An expert's tips on making your holiday party memorable, without showing off

Place cards can also be party favors, such as these small flower bouquets.
Place cards can also be party favors, such as these small flower bouquets. Sandra Garcia

Nobody throws a party like San Francisco designer Ken Fulk.

The tastemaker and special-events impresario who grew up helping with Sunday supper at home in Harrisonburg, Va., now throws glamorous events for the likes of former Facebook president Sean Parker, designs glam New York restaurants and creates home furnishings for Pottery Barn.

Fulk is known for drama, whimsy and attention to detail; he suggests every host have a bit of all three. Even if you don't have the blazing fires and engraved antique silver napkin rings he features in parties in his book "Mr. Ken Fulk's Magical World," you can establish your own rituals and make guests feel comfy and cozy. One idea: Arrange a line of old Christmas photographs down the table. "It's personal and genuine. It really connects people," he says.

But most of all, don't show off or worry about being fancy. "You want your guests to have a great time," he says. "The important thing is being together. If cooking isn't your forte, order takeout and serve it on your best dishes."

Q: How can you have a great party if you don't have a big, gorgeous dining table and lots of fancy china?

A: Embrace the things you can do well. So if you make a great cocktail, focus on beautiful drinks and consider doing a signature punch. I'm a big punch guy; it's part of the heritage cocktail movement. Punch bowls look beautiful, and you're not stuck behind the bar. By all means, use your grandmother's cut-glass punch bowl if you've got it. But fill it with something your grandmother wouldn't make. Forget sherbet and syrups; do something lighter with vodka or tequila and throw in some fruit slices. Get some of those wonderful big, round ice ball makers and put those ice balls in the bowl.

Q: What's a good idea for a centerpiece?

A: I love using bowls of beautiful tangerines on the table. Use old stemmed bowls to display them. Then you can slice pomegranates and persimmons and place them down the table. The colors are glorious, and it looks like your table is out of a Dutch still life. I think rich jewel tones - deep pinks and burgundies punctuated with oranges - are perfect for the holidays.

Q: How about lighting?

A: I have a rule that you can never have too many candles. I collect candlesticks. If I'm in my house in Provincetown, I will use brass candlesticks with black candles, along with lots of fruit in between. For the holidays, it's nice to use silver candlesticks with white tapers punctuated with glowing votives in mercury-glass holders.

Q: Do you think place cards are a good idea?

A: Seating the table is a little bit of a chess game. It's one of your obligations as well as part of the fun. You want the right people next to each other to spark the most interesting conversations.

Q: What if all my plates don't match?

A: I prefer a collected table. It's more interesting than having everything perfectly matched. That almost looks too imposing to some people. If you have a collected feel to your table, it's actually easier to pull off. If you have only 12 plates and 14 people are coming, don't worry - use some different plates. Don't end up thinking about perfection versus thinking about joy.