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Oct 19, 2017

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The Art of Ambiance
by Bob Blumer
Magazine Issue: Internet Only

It’s exciting to walk into a room and feel that a great party is about to take place. This highly sought-after sensation is triggered by a mysterious "energy" that emanates from a combination of smells, lighting, music and decor, as well as the "vibe" of the crowd -- and most importantly -- the host. If a little attention is focused on each of these details, they will project an overall impression that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

decorating & redecorating

Dressing up a room can be as simple as tossing a few serpentine streamers over the chandelier, or as complex as recreating the Sistine Chapel. The goal in either case should be to convey a sense of occasion and excitement.

Redecorating involves rearranging the existing furniture and fixtures. It’s common sense to arrange our home furnishings to suit the number of people inhabiting the space. However, we often forget to reconfigure the furniture to accommodate a greater number of guests. Take a moment to visualize how the room will look when it is full. Will that chair be in the middle of nowhere? Is there a place for people sitting on that couch to put down their drinks?

Of course, the word redecorate is also a nice euphemism for "hide the breakables and family heirlooms."

flower power

Nothing glorifies a room like flowers, and there is virtually no place in which they are inappropriate. Arrange flowers in the foyer, the living room, the bathroom, as a centerpiece on the dinner table and/or at each place setting.

When you think of flowers, don’t necessarily think of the golden delivery man, poised to deliver overpriced long-stemmed roses faster than a speeding telegram. Be creative. Pick from your own garden or a local field. Bring outdoor potted plants inside for the occasion. Use tree branches, tall grasses, wildflowers, evergreen boughs, pussy willows, cattails, etc. If these ideas sound attractive, but it happens to be the dead of winter, take a trip to your flower shop(or farmer’s market, flower market, deli, fruit stand, etc.). Buy what you can afford and divide them up into small vases, placing them in various spots around the party area. A single bird of paradise, iris or sunflower will look great in a tall vase, particularly if you can catch it in the ray of a well-focused spotlight. On the other end of the floral spectrum, a single bunch of daisies in a coffee pot with punch up a room.

Fragrant flowers such as tuberoses, lilacs, jasmine and tiger lilies are highly desirable because they deliver an added payload of olfactory pleasure.


Lighting is so important that some Hollywood stars have clauses in their contracts demanding that they be lit to exacting specifications. In more humble circumstances, the right lighting can cast a calming and flattering glow on your home and guests.

Here are several tips for creating effective lighting:

candlelight . The soft glow of candlelight transforms the simplest meal into an occasion. If you are feeling extravagant, light the entire space in which you are entertaining with candles.

Beeswax, scented candles and/or elegant dinner candles add a nice touch. Inexpensive paraffin utility candles can work beautifully too -- and produce the exact same light as their refines siblings. (Avoid putting inferior quality candles that drip on unforgiving surfaces.)

bulbage . Try replacing high-wattage bulbs with low-wattage bulbs for the evening. Or replace conventional clear bulbs with colored ones. For some inventive illuminance, use Christmas lights, novelty chili pepper lights, patio lanterns, tiki lamps, etc. to accent the room.

track lighting . Track lights and spotlights can be great tools if used correctly. Unfortunately, their virtues are often wasted because they are unfocused (i.e., not directed at anything in particular), misfocused (aimed where the sculpture used to sit before you rearranged the furniture), or improperly loaded (using "washes" instead of "pin spots").

You don’t need to be a Broadway lighting designer to correct the situation, but you should approach the task as though you are lighting a stage.

Bulbs that fit in your existing track fixtures can be purchased in a wide range on intensities and focuses. Large hardware stores carry a variety of bulbs and most big cities have stores that sell nothing but bulbs. Create instant drama by changing a wash to a pin spot and accurately focusing it on a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit or penny candy. You will be amazed at how the illuminated object comes to life.

dimmers . Converting a conventional on-off light switch to a dimmer control is about the simplest electrical task imaginable -- even for someone like myself who has never even contemplated changing the oil in my car. The dimmer costs about $5 and the only tool required is a screwdriver. (Note: remove the fuse first, or you’ll be in for a shock.) Dining room lights are a prime candidate for this operation. To avoid being a victim of Murphy’s law, do not attempt this less than half an hour before the guests arrive. (Note: some fancy track-light systems run through a "low-voltage" transformer. These systems require special dimmers that must be installed by an electrician.)


Music enters through the ears but quickly finds its way to the feet, the head, the heart and the soul. The right music can be relaxing, uplifting and invigorating. The wrong music can be distracting, depressing and downright annoying. Sometimes, the only difference between "right" and "wrong" is timing, tempo or volume.

Select music that helps set the desired mood but doesn’t overwhelm the level of conversation. If the last record you bought was vinyl, consider asking one or more guests to bring a selection from their collection. Don’t be shy. Everybody loves to be a music "consultant."

Sequence your music so that the mood builds as the evening progresses, and be sure to keep the music flowing. Homemade compilation tapes are another great way to create a specific musical mood. To avoid the inevitability of the music stopping just as you are completing a complicated maneuver in the kitchen, pre-select a batch of CDs or tapes before the party starts, stack them by the stereo unit and appoint a DJ.

When professional club DJs see that no one is on the dance floor, they end the song early and change the tempo. Even if dancing isn’t an issue, you should exercise the same discretion. watch your guests, "feel" the room and go with the flow -- making changes to your intended playlist when the music no longer fits the tone of the party.

surreal sound design

Despite the fact that I’m tone deaf and embarrassingly untechnical, my friends assume that because I work in the music business I should know why their stereos don’t sound as good as they should. On a surprising number of occasions, handicaps and all, I have been able to effect a positive change. In these cases, the root of the problem is not electronics but rather logic. The solution is invariably speaker placement. There are three basic rules:

height . Speakers should always be at least two feet off the ground to keep the sound from being "eaten" by the carpet and deflected off the furniture. Use bricks, books or upside-down pails to elevate the speakers and place a piece of carpet or foam under the speaker to reduce reverberation.

separation . The word stereo is derived from the fact that stereos divide sound into two channels and transmit them through two separate speaker cabinets. In the mixing stage of an album, producers create a full spectrum of sound and designate which speakers the various instruments and vocals are to be played through. When speakers are placed decide each other, all of the sounds melt together. When speakers are spread out or, ideally, placed at opposite ends of a room, the separation creates a richer, fuller sound -- the music as it was intended to be heard.

direction . Amazingly, speakers are often faced directly into a sofa, a wall or the other speaker. Sound is like light. If it hits something, it is deflected or smothered. Point and place your speakers in such a way that the sound can travel in a straight line to the area in which you wish it to be heard.

If your stereo is in one room and the party in another, pick up 50 feet of speaker wire at your local Radio Shack for $7, and relocate the speakers per the three basic rules. Beware: Loose speaker wires are the banana peels of high fidelity. Tape them down or bury them under the carpet.

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