A tablescape may be the last thing you think about when throwing the raging, booze-drenched party of your dreams, but this Aruba-by-way-of-Chinatown tablescape, created by Sam Anderson, the Beverage Director of Mission Chinese Food, will surely convince you that it should be near the top of your list, perhaps just under alcohol and right before food.
That's just how essential a creative tablescape can be.
Quite simply, a tablescape like this one will elevate your party game to a level on par with a combination of Sandra Lee and Corey Worthington. And best of all is that you can assemble it—or one like it, to suit your own personal tablescape fantasy—from stuff acquired at your local 99-cent store, because that's how Anderson created his.
As we trekked through Chinatown with the well-known bartender and cocktail maestro—picking up a 50-pound bag of sand here, some chili pepper curtains there—Anderson explained to us exactly how he developed his not-so-hidden talent for making over-the-top table décor.
Yes, Anderson is known for magnificent cocktails like the Grasshopper Float and the Bird's Nest, but he says, "Aesthetics, to me, are a critical component of a drink just as much as considerations like balance and freshness." Anderson studied film and poetry in college, took art classes on the side, and spends plenty of time in New York City's amazing art museums. But he traces his love for tablescapes to this: "When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dioramas, so I think it started there—battlefields, miniature cities, seascapes with model ships and airplanes. The magic of things preserved in miniature behind glass."
His love for 3-D art installations bled into his work at Mission Chinese, where he built a mobile cocktail delivery system out of a repurposed dim sum cart. "The cart would be piled with fresh fruit, bottles, glasses, and ice, which created a pretty insane still-life visual."
Recently, he says, "I've been doing a series of diorama installation projects used flowing fountains as a centerpiece, which were initially inspired by street shrines in Chinatown, but also informed by the visual work of a number of installations artists whose interactive, nature-infused, exuberant style I really admire—like Mike Kelley, Andy Goldsworthy, and Cai Guo Qiang, and also mixed media artists like Sarah Cwynars and Yngve Holen."
The tablescape that Anderson created here is a tropical fantasia, bursting with flora, fauna, and Chinese tchotchkes galore. And who can resist a fountain overflowing with pink piña colada? Anderson explains, "They have a certain, childish, dioramic magic to them, but they also supply drinks for people without me having to do anything but mix them beforehand, which is pretty amazing." In other words, a fountain is perfect for a party, especially a New Year's Eve party during which you plan on being massively wasted.
As amazing as this tablescape may be, what Anderson says is true—we know because we saw him acquire the parts and make it: "I've mainly worked with found objects but also objects purchased in dollar stores or bodegas, usually fitting a color of thematic scheme. I've also worked extensively with flowers; my girlfriend is a florist so I've gotten really lucky to be able to work with some amazing tropical plants, as well."
Start with a plan and improvise as you go along, Anderson instructs. "It's my express intention to create a threshold between the world of eating, drinking, and hospitality, and that of installation art. I really want to do an installation that will be completely sensory-immersive this year—music, scent, and lighting."
Yes, you can do this at home, but Anderson will admit this: "I spend way too much time in 99-cent stores."
We'd say every moment spent therein has been worth it.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2016.