Monday, June 13, 2011

Wedding Decor for Dummies

After the wedding, I finally figured out why I had been so stressed about something so inconsequential, namely the design of our wedding. Yes, the pretty pretty blogs played a part. Yes, nerves about how our non-traditional wedding would be perceived by more traditional friends and family played a part. Yes, my budget knocked me well outside the category of “just get a florist or a designer and rent some great lighting” into “cobble something together and make-it-work” category. But mostly, the reason I ended up wasting so much brainspace on this was because I’ve never done something like this before. I’ve never designed a pretty room. My apartment, while nice enough, isn’t anything fancy or particularly well decorated. It does fine. It has great “bones” (dark hardwood floors, mellow yellow-beige walls, vintage tile and a cute built-in cabinet) that we just dressed up a bit with a few photos and throw pillows. Nothing fancy. Just enough.

So the idea of decorating a wedding stressed me out. It’s something I wasn’t familiar with. If you’d asked me to write a 30 page report on the benefits of one alternative fuel versus another in less than a week, I would have panicked less. I’ve done that before. But design on a budget for a large room and 150 people... no. I’ve never done that. Before our dinner parties I just buy whatever bouquet is cheapest at the Farmer’s Market ($5) and make it work in a bud vase with candles.

And, well, that’s kind of what we ended up doing with our wedding too. BECAUSE IT WORKS. We always get complements on our dinner party decoration. BECAUSE WE HAVE SOME. That’s all you need: something. So here’s the easy, lazy, cheap guide for other terrified couples facing down cheapo design needs and wedding decoration “where do I start?!” panics.

1. It doesn’t really matter. You know that, right? Like, you could get married in a church social hall and it would be awesome, so long as you’re in love. Remember this wedding in the temple social hall that I adored? Yeah. Find the wedding that inspires you and onto it. Hard. Because, while I appreciate the photos of the projects we poured our hearts into, the wedding was about the moments and the emotion. The photos I’m pouring over again and again from my wedding are the faces, not the stuff. The photo of my face crumpling as I hug my mother is going in the album and not the photo of my centerpieces. Period.

2. Now that we’ve established that it doesn’t matter, I will also admit that it does, but only in that you want to honor the specialness of the occasion. You want to make the room festive. You want it to FEEL special. Feeling special and festive can happen without a lot of investment. Yay.

3. If possible, pick a venue that’s already unique or pretty, so it doesn’t need much dressing up. We picked a venue with stunning ceremony views. You know what we used to decorate the ceremony area? Not a d*mn thing. No pomanders, no aisle runner,  no streamers or ribbons or flowers. Just a starkly simple chuppah and us. And we used the cheapo white folding chairs instead of the padded white wood chairs. But the views were to die for and didn’t cost a single additional cent. 

4. If your venue isn’t beautiful (our reception hall was far from it with plain brick walls and orange curtains) it doesn’t matter (see item #1) and you need to accept that it may never look like the fancy schmancy blog weddings you’ve been lusting over. They probably had event designers or paid help (really.) So stop looking at that those blogs now and you’ll start feeling a lot better about your  less expensive wedding. Go to Moment Junkie instead, which is the first  photo-filled wedding blog that focuses on the important moments, and remind yourself that the emotions are the most beautiful part of any wedding and that moments are free.  

5. If your venue isn’t beautiful, don’t go overboard trying to make it so. LESS IS MORE. You don’t want to weigh down the venue with thousands of flowers or the weight of expectation. So focus on the small touches that matter. Use accents instead of planning anything elaborate. Remember where peoples’ eyes are drawn and play that up. We had amazing wood-beamed ceilings, so we draped papel picado to add some color and excitement. We had a giant fireplace and mantle so we put flowers, candles, and papel picado on the mantle. We threw some flowers on the welcome table, bar, and buffet tables. And then, aside from centerpieces, we were done.

6. Centerpieces aren’t as important as you think they are. They’re nice and all, but the point is to make the day feel festive, not to impress everyone with your gorgeous handcrafted amazingness. After all, as much as you spend (be it time or money) on centerpieces, ultimately the point of the table is to have a place to converse and celebrate. Frankly, you could scatter some candles around and make it look pretty so stop stressing out. Yes, candles. Light is pretty all on it's own.

This advice is brought to you from someone who stressed out about and loved her centerpieces. LOVED THEM. We combined our home-planted succulents with bud vases filled  and LA Flower Mart flowers. Our table number signs had some of our favorite quotes, poetry, and prose about love and marriage. We scattered tea lights on every table. I loved the process of making them and I loved the result.

