WITH ITS 41-YEAR history as a premier fund-raising event in a city brimming with benefit galas, the Swan Ball of Nashville, Tenn., comes with high expectations. But for this year's June event, client and beneficiary Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art stipulated that gala guests would find a relaxed environment conducive to conversation, notes event designer Sandy Zeigler of Zeigler & Co., Nashville.
Among the elements that her client requested to make this year's Swan Ball a comfortable place for guests to connect were good seats and great lighting, according to Zeigler.
Along with these specifics, Cheekwood brought her an open-ended design aesthetic. “They had no theme in mind, but they showed me pictures of what they liked out of magazines, books, etc.,” she explains. “When we put it all together, it spelled Old World European-Venetian.”
Developing the Swan Ball's look was one thing — putting the pieces in place during the stormy two-week load-in leading up to the event was quite another, Zeigler contends.
“It had rained so much, we spent the first few days pulling trucks out,” she recounts. Yet somehow her team managed to install and paint solid walls throughout the event's interconnected cocktail, dinner and entertainment tents — a step required to anchor extensive decor and air-conditioning components, she says.
Besides storms that sent trees and tent poles swaying and drove setup staff into Cheekwood's basement for two full afternoons, there was also the problem of the single, small entrance into the hilltop cluster of tents, Zeigler adds. She credits Cheekwood event coordinator Karen Casey's “iron fist” approach to scheduling deliveries with keeping load-in chaos at bay. “You could only come up and unload if you had an appointment. You couldn't even pull a car up there, or someone would be after you. And they should!”
GLIMMER AND GLAMOUR
Despite the deluges, when event day arrived, the Swan Ball's 750 attendees got just what Cheekwood ordered.
Guests first entered a cocktail tent filled with seating areas dressed in shades of raspberry and gold. These included banquettes and custom-built upholstered benches, as well as an eight-foot-wide circular pouf built around a central tent pole and accented with a handful of the nearly 200 decorative pillows used at the event.
At the close of cocktails, guests proceeded to the adjoining 80-by-150-foot dinner tent, where custom square tables set on elevated platforms in each of the tent's four corners further fostered an intimate atmosphere. At these tables — judged the best in the house by gala guests, Zeigler says — seating was made up of comfortable banquettes on two sides, and changeable-back metal chairs from rental provider Liberty Party, Nashville, on the other two sides. Meanwhile, on the main floor, guests enjoyed their Angus beef fillet and new potatoes at 10- and 12-seat rounds dressed in gold lamour linen and topped with monochromatic florals, ranging from pink peonies to blue hydrangeas to yellow roses.
Walls and ceilings got their shine from a creative combination of lighting and reflective surfaces, Zeigler notes. Highlights included mirror panels — actually mirrored Plexiglas that had been sanded on the back, painted black and sprayed with amber-stain shellac to counteract the “blue, hard look that mirrored Plexi usually has,” she says — which reflected the glow of nearly 500 candles used throughout the space. Also “incredible,” she adds, were the red lighting washes and gobos of architectural details, which were used to transform the white tent expanse into an “Old World European” scene.
The gala's entertainment portion provided the evening's greatest on-site technical challenge. With A-list crooner Tony Bennett enlisted to wow the crowd, Cheekwood had insisted on a central, elevated stage to give every attendee a great view. The problem was that the stage gobbled up needed floor space for post-performance dancing.
To solve the dilemma, a team made up of various vendors crafted a moveable stage that was broken down after Bennett's show and moved through a hidden door in the bar in the span of seven and a half minutes. “It was crazy, but it got done,” Zeigler laughs.
Zeigler, who worked on the ball with another designer for six years, but took the project solo for the first time this year, says success is spelled out in Cheekwood board chair Catherine Jackson's praise. Citing Zeigler's “breathtaking work,” Jackson offers “a standing ovation” to everyone involved in the event.
Chiming in, gala committee chair Julie Stadler recounts guests' raves: “‘The prettiest ball ever…,’ ‘The best ball I've ever been to…,’ ‘I loved all the seating areas…’ We have heard hundreds of versions of these statements.”
From Zeigler's own perspective, the event could not have been better. “For other events, I could tell you a billion things I'd want changed,” she says. “But in this case, if it wasn't what I envisioned, it's because it was better than what I envisioned.”
Zeigler & Co. 2832 Logan St., Studio J, Nashville, TN 37211; 615/244-6696; www.zeiglercompany.com
OLD WORLD, NEW FLAVOR
Salad of Prosciutto and Fresh Mozzarella with Olive Tapenade and Pear Tomatoes
Filet of Black Angus Beef or Grilled Portobello Mushroom with Horseradish-stuffed
New Potatoes and a Melange of Baby Vegetables
Panna Cotta with Mango and Fresh Berries
Turn to page 65 for a list of resources for this event.