Once an aspiring actress, Mal Marcus parlayed her producing talent into helping clients create dream events. “It’s the perfect mix because I organize and manage these events,” says Marcus, an Event Producer at Kehoe Designs. “I also use my creative side to play with my clients’ vision and bring that to life through décor.”
As a native Chicagoan, Marcus’ city inspires her. “I love walking around Chicago and finding moments to pause—allowing myself to take it all in,” she says. “There’s so much that sparks and intrigues imagination.”
Mal Marcus produces corporate and social events with a focus on the guest experience and branding. “My mindset is, ‘What world will people enter at this event?'” she says. “What memories will they take away?”
She chose three events that showed off her design versatility—a corporate holiday party, a gourmet food festival, and a bat mitzvah. “One of my strengths is molding my design style to any client’s design,” she says, “translating it into something new and fresh.”
GOTHIC HOLIDAY: WHERE FURNITURE & LIGHTING TELLS A STORY
A high-end advertising agency client asked Marcus to subvert the usual for their avant-garde holiday party. “They love taking creative risks. That’s why we stayed away from traditional holiday décor like trees or blue crystal lighting,” she says. “Therefore, we landed on a unique ‘Gothic gala’ holiday party.”
Luckily the holiday party venue—Chicago’s desirable John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium built in 1923—offers a baroque, ecclesiastical feel. The auditorium’s architectural design style reads as French Renaissance, reminiscent of the Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Consolation in Paris. “The elaborate stained-glass windows, domed ceiling and ornate wooden walls feel like a church,” Marcus says, “perfect for a moody holiday party.”
A stunning dreamscape greeted holiday party-goers: a black suede unicorn pulling a sculptural carriage draped in burgundy and black floral. “This client’s logo is a unicorn,” Marcus says. “The twist is that we never display their company name at their events. However, we always work a unicorn thematically into the event for understated branding—and an amazing photo opportunity.”
The BlackOak Technical Productions team helped Marcus select the perfect mood lighting for this holiday party. “We lit up the impressive domed ceiling with textured amber lighting shaped like branches,” she says, lending a darkly intimate effect.” Also, the team uplit special architectural details, like the stained-glass windows, and used lanterns for a “Victorian evening.“
Marcus used floral strategically as statement pieces throughout the space. When guests walked in, two large focal arrangements anchored the entry path. “These showstoppers included Black Magic Roses,” she says. “My client wanted minimal floral, so we used them throughout to add a romantic vibe to this moody holiday party.”
She loves to create multiple photo ops for guests at her events. “For one of the photo opportunities, we created an intricate garden gate backdrop embellished with dark floral and wild branches,” Marcus says. “It’s like the gate to a haunted mansion.”
Ultimately, the client and their employees loved the Gothic gala.“This dark twist on holiday was an exciting and bold approach to a risky and mysterious romance,” says David Beaupre, Art Director at Kehoe Designs.
This baroque seating vignette features Kehoe Designs’ furniture: a specialty crown tufted sofa, two baroque globe chairs, a kidney-style black coffee table and a brown velvet bench. The baroque furniture is upholstered in teal and citron green mohar. “We always style our lounge furniture with textured accent pillows and thematic coffee table accessories,” Marcus says.Throughout the space, Marcus created different seating moments. Here, in the main room, she chose a small couch with purple and red pillows. “We hung a textured demi-drape around it, so this area had its own moment for a small group,” she says. “However, because of its height, it drew attention as a point of interest.”
Photo Credits: Design, Décor, Photos: Kehoe Designs, Mal Marcus | Technical Production: BlackOak Technical Productions, Jonathan Zani | Venue: The Murphy Chicago
INSPIRATION STATIONS: UPSCALE EVENT BRANDING
Marcus dubs the annual two-day Chicago Gourmet festival as “The Lollapalooza Of Food.” Held in Millennium Park, thousands of attendees visit different tents and activations to sample food and drink from various sponsors. “It’s a marketers playground with so many branding opportunities,” she says, “including the special VIP areas.”
The 2018 event theme was “Rock the Fork.” Throughout the park, attendees could enjoy ’90’s music, hip-hop, country, and more. After brainstorming how music ties into food, Marcus and the Kehoe Designs team conjured up unique branding for Chicago Gourmet, now headed into its 12th year.
In the Harris Rooftop Tent, Mal Marcus went all out on a focal branding display hanging over the main bar. First, the Kehoe Designs team created a silver-fringed shade, with iridescent multicolored hanging forks and sparkly disco balls. Flanking this, the team hung massive, 8-foot CD’s with the event logo on both sides, and covered them with mylar to play with the sun’s dancing light rays.