But what I loved even more were the tables when they were full of our friends and families. At which point, you couldn’t see the centerpieces at all. (Or the ugly chairs I was so worried about for so long.)

The centerpieces will be secondary to anything about the party. Unless you buy those awful sky-high floral sculptures, in which case they will inhibit conversation across the table and your friends and family will be irritated. So don’t do that.

7. Lighting is something that most blogs ignore in lieu of excitement about tablescapes (which are just overgrown centerpieces) and a plethora of papergoods. And yet, I’d argue it’s a lot more important. Two weeks before the wedding, we had our walk through and found out that a) there was no outdoor lighting and b) the primary indoor lighting was ugly fluorescent (except for one really cool but faint chandelier.) Um...No. Just no. My wedding was not going to be lit with ugly florescent after all my work. And our bar and buffet areas were outside, so we needed lighting. And so, lighting ended up being MUCH more important than centerpieces or wall decor. Here’s what we did:

Tealights on each table (four per table): We used taller block tea lights so they’d remain lit all night without having to replace them.  Note: check on flame restrictions at your venue. All our candles needed to be shorter than the glass jars they came in. So we bought these, which had just enough of a lip. And they were cheap. Yay again.

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Lights in frosted glass mason jars all around the room and on the mantle: We had been saving every glass jar for a year (spaghetti sauce, pickes, jam, you name it) soaked off the labels, and spray painted them with frosted glass spray paint. The spray paint unified them and the soft light was SO PRETTY. Also, so flipping cheap and easy.

White Christmas lights: we tried to buy these around Christmas time, but the stores all sold out. Oops. So we borrowed some from friends. Then, when we realized the lighting issue, we ordered a bunch more online. It made our outdoor area look a bit fairlyland-like, which I loved.

8. Linens: Don’t forget that you can also create ambiance with your linens. You don’t need white and white (or ivory and ivory) and a nice pop of color or mellow background tone can add a lot to a plain table without ANY addition in price. We went for sage green linens and ivory napkins. The green tied in with the nature-filled setting, our succulents, and the papel-picado colors without being overwhelming. The ivory napkins were just classic because there's no need to go overboard with color. Less is more.

"Yeah, yeah," you’re saying. "That’s all great general advice, but I still don’t know how to make things look pretty. I read the blogs for ideas! I need ideas! Where do I start?!" Ok, if you need ideas, here are the two major tips that worked for us:

1. Ikea is your friend. We are not creative stylists whose heads are full of amazing ideas. We are not people with a lot of money. Ikea has a lot of inexpensive, stylish pieces that are made to work well together, even for people without intrinsic style sense. Go play with combinations of candles, vases, picture frames and planters and I bet you’ll find something affordable and easy. That’s what we did, and it worked.

2. You can’t eff up with flowers. Flowers are pretty, even if you don’t arrange them in a perfect florist arrangement or have perfect floral receptacles because FLOWERS ARE PRETTY.  Period. Buy simple, in season flowers and let go of a specific floral vision because you remember that flowers are pretty. Do you want something easy and  elegant? Get bud vases. Want something rustic? Paint some jars and throw some flowers in. Want something eclectic and vintage? Go thrift a variety of vases or other random receptacles. We ended up having a combo of all three.

I bought one white Ikea bud vases for each table.

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We saved our pasta and food jars for a year. Half got painted for frosted glass lighting. Half got painted with silver metallic spray paint to hold flowers on the mantle and in random places around the room. See a tutorial on spray painting jars here.

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And then, because it turned out we had a complete overabundance of flowers, we used whatever random cups, water pitchers, and other receptacles we could find to display extra flowers.

For the flowers themselves, I went to the LA Flower Market at 8am on Saturday morning with an open mind for what was in season, pointed at some stuff I liked, and was out by 9:15.  On the morning of the wedding, I handed around a few pairs of scissors, gave general instructions to our friends on what I was looking for, and walked away to take care of more important things. The result was easy, cheap, and beautiful.

