For city dwellers, the holiday season is often an exercise in squeezing 20 friends and relatives into an apartment barely big enough for one person. Serving platters teeter on countertops, and galley kitchens double as de facto bars, with bottles of liquor covering every open surface because, face it, there was never much surface to begin with.
The prospect of transforming a tiny apartment into an event space can feel daunting. Where do you put all the coats, let alone the people? And what about climate control? Even during winter, an apartment in winter can feel tropical at times — pack half your contact list into the living room, and good luck keeping your makeup from melting off your face.
“[In apartments and condos], people are afraid to entertain because they automatically assume they don’t have enough space,” said Seri Kertzner, who started her event-planning business, Little Miss Party, after successfully hosting numerous soirees for 60 in the 900-square-foot one-bedroom she lived in at the time in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.
Her business focuses on the apartment party, working from the theory that with a little finesse and some well-placed fairy lights, the smallest of abodes can make perfectly fabulous venues. You just have to embrace the close quarters.
Try a revolving door
Fire safety rules aside, there are limits to human endurance. Decide how many people you can comfortably accommodate and narrow your invite list appropriately. Or consider an open house-style affair. Amelia Nicholas, an interior designer whose company Urban Cottage NYC specializes in small spaces, invites guests to “stop by” the parties she hosts in her Hell’s Kitchen studio apartment. She starts the parties early and ends them late so guests can pass one another coming and going. You can suggest guests arrive anytime between 5:30 and 9 so people can have a cocktail with you before heading off to another event or choose to show up after dinner. “It’s a longer time commitment, but it guarantees that you’ll get your turnover,” she said. “It’s building in a revolving door.”
If you’re planning a party that may get loud or large, make sure you extend an invitation to anyone who shares a wall with you. Even if you’ve never actually met your neighbors, this simple courtesy will help keep the peace. And who knows — if they show up, you might actually strike up a pleasant conversation.
Not everyone needs a seat — this is a party, not a boardroom meeting — so don’t go out and get a dozen folding chairs that clutter the room and strain your budget. Instead, work with what you have and accept that guests will stand.
Sometimes, you just get locked in on the vision, said Loretta Lester, a Manhattan event planner. “You have to be more flexible and creative.”
Push the sofa and chairs against the walls to create an open space in the center of the room, arranging the seating in small clusters to create more intimate nooks. Let other furniture play double duty. That desk in the living room? Clear off the top and use it as a table for snacks. Coffee tables, end tables and ottomans make for good serving tables, too.
Decide where to store your guests’ coats. Resist the tradition of turning your bed into a mountain of woolen outerwear. Instead, empty your coat closet, storing the contents elsewhere. Or buy or borrow a foldable coat rack, placing it in the outside hallway so guests can hang up their outer layer before they walk in (just tell your neighbors first).
Another option: the bathroom — seriously. Nicholas sometimes takes off the shower curtain and uses the rod above her tub as a coat rack.
Clear the clutter
Now is as good a time as any to discuss the true purpose of an urban dweller’s oven: It’s a storage cabinet. If yours is not already chock-full of pots and pans, there is no time like the present to take advantage of that valuable real estate. Clear everything off the kitchen counter and move it into the oven. (Worried about what to serve everyone without a place to heat the food? We’ll get to that shortly.)
You’ll need spots to tuck away household items like picture frames, papers, magazines and tchotchkes. “Anything to make more space for the party and food,” said Tova Weinstock, a professional organizer in Brooklyn. Think of this exercise as “an opportunity to think about what you actually need in your life” and maybe use it as an opportunity to toss what you don’t.
Store these items under the bed or sofa, in the laundry hamper and inside the bathtub (and if the coats are hanging above the tub, cover the pile with a blanket, and guests will be none the wiser.)
Create the mood
To maximize surface space, focus your decorating attention on the walls and ceilings. “Twinkle lights — hello! — are the most beautiful thing,” Kertzner said. Votive candles take up little space and add personality to the room. (If you’re concerned about a fire hazard, go for the battery-operated variety.) Rather than overdo it with a large bouquet of flowers, place a few sprigs of holly or herbs on the serving platters.
“People remember those elements,” Lester said. “When you walk into the tiny apartment, all those little details have already made it festive.”
Don’t neglect your bathroom, either. Put your toothbrush and other grooming supplies in the medicine cabinet. Replace hand and bath towels with a basket of disposable ones. Place a fresh bar of soap on the sink and light a candle. Voilà! The bathroom is ready for a party.
Make a song playlist — not a prepackaged one like “Holiday Hits” but one you create yourself — and play it through a wireless speaker, keeping your phone handy so you can mix up the mood throughout the night.
Feed the crowd
Apartments are hot enough, so don’t make yours any hotter by turning on the oven. (It’s full of pots and pans and maybe some tchotchkes now anyway, so there’s no room.) Instead, stick with room-temperature offerings, like platters of prepared meats, cheeses, olives, fruit and crackers.
“Charcuterie, charcuterie, charcuterie,” Kertzner said. “You can feed people on that all night long.”
Spread the platters around the room so guests don’t end up clustering in one corner to get food or cross a crowded space unnecessarily. “It helps with the traffic flow,” Nicholas said.
As a late-night snack, Kertzner often calls in an order of McDonald’s to give the committed partygoers a jolt of fat, protein and carbs. “When midnight rolls around and you see a greasy burger show up, you’re so excited,” she said. “It’s a very satisfying thing.”
As for drinks, rather than stock the counters with a full bar, decide on a signature cocktail for the night — Moscow mules? Mistletoe margarita? Stock beer and wine for those who prefer a lighter beverage but suggest guests bring a bottle of their preferred drink, too, to ensure that people have their beverage of choice.
Every party has a natural arc. Determine yours before any of the guests arrive, deciding how the evening will play out so no one misses the round of holiday cookies you planned to serve at 10 or the Champagne toast.
“Whether the party is 10 folks or 200 folks, have a timetable of how the evening is going to unfold,” Lester said. The itinerary doesn’t have to be rigid. Ideally, your guests will never know it even exists, but with a little planning, a party in a tiny space can roll out seamlessly.