Michelle Obama, it surely comes as no surprise, likes to have choices.
So every time Boston event planner Bryan Rafanelli sat down with the first lady to design White House state dinners and holiday celebrations, he’d present her with three options, each in binders stuffed with fabric swatches, color schemes, flower choices, and floor plans.
Once she’d settled on a decision, Rafanelli would do something unusual: He’d ask her why she didn’t choose the other two.
“And she would explain it to me, and that was great,” he said. “If you come in to see me, I will always say to you, ‘this is not my wedding’” or, in this case, White House celebration. “Our success is to tell your story. So I have to get to that. I have to figure that out.”
Rafanelli has built a thriving business by intuiting exactly what his clients want. Presidents, celebrities, the astonishingly wealthy and philanthropic — they all turn to him to plan their most spectacular occasions.
When Oscar winner Matt Damon and his wife, Luciana, wanted to gather friends to toast their 10th anniversary, they called Rafanelli to create an event to remember. When Chelsea Clinton imagined her dream wedding, which would be held before 400 guests at the stately Astor Courts in Rhinebeck, N.Y., the silver-haired Rafanelli got the nod. When the Obama White House needed to plan seven elegant state dinners, along with 15 other grand celebrations . . . you know where this is going.
A beautiful new book offers a glimpse into some of the high-profile events that Rafanelli and his team have dreamed up in recent years. “A Great Party: Designing the Perfect Celebration,” published this week by Rizzoli, marks the event planner’s first foray as an author.
As it happens, the book reads as if he’s been writing for years, with engaging vignettes and personal stories interspersed with gorgeous images from weddings and holiday bashes and $1,000-a-plate fund-raisers.
These are not your sister-in-law’s Sunday potlucks.
Rafanelli’s aesthetic is theatrical and dramatic, and he often creates spaces that have an almost otherworldly quality to them. When it comes to design elements, he toys with scale and size. One year, the Storybook Ball, a MassGeneral Hospital for Children fund-raiser, picked “Treasure Island” as a theme, so Rafanelli hung enormous sails from the ceiling, turning the ballroom into a pirate ship.
A kick-off-your-shoes wedding after-party didn’t just feature a DJ spinning tunes. The DJ gazed down on the dancing crowd from atop a colorful two-story wall — not far from several colossal mirror balls.
But perhaps his most inspiring transformation took place in 2015, when Rafanelli and his team projected a rainbow onto the White House itself, turning the country’s most famous ediface into a symbol of gay pride to mark the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Ask Rafanelli what motivates him, and he’ll talk about his family, his determination to treat everyone with respect, his ability to listen. The designer has certainly mastered the ability to be calm in the eye of the storm — and yet be delighted by surprises. But it seems that his love of the work, with all its challenges and problem-solving, is what most sparks his creativity.
“Look at that book,” Rafanelli said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Bryan Rafanelli will be signing copies of his new book, “A Great Party: Designing the Perfect Celebration,” on Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. at Wellesley Books. Tickets are available in-store or by phone at 781-431-1160, or online at store.wellesleybooks.com. See the website for details.