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Decor Cost Breakdown:
  • Los Angeles Flower Market: $217 to fill 21 bud vases, 20 silver jars,  boatloads of random receptacles, AND all bouquet flowers
  • Ikea bud vases (no longer in stock): 21 (one for each table), $4 per vase (whatever, I splurged and we’re planning to keep some and resell the rest) = $84
  • Ikea candle holders: Four per table = $31.50
  • Ikea block candles: Four candles per table = $32
  • Ikea tealights: One large bag for frosted glass jars and random = $4.00
  • Ikea succulent pots: 25 (one for each table, plus extra for bar/buffet): $20
  • Succulent plants: Free! (unexpectedly)
  • Ikea table number frames: 19 (one for each table - some tables were combined for numbering - plus some signage)  = $19
  • Ikea 8x11 frames for instructions and signage: 3 total = $6
  • Jars: free!
  • Spray paint: We needed 4 spray cans (2 frosted and 2 silver). Jason bought them from Michael’s and I have no idea how much they were. Let’s say $20.
  • White lights: $6 per box of 100 x 8 boxes = $24 (I bought them at Party City, but they’re no longer available)
  • Papel Picado: Leftover from my 30th birthday. Originally purchased from Amol’s for $4 per medium strand and we bought 10 strands. Get the medium. Do NOT get the large. Also, make sure you’re ordering paper, not plastic. If you want to count the full price here, it would have been $40. 
 Total Cost:
  • Subtotal: $497
  • There were some tax and shipping charges in there too (and some without), so let’s add 12% as a ballpark: $61
  • Cost per table (this isn’t a perfect breakdown, since some of the decor was non-table related) = $26
  • Cost per person = $3.70 per person
  • TOTAL Cost for ALL decor PLUS bouquet flowers = $558

Seeing as how low-end floral centerpiece quotes alone were about $50 per table (or $1,050 for our 21 tables), I'm feeling pretty darn good about spending half of that for all our decor (and bouquet). And I feel especially good about our expenses on The Pretty because, after the wedding, it's even more obvious that The Pretty is entirely secondary to the joy. Although beautiful backdrops help, they're just that: backdrops. And the details that really matter are the ones that happen all around them.

All photos by Kelly Prizel Photography, unless otherwise indicated


  1. This just got starred for beauty and sanity.

    The frosted glass jars take my breath away!

  2. You are so right about lighting. Candles are the prettiest light and create a festive mood.

    I had forgotten about the existence of glass frosting spray. Best idea ever.

  3. Oh, also agree about the pale green tablecloths. You can't go wrong with that because it a nature color. It's almost like bringing in more greenery in the effect it has.

  4. Thank you, I needed this. I have been so hung up on our ugly (but free) chairs and how not to clash with the overwhelming amounts of brick of our venue etc. You've just shown me that pretty much exactly what we were planning to do to decorate will work. On budget.

  5. OKAY. so YES to all of the advice. YES to not caring. But you have to know that your reception is LOVELY. We want a similar vibe, laid-back, for ours and you and your wedding are incredibly inspiring lady.

  6. @everyone - we discovered the frosted glass idea after we'd already planned on succulents and florals. If we'd thought of it sooner, frosted glass jars alone would have made lovely cheap centerpieces on lightly colored linens. This is easier than we make it out to be, myself included.

    @JessF - from one ugly-but-free-chair-obsessesor to another: it won't matter. And your decor will work. Yay!

    @Lizzie - I'm uncomfortable with the idea that my wedding is inspiring. So many other couples do the same - make something beautiful (enough) out of no money and no time. I just have a blog to share it and I'm willing to be honest in admitting that I was cheap, clueless, determined... and wrong. I put a lot of mental effort into decor and it was unnecessary. But I didn't know that until I'd done it. And since I love the result (and love the cheap easiness of it even more) I'm happy to share the hard-earned wisdom.

  7. Everything looks beautiful and you offer fantastic advice. Thanks.

    Also, thank you SO MUCH for alerting me to the existence of Moment Junkie, which is the wedding website I didn't know I needed.

  8. It all looks great! Nice job, dear. I love the frosted jars on the mantle especially.

    We did a couple of table mock ups this weekend to decide if our plan is going to work or be insane (I never go into DIY blind if I can help it - I want to know how much work is going to be involved when I make the decision). I think we're okay - I have a preferred design and a back up design if things get crazy and our back up back up design is just to put our vases with succulents on the table and nothing else. And it would be fine.

    We do have the advantage of D being in a design field, but sometimes I think it's a liability - we get way more caught up in that stuff than we need to be and we have to consciously pull ourselves out and remind ourselves that whatever works out will be just fine.

    As you say - once everyone is seated, the centerpieces are no longer the focus.

  9. YES to all of this.

    Thank god.

    We are doing just this exactly. And as someone who has done "something like this before"--many years in the art department and interior design, I've still been stressing out about it. I'm actually working on a post about how I've been feeling like there's got to be more to it than this, because we are made to feel as though wedding details are things that we should struggle with.

