The first time I met Jaala Sheldon of Jaala’s Party Pantry, the basket on her cruiser bike was overflowing with mercury-glass vases filled with flowers. The occasion was a progressive bike dinner and at each stop, she offered the hostess a beautiful bundle of blooms. It’s this degree of detail—elevated by whimsical surprises—that Sheldon delivers for every party she designs. The Cory-Merrill resident, whose background is in apparel merchandising and design, worked in the fashion industry for 17 years, for companies such as Esprit and Patagonia. Now she applies that design know-how to party planning.

In 2003, inspired by a travel story she had read on their honeymoon, Sheldon and her husband, Mark, bought a 1978 Avion travel trailer. The sleek, Airstream-like structure provides shelter during family road-trips and serves as Sheldon’s creative workshop. The camper has also provided plenty of party inspiration—like on this night when it became the centerpiece of a happy hour at Four Mile Historic Park.

Get the Look

When planning a party, Sheldon looks for details to inspire her design—pieces of fabric, a specific flower, even a special glass. In this case, she was inspired by the camper’s blue awning. The color led her to a set of fish-shaped cups (top), which became the centerpiece of the tiki-bohemian look. “It’s really all about what you’re celebrating,” Sheldon says. “This party was outdoors and it was about fun, food, and cocktails.” How else does she advise getting a party off the ground?

Build a visual board. “It’s a collage of pictures and pieces and parts of things that I find; I see how they look together on a page. Sometimes things stick; sometimes they don’t.”

Get back to nature. “I love to incorporate natural elements like wood, leaves, and bamboo for a grounded, relaxed feel. It’s easy to get cheesy [when party planning], and one way to avoid it is to avoid all the plastic, man-made stuff.”

Engage the five senses. “Turn on music. Light a candle. Arrange fresh flowers. Prepare a few of your favorite appetizer recipes. And always— always!—use cloth napkins. I have an assorted stash and I just pull out what feels good for the audience and the type of gathering.”

Create a bar. “You’ve got to have the bar stuff: an ice bucket, good shaker, and the fun booze to go with it. And I love a good bar cart.” For a casual get-together, little details like patterned napkins, a tray, and flowers pull the look together. And if you don’t want to serve cocktails, chilled wine and pretty glasses go a long way.

Don’t overdo it. “With parties, it’s easy to do too much. But if you try too hard, you lose the impact. Less is more in some respects.”

Know where to shop. Sheldon’s secret sources for party supplies? Retro (for themed decor), (for disposables), (for wood and bamboo supplies), and the always-popular (“for big custom balloons and anything else I need customized.”). Locally, she swings by Swoozie’s and the Paper Lady for finishing touches.

Prep the Party

A party’s magic relies, in part, on the food and drink. But if you don’t want to cook, go ahead and hire a caterer—and spend your time on presentation with these tips from Sheldon.

Dress it up. “I love using edible flowers. Drinks and cocktails with special garnishes [straws, stir sticks, flowers, berries] make cocktails irresistible.” Sheldon’s favorite blooms are mini orchids (which taste like cucumbers), but she also recommends growing your own blossoms or purchasing packages with pansies, nasturtiums, or geraniums from Whole Foods.

Keep it simple. “One of my favorite recipes to serve is a Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella or burrata, drizzled with truffle oil. You can serve it in little Ball jars or on individual plates.”

Think small. “One key to my work is serving little things in unique ways. I use those mini bamboo baskets [pictured under the sesame balls, top] all the time—I bought a thousand of them. They’re an easy way to make a dish seem unique and memorable.” Don’t forget the crowd-pleaser. “Everyone loves a good fruit and cheese plate. You can do a big platter, or individual servings on little wooden plates. It’s so special when guests get their own.”

Be ready. “If you can, have all your food ready and a bar set to serve when guests arrive. It’s more relaxing when you are prepared and your guests feel like you aren’t working too hard.”