Christopher Spitzmiller always seems to be doing something exciting and fun. His Instagram feed is populated with images from gatherings at his country home, Clove Brook Farm, in New York.
He not only sets a knockout table under the stars, he arranges the centerpieces with his own hydrangeas and dahlias, makes his own pies and uses eggs from his flock of chickens. His full-time job is as a ceramist and lamp and tableware designer. His lamps can be found in many stylish places, including The White House.
His new book for Rizzoli, “A Year at Clove Brook Farm,” showcases events held at the farm, including a peony luncheon and end-of-summer cocktails in the garden. It also spotlights his flower beds and cozy interiors.
Spitzmiller joined The Washington Post for a recent online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: What do you do to make your guests feel special and at home?
A: The feeling of welcome and showing that you’re happy to see your guest when they come across your doorstep is the most important thing you can do as a good host. Good food and a well-set table and atmosphere also help convey this, but it’s the welcome feeling from you that matters most.
Q: What is your favorite effortless entertaining tip?
A: I learned not to kill yourself entertaining. What I mean by this is to cook food that you know like the back of your hand. For me, that’s souffles and roast chicken. Figure out what works for you and stick to it. Save experimenting and new options for yourself before trying them on your friends.
Q: What is your favorite host or hostess gift? And what’s the best host gift you’ve received?
A: I grow thousands of flowers here at the farm, and they make a much-appreciated gift in the summer when they are in bloom. In the winter and spring, I bring eggs or homemade jams as a gift. Anyone and everyone brings a bottle of wine; think of the joy you give when you bring some jam that you’ve made yourself.
Q: How do dining and service guidelines change when entertaining outdoors?
A: At Clove Brook Farm, we entertain outside much the same as we do inside. Glasses, silverware and hurricanes are moved from the house outside; no paper napkins for us. The table is set with place cards, so everyone knows where they’re sitting, and thought has been placed into who would be interested in meeting someone new. We always do a buffet. It’s sometimes set up on the kitchen table and sometimes on the porch table.
Q: How do you deal with mosquitoes in the garden when entertaining?
A: Thankfully, at Clove Brook Farm, we don’t have a lot of bugs. We put out some different bug sprays for people to put on their legs if they need it, but it’s not a big issue. We do have a healthy bat population that helps a lot with the bugs.
Q: How do you handle lighting for outdoor dinners after dusk?
A: Hurricanes or photophores are your outdoor entertaining friends. We use them on the tables and side tables. When it gets really dark, there are electric lanterns on dimmers. There is a huge army of lanterns that comes out for big parties.
Q: Do you ever bring flowers as a hostess gift? A friend made a vase and filled it with lilacs and brought it to a recent dinner party.
A: Yes. That’s a great gift, especially in a vase. I save all my old vases from the florist in my basement, and I have some plastic cups that work in a pinch. Every week, there is something new flowering; I recently brought lily of the valley to my friends. The vase is the key. A host doesn’t need to figure out what to put your gift into, so make that part easy for them. I visit a local bottle shop and buy old, colored glass jars. They make great presentation gifts for not very much money.
Q: What would you recommend to someone just starting a home in terms of setting and decorating a table?
A: I wrote my book to inspire, not intimidate. Contrast color and mix items you love. A theme, such as blue and white, is always good. Putting your best foot forward and making your guests feel at home is the most important gift you can give them (and yourself).
Q: How did you get started planting a garden? There seems to be so much to know.
A: Start in spring. Buy what’s in bloom and what you love. Think about where you are; for example, are deer an issue? If so, install a fence. I’ve placed fences in hedges that disappear. Learn as you go, watch “Gardeners’ World” on BBC and read.
Q: What are your favorite scented candles?
A: Nest candles by Laura Slatkin. I use them all the time.
Q: Where do you source all the critters we see on the tables in your book, such as the glass bees?
A: Most of my critters are Christmas ornaments that have never made it on the tree. I buy the best ones at John Derian in New York City. I have boxes of hand-painted lady bugs, frogs, insects and others that came from different places. Harry Heissmann, a decorator and my good friend, bought me some handblown glass bees from Venice, and they are a favorite. You can find fun items anywhere to spice up your table and add another dimension to it.
Q: Where do you buy your favorite tabletop accessories?
Q: My New Jersey garden gets tired by the end of August. How can I liven it up for September?
A: Plant some dahlias now. It’s the perfect time to start them, and they will give you blooms right up to your first frost date. Think about shrubs, such as rose of Sharon and fall-blooming hydrangea. There’s a pink or white fall-blooming Japanese anemone that signals the end of summer when it flowers. It’s glorious, and it’s my end-of-summer friend.
Q: The past year has given many of us a lot of time off from entertaining. Do you have any reflections on what you’ve missed or what you’re doing now that you can entertain more normally?
A: We entertained in a small way throughout the pandemic. There was a small group of friends that we saw when things were OK, and, thankfully, not one of us got the coronavirus. I learned I was just as happy, or maybe happier, with these small gatherings as I was with the bigger events I used to have.
Q: We’re renovating our kitchen from 1980, and we have a formal dining area. I get the open kitchen floor plan, but I don’t cook or entertain that way; I invite people over to sit down for dinner and brunch, and I don’t cook while entertaining. Is the open kitchen on its last legs?
A: I entertained through most of the Clove Brook Farm renovation, but not so much when there was no kitchen. I do like a separate kitchen, which I have in New York City, and it’s so small that no one can really help me in there. In Millbrook, the kitchen is still a center for people to gather, as well as our entrance hall. I try to give friends a drink, show them where the bar is if they want another one and encourage them to sit in the living room or outside in the summer. Having a partner helps with this, because they can sit with the guest and talk to them, and we can take turns with kitchen duty.
Q: How do you choose which plates to use when setting the table when there are so many options?
A: I have a big selection of plates to choose from: ones I’ve made and ones I’ve collected. We try to use our made-at-the-farm plates for entertaining. They change seasonally, based on color and flower. We’re now using the peony plates, because peonies are starting to flower.
Q: Can you give us some tips that are not in the book?
A: The book gives away a lot of my secrets. One of the things that I always try to do is accept help. If a friend offers to do something, give them a small thing to do, like pour the ice water in the glasses on the table, gather up plates or chairs, or even dress the salad. Friends like to contribute and it makes you a good host to let them help.