  10. I'd like to buy the white IKEA vases! Please see the email I sent you or email me at omoriala [at] gmail [dot] com.


  11. Your wedding decor looks absolutely stunning.

    I also think there's another important wedding decor point to mention which is that those beautiful wedding photos that you see on blogs only tell a selected story — that is, they focus on the pretty. Maybe that wedding you were drooling over (like say, this one, because yes, I am drooling) had purportedly ugly chairs. Well, I would really know because her photographer probably wouldn't like, take a big close-up pic of a chair. So not every detail may actually be incredibly breathtakingly beautiful, but the details that are more plain you probably wouldn't ever see.

    Also, as a guest before wedding planning I practically never noticed or thought about decor. Now, because I am planning one, I am hyper sensitive to it, but before? Never gave it a moment's thought.

  12. @KA - YES. I struggled with my struggle over wedding details. Throughout the process it irked me that it seemed to matter so much, even when I knew it didn't. And even when I knew that the blogs pushing details had reasons that don't resonate with my wedding (because a) details highlight vendors and those blogs survive on advertising and b)details can provide and inspire "new fresh content" in the way that moments can't be and c) SEO demands details for bride traffic).

    It's not important. And part of the struggle is pushing back against the *feeling* like it's important, because you've been told it is by all the blogs and magazines etc. And another part of the struggle, for me, was realizing my insecurities. It was exhausting, all around. And we're right - there's SO MUCH MORE to the wedding.

  13. @ruchi - I struggled with this when posting about our wedding. Because the truth is, our reception hall has good, bad, and ugly sides to it. The ugly chairs, curtains, and other elements are there, but just not the focal point of our photos. Our ceremony was right next to a baseball diamond. And although you can see that in some of our photos, the photos themselves are still beautiful (and the ceremony ones are too personal to share.)

    And you know what? Our "detail" photos often seem a bit silly without context: a photoframe in the grass. The cake sitting by itself. Papel picado flapping next to the fluorescent bar lights. It makes them smaller than they were, but also exactly what they were. They're all quite plain and simple on their own. The room is plain. A strand of papel picado is plain. None are compelling as photos. But it's the magic of the wedding context that transforms them. They give the wedding day and ambiance/feeling and the wedding gives them the same.

    I hope I got across to in this post just how small and simple our decor was. Because it was simple. It didn't remotely fill the room or feel fancy. It was enough. And no one complimented us on the decor. You're 100% right - guests don't care. But they all loved the ambiance and feeling of the wedding, which I think our simple-but-bright choices enhanced.

    I am a firm believer in enhanced ambiance over detail obsession. And like I said, linens and candles create fabulous ambiance. And maybe a few messy flowers too, if that's your thing. If not, it's really not important in the least.

  14. Yes. To everything, everything, everything, YES. Particularly the part about the flowers. You CANNOT eff up with flowers. Truth.

  15. I think it's funny that you say "plain brick walls" when I think "stunning brick walls." Seriously, I think the exposed brick is the best part of your venue.

    Even though you say you didn't know what you were doing, it all turned out beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing the budget breakdown.

  16. AMAZING! So beautiful. Flowers are just stunning.

    I agree with lighting too. So important!
    We had horrible fluero lighting too so we decided on having helium balloons on the ceiling to bury the lighting. Helped a lot. It's something I recommend.

  17. First of all, thank you do much for the Moment Junkie blog. Never seen it before, but now I will stalk.

    Second, all of this is spot on advice. I think the most important it to work with the space you have. I planned our decor around the warm space of our venue by keeping to the naturals and brown tones that already existed. We just added accents and honestly, the main room took my breath away. I thank all the CANDLES for that!

    And if I had had an in-town posse? I would DIY'd the hell outta some flowers. But eh, we all have to pick and choose our wedding battles, right? :)

    I think you and Jason did an ah-mazing decor job and your ceremony vista was indeed incredible!

  18. I love your beautiful and simple decor. Cheerful and elegant in a low-key way...sounds pretty perfect to me! :)

  19. I know everyone has said this...but the frosted glass spray paint is genious! GENIOUS! I am soooo doing this for my wedding. They look fabulous!

  20. Btw, if you totally love the tall flower arrangements you see on google (I do!) its super cheap to buy dried flowers/straw/pussy willows/etc. online or at a flower market and stick them in a glass filled with sand/rocks/glass beads. Super cheap, super easy, and allowed me to decorate the altar of our church for all of $30 instead of the $500 our florist quoted me. Plus, they're already dried so they last forever and can be dropped off days in advance.

  21. This sounds amazing!! I was married 11 years ago and I wish I was as savvy as you are when I got married. When I think how my money could have been better spent it makes me nuts!
    Thanks for sharing!


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