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IT started with an heirloom — in this case, “an exquisite antique pearl necklace in shades of deep pink, purple and copper,” says event designer Marina Birch, of Chicago-based Birch Design Studio. This gift, bequeathed to Birch's bridal client by a beloved grandmother, served as the motif for virtually every element of an opulent wedding celebration for 225 guests at the city's elegant Peninsula Hotel.


Birch — a former interior designer with degrees in art history, interior design and architecture — says the greatest difficulty posed by the November wedding “was the level of customization and detail we delved into,” a challenge she acknowledges she helped to create. That's because Birch and her associates decided to apply a design scheme inspired by the color and shape of those treasured pearls to everything from a custom-made chandelier to the dance floor at guests' feet.

Starting with the event's cocktail hour, Birch commissioned Chicago-based Heffernan Morgan to craft a circular, tufted-leather bar with copper detailing. Not only did the bar pick up on the rounded edges and lustrous hue of pearls, but the shape complemented the circular pattern on the carpet in the cocktail reception space. The event team used its yearlong lead time to build functionality as well as beauty into the event elements. For example, the bar was designed to accommodate bartenders, ice storage, garnishes and other cocktail essentials with ease. “We need to make sure that everything works seamlessly from the perspective of the guests of course,” Birch says, “but we also need to make sure that the staff can work easily within the environment we have created.”

That environment also included a custom dance floor and crystal-draped chandelier, two highlights of the event's dinner area. For the floor, Frost Lighting of Chicago monogrammed the center with the wedding couple's initials, then added shimmering “pearls” along the floor's edge, a motif repeated on the event's invitations, menus and programs. Also crafted by Frost, the custom chandelier utilized an existing eight-armed fixture, which was decorated with crystal beading and clusters of purple floral, then illuminated with candlelight.

A lounge-look after-party found the cocktail hour area transformed with steel tables, color-morphing lighting, and floor-to-ceiling white fringe that “created the feeling of swaying walls,” Birch says. In keeping with the event's overall design scheme, the party also featured a custom pearl-motif dance floor — this time “in vinyl, for a sleek, slick club look.”


With th event's degree of detail and intense install, it's no surprise that setup time was a big concern to Birch and her vendor crew. What may be surprising, though, is the designer's decision to draw up two distinct production schedules — “one with the ideal amount of time for setup — two days — and one with only a few hours for setup,” she explains. “The latter required a small army of people working very quickly to accomplish what we needed to accomplish, but we knew we could get it done, if need be, in a few hours.”

In the end, the hotel's event schedule presented a compromise: a 24-hour load-in, which let all vendors complete their tasks “with time to spare, thanks to everyone working together as fast as we could,” Birch says.

Such vendor cooperation allowed guests to enjoy the celebration to the fullest — and enjoy they did. Starting off the post-ceremony festivities with a necklace-inspired signature cocktail of champagne, Chambord and delicate tapioca “pearls,” celebrants then moved on to an autumnal meal of seasonal vegetable risotto, mesclun salad with dried cranberries and spiced pecans, and a choice of filet mignon or herb-grilled chicken. Table decor drew on the event's aesthetic theme with a blend of chocolate and gold linens, sheer copper chair covers with a circle imprint, and pearl-edged chargers.


While Birch says her art-world background informs every aspect of her creative approach, it's her experience in architecture and design that ensures a functional layout.

“I'm one who always does a floor plan,” Birch notes, explaining that a three-dimensional room rendering is a requisite of her preparation process. For this event, Birch had originally planned to suspend floral pomanders with “hundreds of candles” from the ceiling. However, “When I did a 3-D perspective, the ceiling looked too chaotic — there was a lot of visual clutter. I thought, ‘What do we remove? How do we fix this?’” she recounts.

So while an artistic side is critical for turning a piece of jewelry into a gem of a wedding, Birch contends, “the skill side is being able to make a construction drawing, and flesh all these details out, so you can say, ‘Here's the finished product’ six months before the event, instead of the day of.”

Birch Design Studio 29 N. Ada St., Chicago, IL 60607; 312/243-7883; Turn to page 49 for a list of resources for this event.


Seasonal Vegetable Risotto with Fresh Pesto and a Parmesan Crisp

Autumnal Salad of Mesclun and Endive with Apples, Dried Cranberries and Spiced Pecans

Grilled Filet Mignon served with Whipped Potatoes, Petite Carrots and Haricots Verts


Herb-grilled Chicken Breast served with Potatoes Au Gratin, Petite Carrots, Haricots Verts and Micro Greens

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