The painter's greatest challenge? A white canvas. The writer's? A blank page. The wedding planner's? Nothing gets his adrenaline pumping and creative juices flowing like a gargantuan ballroom. Whether it's empty and unadorned or decked out in rococo embellishments and colorful details, the predicament is the same: how to prepare a space that's colossal, towering, and (often) poorly lit for the most intimate of moments -- your wedding?

Matthew Robbins is a veteran of many a ballroom transformation, and he has the tricks up his stylish sleeves to prove it. From bare walls to high ceilings to unflattering lighting, there isn't a difficulty he hasn't encountered and conquered. But before you even choose a reception space, he has some important words for you: "Don't pick an elaborate, baroque-inspired ballroom if you want a modern loft experience! If you need to completely transform a space in order to realize your vision, keep searching." The secret to pulling off the wedding of your dreams without ringing up the bill of your nightmares? "I always encourage my clients to think about adding elements that enhance the space and don't look completely foreign to the venue." Or, in blunter terms, work with what you've got.

Meet the Designer: Matthew Robbins of Matthew Robbins Design, New York City

The events expert has planned weddings of all sizes, under all circumstances. Which is why he's our go-to guru when it comes to big-day quandaries. Being that Robbins is based in New York City, he's thrown countless ballroom fetes -- and being that he's particularly good at what he does, none of them (not one!) feels cookie-cutter in the least.

The Walls

If these partitions could talk, they would say, "Dress me." Here's how to do just that.

There's nothing wrong with naked walls, particularly if you like a clean, modern aesthetic. But for your wedding -- a day that's about friends, family, and ooey-gooey sweet love -- blank, white walls may feel sterile, says Robbins. With so many interesting, inexpensive, and innovative options to liven them up, you'd be remiss if you skipped the opportunity to put your figurative stamp on them.

The most budget-friendly option is to use walls to exhibit personal photos. (This works especially well in long entrance halls or connecting spaces, such as a room that links the cocktail area to the dining room.) A gallery of images of friends, family, travels, and past weddings of your loved ones "can activate a space," says Robbins, "and make it interactive as your guests mingle and view the photos." In essence, your walls become a conversation starter ("Oh, my goodness! Look at Cheryl in braces!").

For an edgier, more of-the-moment version of this, project home movies onto bare partitions. It makes for wonderful "background ambience," says the designer, particularly when the films are rendered in glamorous black and white. If you're not the type of couple to display pictures of yourselves even at home, rest easy -- there are other solutions. Installing mirrors is a simple and fantastic idea that adds an extra dimension to the space. And if you're working with a very contemporary venue, consider painting large canvases with solid washes of color to inject "an element of 'art' into an otherwise drab and boring wall." You don't need a creative bone in your body to pull this off, but you do need to work within your chosen color scheme.

The same holds true if you're going to use lighting to upgrade a wall; make sure it casts a flattering shade and goes well with your palette (turn the page for lighting fixes). Draping walls with fabric is the costliest option, but you can't argue with its luxurious, glamorous results. Just be sure that the material you pick is fire-retardant, especially if you're going with a synthetic. If money is an issue but you love the look of drapery, use it just on the wall behind your ceremony space: Even unbleached muslin can create a romantic and warm mood.


The Ceiling

Airy and spacious: not always a good thing.

"High ceilings is one of the most popular concerns I hear from brides," says Robbins. A common solution is to add tall centerpieces -- which sounds like an easy fix but in reality proves to be an annoyance, as guests have to crane their necks to talk with those across the table. No matter how high your centerpieces may be, they simply can't compete with massively tall ceilings. Instead, keep arrangements low, and fill in the space by draping from the top down. "I like to conjure vignettes within larger pieces by creating 'canopies' over groups of tables or other seating areas. You can also hang chandeliers or lanterns, but don't add them if you're in a classic, very embellished ballroom."


The Lighting

How to pull off a radiant, glowing reception? Hint: Dim some.

All those hours you spent choosing the right shade of pink for your cheeks and the perfect silhouette for your dress will have been for naught if you don't have the proper lighting, a particularly crucial element when you're working with a cavernous space. Which is why, when viewing a potential venue, you should always inquire whether the fees include in-house lighting, advises Robbins. Check out the existing fixtures and make sure that there are dimmers. "I can't tell you what a big difference dimmers can make! If you don't have a big budget, just having the existing lighting dimmed to a very soft glow and peppering the space with candles will change the feel of the room." In general, think about infusing the entire place with a luminous glow and casting an indirect, less focused light (as opposed to "pin spot" beams). New event-lighting options make this a breeze to achieve: LED panels can create a softer, more color-controlled light than the classic "can" lights with color gels; they also require less energy and give off less heat. There are even wireless systems now available, a viable option for almost any space. A few more lighting dos: using warm colors (think amber or pink tones); draping windows with a soft, ethereal fabric that filters the light; and giving the dance floor visual interest with abstract pattern projections.


Troubleshooting: Fast Fixes for Common Ballroom Issues

Problem: Oversize Space

Use rectangular or large square tables, recommends Robbins; they take up more space than round ones. Create lounge areas with a few sofas, chairs, and modular pieces such as ottomans. Position some free-standing arrangements of seasonal branches or rented trees to "add texture and create a more intimate dining experience."

Problem: Unattractive Flooring

You can cover up an ugly floor by laying down artificial turf in a sisal or camel color, layering carpet over it, or renting dance-floor materials to cover the entire ballroom and give it more of a hardwood-floor look. All these options come with a hefty price tag, though, which leads Robbins to note, "Remember, your tables will cover most of the flooring, and when the lights are down, you won't see or notice the crazy carpet in the same way that you might when viewing it in broad daylight."

Problem: Tacky Chairs

"If your venue features an upholstered chair for the dining room that you really can't stand, don't think for a minute that adding a fabric cover will solve the problem! I think this is an outdated, fussy approach." His solution? Barring renting more appealing chairs, add "a simple chair cap for the top half of the chair or the back only. This will clean up the look of the chair."


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