Dempsey & Carroll curator, Austin Ackles, sat down with Mary Lee Herrington to discuss her work as an event planner.
AA: After working in London for several years, welcome back to New York! What’s changed the most about our city?
MLH: One of the things I’ve always loved about New York is that even though facades can change and stores go out of business or new buildings pop up in place of old, the city’s energy and personality never really changes – I’ve always felt like it was my home no matter how long it had been since I last lived here or visited. So when we moved back here in October 2013, I fell right back into step, as if I’d never left. But if I had to point out some changes that, for whatever reason or another, I noticed the most, they are: taxi cabs taking credit cards (I hated swinging by ATMs in order to grab taxis before! I also love Uber!), and the construction/opening of Brooklyn Bridge Park. London’s parks are all really lovely, but this one with the spectacular views, picnic tables, barbecue grills, lawns, Smorgasburg, Jane’s Carousel and clean playgrounds just takes the prize! Also on the subject of change, it struck me the other day that back when I started college in ’97 at Columbia, the subways were still taking tokens! If that doesn’t make me feel old, I don’t know what does!
MLH: As much as I love the playgrounds and Brooklyn Bridge Park near where I live in Brooklyn Heights, I have to say that London’s attitude towards dogs and letting dogs off-leash at any time in their expansive parks is something we miss every day. We walked our dogs in Primrose Hill every single day off-leash and our dogs loved it so much. For dogs to be able to run freely in a park is so much better for them than the cramped dog runs that we have here, many of which are too small for high-energy dogs. I also used to take my Morkie* Sammy (who is my business mascot!) with me to cafes, pubs, restaurants all the time. Some clients even asked that I bring Sammy with me to meetings with them and with us on venue site visits!
I also miss the proximity to other parts of Europe. We loved being able to board a train at San Pancras in London and, a few short hours later, be in the heart of Paris!
AA: Traditionally, British weddings are midmorning followed by a wedding breakfast or brunch. Is this still pervasive?
MLH: Not really! These days, British couples prefer early to mid-afternoon ceremonies. The term “wedding breakfast” is still used predominantly, however it doesn’t mean that it literally has to be served in the morning or as a breakfast! It basically means the first meal shared as a married couple with their guests following a wedding. Most of my clients and British couples at large tend to have mid-afternoon ceremonies, followed by a “drinks reception” (what we call cocktail hour) that serves canapés and drinks, and then are asked to sit for the wedding breakfast – which can be early, such as 4pm, or served around dinner time, such as 6pm. It’s really up to the couple and the availability of the chosen venue.
AA: Another tradition in England is that guest names are written directly on the invitation. Are you still seeing this done?
MLH: It is still done by many and is considered to be a very traditional custom, but to be honest, I would be horrified to see a beautiful invitation – and all of my clients go for beautifully designed wedding invitations – only to see a guest’s name written at the top in ball-point pen! Unless the entire wedding invitation were handwritten by a calligrapher – all in the same ink and penmanship – and included the guests’ names at the top in this vein, I would be okay with it, but to write the names with another writing implement is horrible! None of my clients opted to follow this practice!
AA: In terms of paper goods, is there much difference between what’s commonly used in England and what is usually done here?
MLH: One of the biggest differences that I saw was the use of a “seating plan” in lieu of escort cards. Mind you, many British couples opt for escort cards after being educated in the whole stationery process, however, most British couples still go for a seating plan, which is typically a poster-sized list of guests’ seat assignments that is typically propped up on an easel by the entrance into the reception area. The seating plan can be designed to look lovely – framed, or written on a mirror, chalkboard, or canvas (one of my clients had their stationer custom-make a canvas tablecloth printed with their seating plan and we hung it on the wall like a tapestry), the sky’s the limit. Basically, just like with escort cards, you can get creative with how you design the seating plan.
AA: What venues in England were the most thrilling for you to design? And what venues in New York would be thrilling for you to design?
MLH: I always loved the venues that provided a blank canvas for me – this could either be something like a warehouse or the grounds of a breathtaking estate where we pitched tents (or “marquees” as the Brits call them). It allowed the clients (and myself) to design the wedding truly to their specific and unique vision. One of my all-time favorite weddings to work on was one along the British Riviera, where the cocktail hour (or “drinks reception,” as the Brits say) was held overlooking the sea by a cliff’s edge. It was stunning and the weather was incredible (how very un-British!).
I also loved doing destination weddings in France and this became a specialty of mine. I’ve designed and produced weddings on private beaches (turning the beach into a sophisticated night club of sorts for the guests!) in France and weddings in picturesque medieval villages.
There are so many incredible venues in New York, both within the city and upstate. One of the things I love about working on weddings in New York is that the venues and the vendors are all so willing to go the extra mile. They understand that clients really want to make their wedding day unique and design the wedding as an expression of who they are. Because many venues in Britain are so historic, there can be quite a few restrictions on what could be done to the space, or the staff could be wary of permitting too much leeway. I think as a reflection of the ethos of the city, New York wedding venues are very open to clients’ requests and to meet them as much as possible (within reason, of course!).
MLH: Definitely London! New York needs to get with the program!
Morkie: A Maltese-Yorkie mixed breed dog.