At the DIFFA Gala, if You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Sit Down With Us

Rough-hewn wood, deer antlers, sagging back-porch screens. Call the hot new look in design early Beverly Hillbillies. Sign Up For

Rough-hewn wood, deer antlers, sagging back-porch screens. Call the hot new look in design early Beverly Hillbillies.

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On Monday, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA) hosted its annual gala at Pier 94–the final of five days of events built around elaborate tables created by interior designers, event planners, architects and fashion designers. For the keenly competitive “Dining by Design” event–the interior decorating trade awards a Best in Show–the three dozen competitors who enter have to build, furnish and decorate complete dining rooms. On the final night, dinner is served.

All for a good cause, so to speak, but Dining by Design, for its regulars, is also one of the most competitive and venal of all the city’s charity events. Designers treat their guests to pricey favors–cameras, porcelain boxes–and catty comments circle the room like attentive waiters. Overheard: “Yours was better.” “Did he pay for that or get it donated?” “This tree’s in my face.” “She’s not a good person.” “How do you get to be at the table with the Will and Kate Royal Wedding plates?” And, repeatedly: “What gift did you get?” What gift did you get?” and “Did your table get a gift?”

Nonetheless, the elegant throw-down is visited by virtually every major New York decorator, and what’s shown sets the industry’s tone and tastes for months to come. Themes emerge and are promptly dissected. Previous years were dark and elegant, floral or retro, but 2011 could best be summed up as a visit to Jed and Ellie. Natural materials, branches, bones and flowers, in earth tones, made up many of the tables. A Woody trailer was parked at the back. Typical, if at the top end of the trend, was Ralph Lauren Home’s entry. The company built an entire faux back porch, and decorated it with vintage metal lanterns, strings of lights and country-style wooden chairs painted white. The curried short ribs and polenta on the menu didn’t quite jibe with the Ozarks feel, but every seat was taken.

Designer Antony Caradonna said that this year, the entries that stood out included some element of design, construction or craft, rather than just a styling of the spaces, as had been common in previous years. His team–he’s a designer and a professor at Pratt Institute–won in the student division with a kind of swanky tiki room woven of cardboard, among other materials. For under $2,500, he bragged. Some professional competitors spend tens of thousands bringing antique dinner tables the price of a Florida condo.

DIFFA, founded in 1984 to fund home care for AIDS patients, raises in the neighborhood of $1 million from the event annually. And while this year’s total isn’t in, said Peggy Bellar, DIFFA’s director of special events, “the recession appears to be over.” There were more entries, and the amount raised is probably up. 

The Best in Show winner, professional division, was Evette Rios (often spotted on Rachel Ray and The Today Show), who also went with a nature theme. Her dining table was surrounded by an open-air room made of wooden beams; a curtain of rain descended from solar-powered fountains within them. She gave her guests umbrellas. But too many participants took this year’s theme, “Inspiring Afterlife,” to mean “recyled” rather than “heaven.” The Coca-Cola Company entered with chairs and hand-blown lighting made entirely from recycled drink bottles. 

As for the event’s popular hit, the wood-paneled-camper entry, it was a tricked-out “Ultimate Tailgater” designed by Brad Ford. It had a full bar, an outdoor plasma television, mahogany walls, buffalo hide and leather trim.

The focus on natural or recycled materials felt a bit p.c., and it was occasionally refreshing to see something lush, like the James Bond-style lounge of designer Vanessa Panotas, of Vanessa P. Designs. She entered, at a lower cost and with a smaller 8-foot-by-8-foot space to work with, the “emerging designer” category. Her sponsors included Champagne company Perrier-Jouet, she explained, so she had to go upscale. Not too upscale, however: The cow-skin rug that marked the floor of their booth, her husband revealed, came straight from their living room.

At the DIFFA Gala, if You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Sit Down With Us