies sometimes I can understand why! But it was a stated aim of this business from day one to service couples wherever they may be, and that has not fallen by the wayside. We’ve styled entire weddings from start to finish, never meeting the couple, and not setting foot in their venue, all done with phone chats and emailed images; we’ve sent out several portable wardrobes worth of linen; we’ve sent out 24 small candleholders (courier arriving any moment to pick up this exact order). No order too small or big we figure.
Bouquets by Form Over Function. Image by Southern Light Photography
If money were no object, how would you style your dream wedding?
A custom built pavilion of glass, steel and corrugated iron on a coastal headland I am not sharing the location of with anyone (well you did say money no object!). It would be sunny. Summer. And stay exactly 36 degrees all day. The venue would be filled with a collection of my favourite design pieces from the 20th century (chairs by Eames for example) for a cocktail style party, there would be a stunning bar running the length of one side of the space, serving nothing but Bollinger or Veuve, craft beers and ciders by small local producers, whatever cocktail you desired and others you did not know existed and a small selection of really great Australian wines. For food, there were would be stations staffed by a collection of my favourite eateries (everything from Quay Restaurant to Sailors Thai, Mint Café, the Norfolk Hotel, Bourke Street Bakery, and the cheese room at Simon Johnson). I’d let Faye Cahill from Faye Cahill Cake Design make us whatever she felt like, and Libby from Polka Dot Cookies create a stunning dessert bar working in cahoots with the dessert makers from my favourite restaurants. (Did I mention I am passionate about food an eating?!) The music would be provided by Scott Pullen http://www.scottpullen.com/ (keeping me and my dance party buddies happy), Brett Martin http://www.sydneyweddingdjs.com/ (for the sets to keep the not dance party buddies happy), a sprinkling of independent bands to keep my husband happy. I would somehow have the time to do all the flowers myself, whilst simultaneously chilling out in the lead up to the day. I would wear exactly what I did on my own wedding day – a dress I designed myself, made in custom made and dyed fabric from my favourite fabric designer Julie Paterson, at Cloth, and sewn by my incredibly talented friend and costume maker for Opera Australia and more, Catriona. And I’d also squeeze a trip in to New York to go shoe shopping for the day. Just because you said money was not an object. And I could!
Thank you Alicia for sharing your thoughts and such wise and encouraging words. See more of Alicia’s work at Form Over Function
Image + make up of Alicia by Christina of Christina Cleary Makeup artist and Photographer