“We thought about what music would look like hanging from the ceiling,” Marcus says. “In addition, this is a thoughtful branding opportunity that attendees could see from any point of view within the tent. Everything is better with branding.”
For the event’s Hamburger Hop taking place in the Harris Rooftop Tent, Marcus wanted to create unique graphics to wrap around the bar. The Hop is a Chicago Gourmet special event, a burger-making contest where 15 chefs from local restaurants compete for the prestigious award.
“We chose ’90’s nostalgia images, such as cassette tapes and microphones,” Marcus says, “We transformed the images into colorful, Andy Warhol-like graphics around the bar, as a nod to ’90’s pop culture.”
Marcus wanted the lighting to complement the high-energy, technicolor graphic images, and oversized CD’s. “When Mal approached me about adding fun ’90’s lighting for Chicago Gourmet, she painted the vision of what the client wanted to achieve,” says Meredith Francsis, Senior Producer at BlackOak Technical Productions. “We talked about the most impactful ways to add the ’90’s vibe. Then, we decided on classic textures and bright colors.”
Each year at the Chicago Gourmet festival, the Kehoe Designs team devises a photo location that doubles as a branding opportunity for event sponsors. “We thought about how to bring the event logo to life,” Marcus says. “Ultimately, we constructed 8-to-12-foot tall wooden forks with branding. We placed the sponsor logos prominently on their foreheads, so they’re easily seen in photos.”
Marcus and the team creatively designed the fork tines in the shape of the “Rock on” symbol. “The purpose of this ‘fork painted forest’ install was to drive guests and create a social-worthy moment,” she says.
During the Chicago Gourmet festival, the Kehoe Designs team also worked with event sponsors on each of their unique activations. “There’s a lot of effort—between strategizing and logistics,” Marcus says, “but our team pulls out all the stops to make every sponsor’s activation special.”
Talk about incredible branding opportunities, along with event photos that will be shared all over social media (it’s Chicago Gourmet’s lucky day!).
For example, eye-catching orange branding elements enlivened Aperol Spritz’s Bar tent (see below). “This sponsor brought in the orange-and-white striped umbrellas,” Marcus says, “and I ran with the color combo by bringing in orange-and-white striped highboys. We also built an elaborate balloon garland as an attractive backdrop.”
As part of a special event within Chicago Gourmet, the Grand Cru gives VIP participants a chance to sample exclusive wine from sponsors. The Kehoe Designs team brought the VIP lounge sections to life with comfortable lounge décor, custom graphics, floral, and of course—branding!
“This VIP lounge definitely had the Kehoe Designs’ stamp on it,” Marcus says. “Placing CD’s in the coffee tabletop floral arrangements showed how much we care about the details.”
Photo Credits: Design, Décor, Photos: Kehoe Designs, Mal Marcus | Technical Production: BlackOak Technical Productions, Meredith Francsis | Balloon Garland: Balloons by Tommy | Venue: Chicago Gourmet—Harris Theater & Millennium Park
“At all events, we want guests to feel like they’re at home and can relax,” Marcus says. “Even though the furniture is conducive to outdoor use, it’s plush and residential. We brought in textured pillows, rugs, and other embellishments.”
For added branding, the Kehoe Designs art department printed a custom guitar fret graphic for the coffee tabletops. “We upped the fun vibe with this extra, colorful element that matched the event aesthetic,” Mal Marcus says.
GLAMMED-UP BAT MITZVAH: A FUN & FANCY AFFAIR
Mal Marcus loves forging personal connections with her clients for life-event parties. Case in point: She bonded with Raphaela, and then produced her son’s and daughter’s bar and bat mitzvahs in rapid succession.
“I love how close I got to the family,” Marcus says. “It’s critical to tell their stories through my design.“ For Leyla’s bat mitzvah, the theme was a “funsy” affair—fun and fancy melded together. The result? Glitzy, yet elegant and sophisticated décor and furniture that meshed cohesively.
Raphaela held Leyla’s bat mitzvah at Great Wolf Lodge—a hotel with an indoor water park. “She wanted the kids to have fun during the event,” Marcus says. “However, she wanted the dinner and dancing party to be lovely. So we totally transformed the ballroom.”
Since dancing was the party’s leading entertainment, Marcus focused on the DJ booth and backdrop as a focal element. Personal branding was the special touch. While browsing Kehoe Designs’ inventory, she noticed oversized white foam dahlias, magnolias, and roses. “I knew these would lend an interesting layering effect,” she says. “The result was a seamless, textured design, where you couldn’t tell where the DJ booth started or ended.”
