Vivian Holtzman Connolly needed some space. She found it in an antiques warehouse just outside of New York City. With the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, the 29-year-old television producer put together her own prime-time event: her wedding. "It was a hip place—guests rode up in a freight elevator," says Vivian, who was married last April. "For someone like me who didn't want a traditional hotel-ballroom wedding, it was ideal."
A loft—be it an empty warehouse, art gallery, photography studio, or someone's home—offers a contemporary alternative to traditional country clubs, hotels, and reception halls. But because a loft is, by definition, an undecorated, open space, you will probably need to bring in everything from lighting to linens. It requires a lot of preparation, and expenses can sometimes be high, but it also offers an amazing opportunity to create your dream wedding from scratch.
Launch a Space Mission
Most lofts aren't advertised as wedding venues, so you'll need to do a bit of sleuthing. Call urban photography and film studios, as well as art galleries, to find out if they'll rent out their space. Ask caterers for recommendations, and call realtors and your local convention and visitors bureau for ideas. Consider hiring an event planner who organizes corporate parties as well as weddings. A good one will have their pulse on the hippest spots.
Take a Light Reading
Once you've found a suitable loft, try flipping on the lights. "Good lighting can be paramount to the success of your affair," says Carl Dean Hedin of Tentation, a special-events catering firm in New York City. Visit the loft at the same time and season your event will be taking place and ask what existing lights you can use. Some lofts have harsh fluorescent bulbs that can't be dimmed; others may have flexible track lighting, but it may be off-limits. If it's a daytime wedding and the loft has big windows, make sure sunlight won't turn the space into an oven.
Adequate lighting is important not only for ambience but to help separate the open space into ceremony, cocktail, and dining areas. You may want to hire a lighting-design company with experience in event production to alter the mood as the night's flow progresses from romantic ceremony to dance party. Expect to pay at least $2,000 for basic lighting; for more extravagant effects, the sky's the limit. At the very least, uplight walls and columns, and highlight centerpieces, the band, and the dance floor.
Play with Your Food
"The casual aura of many lofts lends itself to buffet stations," says John Rudy, director of catering for Food for Thought Catering in Chicago. Stations also work well for lofts with limited space, as chefs can cook to order in front of the guests, rather than rigging up a full kitchen. (Most lofts do not have large kitchen facilities.)
If you want a seated dinner, remember that the guest count and loft size will affect your menu selection. If you're dealing with a smallish space, the caterer may not have room to cook and plate 300 servings of salmon steak. In that case, consider dishes like sliced filet of beef or Peking duck salad that can be served at room temperature, which will eliminate some bulky kitchen equipment.
Either way, hire someone with experience in off-premise catering. Invite them to survey the site long before your wedding date. He or she will ask questions you may not think of: Are open flames permitted? Is there running water? Is the electricity wattage sufficient to brew coffee for 300?
Think Oscar Night
"When it comes to your dress, anything goes," says Rachel Leonard, Brides fashion director. "A woman marrying in a loft is probably less conventional than many brides, so she'll want to look beyond traditional gowns." Shoot for a slim A-line or a formfitting dress. Maybe something a little sexy. If it's a daytime wedding, a crepe design or another flowing fabric is appropriate; charmeuse looks sensual for an evening party. Avoid long trains and stilettos, which could trip you up on uneven floorboards.
For the groom, tuxes or dark suits are perfect, Oscar-worthy attire. But ditch the bow tie and choose a four-in-hand silk tie in black or silver.
Toss the Bouquets
Flowers aren't always a must for a loft reception. Rather than a florist, Vivian had a food stylist design her centerpieces. "We had slices of lime floating in bowls of water and candles sitting in piles of colored lentils," she says.
"If you do have flowers, give them personality," says Casey Cooper, owner of Botanicals, Inc., in Chicago. Nix the predictable bowls of mixed garden stems. "When you start with a blank space, the floral design plays a huge role in defining your event's style. Pick arrangements that are distinct," says Cooper, who recalls graphic centerpieces featuring yellow and amber orchids mixed with small burgundy hypericum berries in silver containers.
When it comes to separating the space, foliage can be your best friend. "Use tall plants or trees, or archways, and don't ignore the existing architecture: Lofts often have ceiling beams that can suspend floral arrangements and columns that can be decorated."
Get a Rental Agent
Leave the renting of tables, chairs, flatware, and linens to your planner or caterer, recommends Joyce Scardina Becker, of Events of Distinction in San Francisco. Chances are that between the glasses and the creamers, you'll forget something. Basic rentals for 100 guests will run about $2,500. If the loft isn't on the ground floor, check that there's an elevator for loading. Some vendors charge extra if they have to take the stairs.
Skip to the Loo
Depending on its age and function, a loft may lack ample bathroom facilities. Photography studios may be well-equipped, but warehouse and residential lofts often have only one or two stalls. If there's a restaurant or other business on another floor, make arrangements for your guests to have access to their facilities. Portable toilets are especially suited for ground-level lofts; hauling them up to high floors means more work for installers and more expense for you. Contact party-rental companies or ask your caterer.
Park It Over Here
Whether your loft is downtown or in a remote area of the city, chances are there won't be designated guest parking. Think about your grandma walking five deserted blocks and let your conscience be your guide. Get a valet or include a card with your invitations that lists parking facilities. Include directions for getting to the lot and from there, to the party. If it's within your budget, pick up the tab in advance.