There’s an easy trick to figure out whether the party you’re attending is the brainchild
of J. Riccardo Benavides — check out the grand arrival. “I make it a point to always create
a wow factor with the entrance,” says the founder of San Francisco-based Ideas Event Styling.
“You might say I’m known for it.” For Benavides and his team, that signature initial impression is key to ensuring a unique experience. “An event should be a journey,” he says. “It starts the moment attendees walk through the door, and it’s up to the designer to ensure they introduce the experience right away.”
Early in his own journey, The Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design alum was working at Neiman Marcus when he met a Hyatt Hotels employee who encouraged him to pursue a hospitality career. After working his way up the ranks at Hyatt, Benavides made the leap and launched his own design firm in 1992. In the 26 years since the birth of Ideas Event Styling, Benavides and his team have worked on everything from the SF Opera Ball to the de Young Museum’s Oscar de la Renta gala, not to mention elegant events across the country. We asked the design mastermind to spill some of the secrets that have sustained his successful business and social life over the years.
Table Talk. “When it comes to dinner receptions, I like to compare designing a table to dressing a woman,” says Benavides. “The linen needs to look like an elegant gown, accessorized with the appropriately scaled votives, centerpieces and seating. The dining chair should never be the focal point of a table.”
True to Size. When it comes to the biggest event blunder Benavides sees again and again, size really does matter. “As in interior design, scale and proportion always need to be factored in,” he says. “No one wants to sit on a sofa that requires you to do squats.”
Next Top Model. When Benavides styled the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute Gold Medal Gala in New York (chaired by none other than de la Renta), he relished in the glamour and glitz. “I felt like the belle of the ball surrounded by international leaders, celebrities and fashion designers like Carolina Herrera, Balenciaga, and Valentino,” he says. “The red carpet felt more like a runway. I strutted around in my Belgian shoes and Kiton tuxedo mingling with industry influencers.”
Blank Slate. San Francisco has no shortage of iconic venues, but when pressed to pick his favorite, Benavides offered an unconventional answer. “A parking lot,” he says. “I love working in vast empty spaces. I love the notion that I can transform a space and take you to any place and any time using architectural pieces and transitional props to match the theme.”
Far and Away. “I like to travel to other countries to gain inspiration,” Benavides says. “From Austrian gardens to the streets of Paris and nightlife of Berlin, I want to take all my clients and event attendees somewhere magical.”
Royal Affair. If Benavides were given the opportunity to style for any legend, living or dead, he knows exactly who’d be his ideal client. “My dream celebrity would be Marie Antoinette,” he says. “I heard she threw some fabulous parties. I envision myself walking down the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, wearing Rococo-style Artois shoes, of course, placing massive floral arrangements on ornate pedestals. Each room would be filled with Champagne towers and gold gilded statues behind the faro tables.”
Expert Eyes. If you think you can get by without a stylist for your next big event, Benavides has a convincing argument that might persuade you to reconsider. “Stylists have a keen ability to survey the event space and know how to create a proper flow that fosters connectivity,” he says. “Additionally, they use carefully curated pieces to create focal points, lounge and communal seating, and food and beverage areas. They are true decorators factoring in the overall aesthetic of the venue, incorporating brand colors, themes and lighting design.”
Benavides has styled a slew of memorable events over the years, but here are three of his favorites:
Private party in a tented pavilion for 100 people. “The client did not want to feel like they were in a tent, so I transformed an ordinary tent into an opulent French-inspired restaurant, using hard walls and a canopy of hanging flowers to soften the space. You can see the florals mirrored on the tables and custom-printed wall.”
SF Opera’s Evening on the Stage honoring Franklin P. Johnson, Jr.
“I enhanced the existing architectural features of War Memorial Opera House by video-mapping the ceiling and adding moving lights to the perimeter. Guests walked into an immersive environment, not just onto a beautiful stage.”
SF Ballet’s Opening Night Gala 2015: “Infinite Romance.” “I created a modern take on a traditional step-and-repeat by branding the floor. I continued the flooring through the entrance, enhancing the overall romantic effect.”