Entertaining Rule No. 7: Get the Lights Right

New rules for guests and hosts.
Sept. 10 2013 7:30 AM

Rule No. 7: Get the Lights Right

130910_ENTERTAIN_07-Lighting

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty, Thinkstock.

Given the dark days we’re supposedly living in where entertaining is concerned, it’s worth throwing a spotlight on one often-overlooked tool in the host’s arsenal: Lighting. I’ve been at parties where bum lighting thwarted fledgling romances, quashed burgeoning dance parties, and otherwise convinced everyone to put away the Pictionary and go home early, making events much less fun than they would otherwise have been.

The most important thing to remember about party lighting is that your guests should never feel a spotlight is being thrown on them. Whether you are hosting a dinner for six, cocktails for 20, or a full-bore red-cup rager, you want your guests to feel that your home is pleasant to look upon, attractive—even glamorous. You also want them to feel this way about each other. The easiest way to create that ambiance is to turn the lights down low—as savvy hostesses have long recognized, this simple trick can obscure a range of sins, from the domestic to the cosmetic. What you can’t see won’t kill the vibe.

The host’s best friend in this regard is the dimmer switch. If you own your place, have them installed. If you rent, look into it. But if the soiree you are hosting is hours away and it’s too late to take on an electrical project, there are still a few ways to ensure that your party thrives in a magical golden glow, rather than curdling under a harsh interrogative glare.

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First, you must banish overhead lights. If a light is mounted to the ceiling, it must not be turned on for the duration of the party. This is true for bathrooms as well as common spaces. If your bathroom has only an overhead, put some tea lights or a candle in there so that guests are never confronted with the discrepancy between the alluringly witty raconteur they feel themselves to be and the mussed-haired, sauce-stained, bloodshot person they actually are.

In the powder room and elsewhere, use lamps, sconces, candles—anything that will cast light sideways at your guests, rather than from above. I’m one of those ecological scofflaws who resists compact fluorescent bulbs and LEDs and has stocked up on incandescents because I prefer their warm tones. I’m sure the eco-bulbs will catch up eventually, but they are not there yet. Also: Do not fear Christmas lights! It doesn’t matter if it’s June. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish. A classic string of small white twinklers exudes a perfect party glow. If you don’t want to hang them up, coil them in a nice glass bowl or pitcher. (I once used an (unplugged!) blender because it was all I had handy.)

With this information, your parties are sure to be appropriately radiant. But what to do when you are a guest at a fete with lighting that recalls the dairy aisle at Stop and Shop? This advice is controversial, but: Intervene. It is inexcusably rude, of course, to fiddle with your host’s menu, seating arrangements, or playlist. If any of these elements seems bad or ill-conceived, you must soldier through, because the host has no doubt given them much thought. But when party lighting is bad, it is usually because hosts don’t even realize that party lighting is something they must plan for. If your elbow happens to brush past that overhead switch and flick it off, well, who’s to say it wasn’t an accident? Your fellow guests—newly burnished in the dim—will thank you.

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

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