Marcus situated the children’s high, communal tables with fun Lucite stools right near the dance floor. “I wanted the kids’ furniture to be sophisticated as well,” she says. “That’s why I chose tile-mirrored tables, which almost made the stools disappear.”
“The idea for Leyla’s DJ booth was inspired by a plaster-cast floral wall treatment,” says Noel Leontis Raimondi, Creative Services Manager at Kehoe Designs. “As a team, we’re always coloring outside the lines in all aspects of design, so this was no different. We decided to cover the whole DJ booth in paper flowers for a wow effect. The actual DJ booth needed more pop, so we took it up to the ceiling.”
Then, they printed Leyla’s name logo in gold mylar. Branding for a mitzvah is an entirely immersive experience and sets the tone for the type of celebration your guests should expect. “The gold harmonizes with the white flowers,” Marcus says. “It’s an iridescent metallic, so that her name stood out to guests and popped in the lighting.”
Raphaela wanted a collection of specialty furniture to blend into her vision of a glam affair. Marcus carefully curated high, rectangular, and round tables that went seamlessly together. “This event welcomed many guests, so we needed to build a variety of extensive, cohesive seating arrangements,” Marcus says.
“We infused the furniture design with a mixture of contemporary mirrored tabletops, metallic and Lucite chairs, and both large and small Payette sequin linens,” Leontis Raimondi says. “This really gave the room a strong design aesthetic—plus a balance of delicate and modern.” One table they selected had a glass top and mirrored bottom, trimmed with faux crystals—offering an infinity look.
Mal Marcus worked with the Kehoe Designs team to build a series of complementary table centerpieces, with minimal floral. They included elements like crystal candlesticks with floating white votives, gold-gilded white faux flowers, and baby’s breath to unify the centerpieces. “Just like we brought together different furniture styles,” Marcus says, “we created different cohesive centerpiece looks as well.”
Marcus chose complementary table linens in geometric patterns and sequins for cohesion and movement. “We took a different take on sequins by making them oversized,” she says. “They added lots of texture and visual interest.”
Photo Credits: Design & Décor: Kehoe Designs, Mal Marcus | Technical Production: BlackOak Technical Productions, Jonathan Zani | Venue: Great Wolf Lodge | Catering: Mark David Catering | Photography: Carasco Creative Photo & Video
Lighting played a significant role in this party! Marcus worked with the BlackOak Technical Productions’ team to create an overall color scheme that washed the room and furniture in a blush pink and amber. “The color combo complement each other,” she says. “They’re stunning and warm for weddings or mitzvahs.” Also, they placed simple uplights around the space to add to the glamour.
To make the dance floor pop, Mal Marcus chose dynamic, textured lighting. “This made for a wow moment when the guests walked into the room right onto the dance floor,” Marcus says. “As a result, one of the first things they saw was the DJ backdrop with Leyla’s name on it.”
“Mal’s goal was to emulate a feminine look with rich tones of white, ivory and gold,” Leontis Raimondi says. “We wanted to stick with relevant trends in both décor and color palettes. This was a perfect opportunity to add just a touch of millennial pink—on the softer blush side. This hue offers a more sophisticated feel. It shows in both the lighting and floral design.”
Ultimately, Mal Marcus wants her clients to feel confident and trust her with their events. “I own my work,” she says. It’s essential to bring inspiration and positive energy to every event I produce.”
Quick Q’s: Mal Marcus
What excites you about event trends in 2019?
MM: For 2019, it’s all about no fear. People are interested in new and exciting ideas for their events. For example, mixing patterns, textures, and furniture elements that wouldn’t usually go. Events are going BIG and bold. Stepping out of my comfort zone and taking risks allows me to find unique trends and exhilarates my creative process.
What color combos are you kicking it with right now?
MM: I love sage green, mixed with mauve and lavender. You can translate this combo for weddings in softer, more muted tones, yet you can also go bolder for corporate events. You can also introduce greenery for a more masculine feel—many shades of purple and green play well together.
What material combos do you love?
MM: I’ve been mixing wild, organic greenery with glass lighting tubes for special effects. This is a contemporary approach to plantscapes. In addition, it makes them a more textured, experiential part of an event.
What’s something you always say to your clients?
MM: “Trust your first instincts with your design.” There’s so much design FOMO right now on Instagram and Pinterest. Often, clients who are really confident in their designs have second thoughts once they surf online. As a result, a new idea they find doesn’t mesh with their original desired aesthetics. In a way, this can be an inspiration killer. I tell them to stop second-guessing themselves, keeping it 100% original and true to themselves.