When Michelle Cousins plans a party for early fall, a stylish good time is guaranteed for all. This event-planning pro lets autumn inspiration be her guide, and every element she includes—from flowers to food, plates to palettes—is as special and comforting as the season itself.

Amy Lashelle, Mugs, Dessert
Photo by Amy Lashelle

You know what’s worth the wait? Utah’s early autumn. For many of us, this is the most beautiful time of year, and we count the days until it arrives. Event planner Michelle Cousins is no exception. “I love this time of the year,” she exclaims. As the founder and principal designer of Michelle Leo Events, Cousins creates spectacular events year-round, and she relishes the calm and comfort of early fall—that sliver of serenity nestled between summer’s full-throttle festivities and the hustle and bustle of the holidays. “It’s so relaxed and cozy,” she explains. Naturally, the seasons always influence the events Cousins designs for her clients, ranging from luxury brides to high-style hostesses and hot-shot corporations. So, given Cousins’ love for fall, you’d expect the parties she conjures for this time of year to be extra special—and you’d be right. Cousins invites us to a number of her autumn celebrations, offering insight into how she made each magical.

Create an Experience

“What experience do you want to create for your guests?” Cousins asks. Whether it’s a laid-back lunch served in a garden or a harvest dinner set in front of a fireplace, the experience is the starting point for planning a party. Establishing the experience also helps you determine the style that guides every design decision one makes. For Cousins, the guest list is key. “Gather with those you love,” she suggests. “A casual party should reflect you and the relationships you have with those you invite.” And remember, everything needn’t be perfect. “Don’t be intimidated. When guests see that you have worked to make things special, they’ll know that you care.”

Take it Outside (Or Invite the Outside In)

“There are many styles that suit this time of year, and nature is a common ingredient to them all,” Cousins says. It’s no wonder she loves to entertain outdoors during the early days of fall. To create a truly special event, Cousins is not shy about setting a dressy mirrored table inside a grove of quaking aspens or staging a vintage farm table in a grassy meadow, each letting fall’s dramatic landscapes set the scene. “It creates unforgettable memories,” she says. “What’s more, the temperatures this time of year are perfect for entertaining outside.” To extend the warmth into the evenings, she often integrates outdoor fire features, heat lamps and piles of blankets and throws into her design mix. And when Cousins takes the party indoors, she continues to rely on nature for inspiration, harvesting fall’s colors, textures and flavors to bring them inside. 

Floral design, Aqua and gray tabletop, Place cards, Place setting, Megan Robinson
Photo by Megan Robinson

Produce a Palette

“I like contrast,” says Cousins, who often plays off the colors of the mountains and natural landscapes to anchor her autumn color palettes. For a table setting surrounded by yellow aspens, she’ll choose neutral tones for runners and place settings that allow the colorful trees and her vibrant floral arrangements to shine. “You don’t want everything to catch your eye,” she says. Conversely, when Cousins selects a vivid runner or bright tableware, she frequently chooses softer tones for flowers and accents. “Opposites attract,” she explains. Either way, Cousins elevates the rich and comforting colors of autumn with texture. “Because the palette is a bit more limited than other times of the year, it becomes even more important to pay attention to texture,” she explains.

Top Your Table

For Cousins, it all begins with the table. “This is the foundation of the celebration,” she says. For larger groups, she encourages the use of both a farmhouse table as well as a round table. She then creates settings for each that are complementary, not matching. “Different tables, different designs,” she explains. “Sisters, not twins.” Regardless of the type or number of tables, Cousins always tops them with elements that foster the event’s desired design. For early autumn, she often teams loose runners, earthy tableware, informal florals and relaxed layers of accents to capture the season’s comforting vibe.

Massage the Menu

“You don’t need an overly complicated menu this season,” insists Cousins, who frequently incorporates charcuterie, trays of appetizers and serve-yourself snacks into her culinary mix. “People love to graze this time of year.” Help-yourself servings also take the pressure off the host. Signature drinks are another item on Cousins’ must-have list. “They are an opportunity to add to the experience and wow your guests,” she says. From a hot-cocoa bar to spiced ciders paired with whiskey, the options are endless. And, when it comes to including a special dessert, Cousins suggests placing it front and center throughout the party. “Why hide a beautiful cake until the last moment?” she asks. Instead, she often makes a memorable dessert part of the tabletop, nestling it in among fresh florals, candles and accents. “Let it be a showstopper,” she says.   

We have even more entertaining inspiration in our archives.

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Brad Mee
Brad Mee is the Editor-in-Chief of Utah Style & Design Magazine.