NEW YORK The annual Robin Hood Foundation benefit is always a highlight of the year for watchers of event style, for two reasons: First is its sheer size—the event takes over a section of the Javits Center, the only place in town where you can seat a few thousand people for dinner. Second, Avi Adler and David Stark design eye-popping environments that take advantage of the large space while surprising guests year after year. The natural question to ask when entering the event is, What have they come up with this time?
That question is part of the fun of planning the event for Robin Hood director of marketing, communications, and events Laurie Fabiano. She likes to give her vendors some leeway to come up with creative ideas, and this year that MO paid off. “This was my favorite by far,” she said the next day.
In the cocktail area, Adler and Stark installed giant letters of various shapes, sizes, and fonts that sparkled, blinked, and spelled out “Robin Hood” across the vast space. “The idea was the lights of Las Vegas meets alphabet soup,” Stark said, explaining that they wanted to “turn letters into objects or sculptures or walls. You can walk through them and they morph and blink.”
They came up with the concept about six months before the event, and then made extensive scale drawings and built architectural models of the letters to see how they would relate to each other in the space. “The trick to this event is, it’s so big you have to know what you’re doing,” Stark said. “You can’t just show up and hope that it works.”
And work it did. “I thought the cut-out alphabet was one of the most striking things I had ever seen,” Fabiano said. “Each letter was a work of art.”
Inside the dining area—defined by black fabric walls dotted with eight movie theater-sized screens—the designers used a pink and brown color scheme inspired by a simpler idea: “We thought they looked pretty together,” Stark said. Topped with brown linens, the tables had arrangements of pink peonies in vases covered with striped fabric. On the programs and menu cards designed by Omnivore, playful typography recalled the cocktail area’s giant letters. And the most striking element was the room’s bright pink carpet.
With 400 tables to serve—requiring about 700 catering staffers—caterer Glorious Food’s menu was based largely on logistics. “You have less than an hour and a half to get it arranged, so it has to be room temperature,” partner Sean Driscoll said. (He also wanted food that felt appropriate to the event’s late-spring timing.) The meal started with grilled tuna with wasabi sauce, followed by barbecued beef and chicken, three bean salad, and corn pudding, with almond cheesecake and mixed berries for dessert.
Even with such over-the-top decor, surely the attendees also buzz over the entertainment at the benefit, which always boasts a headlining act and some surprises. This year a sold-out, record crowd of 4,000 people—up from 3,600 last year, possible because Javits had more space available—knew to expect a show from Stevie Wonder. But first Whoopi Goldberg kicked off the night with 10 minutes of stand-up riffs, followed by Patti LaBelle and Mary J. Blige dueting on “Ain’t No Way.” And during Wonder’s set at the end of the night, Coldplay front man Chris Martin joined him for a song.
Having two TV newspeople, Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams, as the evening’s M.C.s inspired Fabiano to bring in some of their satirical counterparts: Jon Stewart taped a two-minute film about Robin Hood, and Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler did a live “Weekend Update” sketch. “It was the very best [newspeople] and the funniest,” Fabiano said.
Next was the live auction (conducted by Sotheby’s Jamie Niven) of only-at-Robin Hood experiences, like dinner at the home of Sawyer and Mike Nichols, a tour of the Museum of Modern Art with Chuck Close, and the chance to dine at the new Le Cirque on opening night (and those were all in one lot). The first lot’s “Viva Las Vegas” theme, combined with the flashy letters in the cocktail area, inspired Fabiano to have four guys dressed in white Elvis suits slide down wires from the ceiling—an idea that came to her in the bathtub. “I just wanted to kick off the auction with some fanfare,” Fabiano said. “Everything I did at this event, I erred on the site of kitsch.”
The high rollers at the fund-raiser responded, raising $31.9 million, including cash from 20 people who signed up to sponsor public school libraries, each at $250,000 a pop. The nonprofit, which works to fight poverty in New York, has a board of finance, media, and entertainment types like Harvey Weinstein, Tom Brokaw, and Gwyneth Paltrow that underwrites the costs of the benefit—and helps lure all those big entertainers and auction donors—so all money raised goes directly to the foundation’s programs.
Photos: Arlene Sandler/Lensgirl (letters, bar, dining room)
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