BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
What if an international event planner—known for extraordinary celebrations for Beyonce, the New York High Line, George Lucas and Mellody Hobson, and Pamela Harriman—not only helped design your benefit but would bring his compelling sense of hospitality to said event? And what if his close pal, an interior designer with her own celebratory status, added her own touch to the evening?
Well, then you must be thinking of Bronson van Wyck and Alessandra Branca and next month’s Chicago Show: Antiques & Art & Modern hosted by the Woman’s Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital at the Merchandise Mart. The Opening Night, taking place on October 6 will be raising funds for the hospital. The show itself, which is produced annually by Dolphin Promotions, runs through October 9 and features 50 premier national and international dealers of fine antique furniture, jewelry, silver, and decorative and fine arts, ancient to 20th century.
Master of Celebrations couldn’t be a better title for van Wyck, author of the bestseller Born to Party, Forced to Work, who, along with Branca, herself a famed interior designer, will be welcoming guests. The two will lead a special ticketed “Shop the Show” preview that afternoon where van Wyck promises to “find the gems and note their histories,” and share entertainment tips the following day at the keynote luncheon (and discuss tips and anecdotes from his book). Their combined expertise has set the creative direction to new heights for Opening Night and their tips on what is genuine hospitality will be a lasting reflection for all guests who have the pleasure to meet these two event and design luminaries.
Also greeting guests will be Opening Night Chair Suzette Bulley; Co-Chairs Beth Hughes, Keevie Silvay, and Heather Webster; and Woman’s Board President Holly Cortes.
Bulley shares, “I had heard wonderful things about Bronson and his fabulous parties and was thrilled when Alessandra suggested that he partner with her for our party. Alessandra and I went to the benefit for the High Line in New York last spring, and I was surprised to learn that not only did he create the party for the benefit but was one of the founding members of the High Line. He was so involved that the Mayor of New York stopped by the cool event to personally thank Bronson for his part in creating the ground-breaking park.”
“Both Alessandra and Bronson are such visionaries: both are outside the box thinkers and have been so generous with their knowledge and time!” she adds. “I am so amazingly grateful for the donation of their vision. I received a sneak preview of their concepts, and I am blown away by their ideas. I urge everyone to make the time to see what creative minds at the top of their game can produce!”
We caught up with van Wyck as he was packing Labor Day weekend for a birthday dinner dance he planned in a Roman palazzo complete with Caravaggio frescos on the ceiling. It was his hospitality history that captivated us instantly.
“I grew up in the Arkansas delta on a farm 100 miles equidistant from Little Rock and Memphis at the end of a long road. If someone made the effort to come see us, we worked hard to return the favor. I was raised to show appreciation,” he explains.
A graduate of Groton and Yale, van Wyck began his career as a protocol aide to Ambassador Pamela Harriman in Paris where he was responsible for nightly diplomatic receptions at the American Embassy: “Hospitality is all about making people feel good, this is true independently in every culture across the country. It is based on the need for civilizations to interact safely with strangers across horizons or within households.”
While Van Wick delights in his upcoming role with Branca—being “the elves behind the curtains”—and relates that he is never stressed about his work, he does admit that perhaps public speaking does give him pause. Thus, bringing intimacy to even these most intimidating of events, creating an inviting setting, guides him: “Attendees are there for several reasons, some supporters of the organization, others there to simply see the Show. What you try for is to create intimate spaces where people can have fun and bring the big scale down. At the same time, people want drama and a sense of theater.”
“When you are welcoming someone, you want to make sure that first of all, physical needs are met. Is the person cold or are they hungry? Give them what they need and a smile,” he continues. “Guests want to see a host that’s happy, not stressed. If you are having 40 people and you are cooking, don’t serve soufflés. Don’t spend your time behind the bar, if you don’t have a bartender, make punch. In the wintertime I always have cider on the stove, even if I am not serving it. It always smells so good.”
For many years van Wyck has been creating cocktails with unique origins for many of his events and recently he decided to turn this talent into a business, creating a line of his delightful and unexpected blends in canned cocktails. Called Dio, after Dionysus, with a tagline “nectar of the gods,” the original production line sold out in just seven weeks. At holiday time, Dio will launch a line of mixers, which like his cocktails contain herbs, spices and touches of lemon juice among other natural flavors.
Even before the libations are served, he feels that it all begins with lighting: “You also have to make sure that there is really good lighting and all the wares are seen,” he says. “What’s more, you have to speak to all five senses if you are really doing it right. The feel of a beautiful textured fabric for napkins and music, but so that other sounds can be heard.”
Van Wyck explains that his motto for events is Never complain, never explain: “Never tell your guests what went wrong—they want to see you having a good time.” He shares this fantastic anecdote to illustrate this credo: “The hostess had invited about 250 people to a party in St. Tropez and the restaurant staff became so distraught at the number of guests that they never got to the main course; they simply couldn’t pull it off.
“The hostess never broke her stride. She ordered shots for all the guests and then led them to the dance floor. She then she called a great pizza joint nearby. They served pizza from boxes on the dance floor and that was great for soaking up all the alcohol. The party went on until 4 a.m. and 95 percent of the guests thought it had been done on purpose.
“I don’t know about you, but if I have another baked halibut, I will grow gills. The pizza was much more fun!”
Van Wyck particularly anticipates sharing “Shop the Show” duties with Branca: “I am looking for things with a story. In addition to being beautiful to look at, they have to have an extra something. I was a student of history and history of art, and I want to know something that happened in the past to the creator. I am also on a budget and value that. We will definitely be pointing out gems that might be overlooked at first glance.”
Such special treasures will surely abound at the largest antiques and modernism show in Chicago, drawing thousands of visitors. This year there will be an emphasis on 20th-century design, focused on mid-century modern, with the return of Studio Sonja Milan and Glen Leroux Antiques along with the addition of Modern State Atelier and The Art of Time.
Young Collectors under the age of 35 years can purchase a reduced priced ticket to the Opening Night party with a 6:30 p.m. start time. Young Collector chairs Lucia Steinwold, Tyler Arnfelt, and Emily Sturgess are planning an Afterparty kicking off at 8:30 p.m. and going until 10 p.m.
And a last bit of van Wyck advice for all party planners: “Whatever you do, don’t run out of ice.”
The Chicago Show will be open to the public Friday, October 7 (11-8), Saturday, October 8 (11-6), and Sunday, October 9 (12-4). Admission to The Chicago Show is $25 per person and includes access to the show all weekend and a show catalog. For more information and an up-to-date list of exhibitors, visit thechicagoshow.net or email email@example.com.
For October 6 and 7 event tickets, including Opening Night, go to wbnorthwestern.org or contact The Woman’s Board office, 312-926-9138. A portion of the ticket proceeds will benefit programs supported by The Woman’s Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.