For Ajiri Aki, the creative mastermind behind the Paris-based linens and antiques boutique Madame de la Maison, the ability to throw epic gatherings both big and small has always been her North Star. In a time when coming together means more than ever, the entertaining guru shares her journey, her love of flea market finds, and how to put together a perfectly imperfect occasion where even the busiest hostess-with-the-mostest can have the time of her life. Read to the end for a list of the things Aki absolutely can’t live without!
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Years before the idea of Madame de la Maison crossed Ajiri Aki’s mind, she was already on her way to becoming a well-known hostess of epic parties. One of her favorite early soirées was the 25th surprise birthday she threw for herself: She sent handwritten invitations with rhyming poems, created a dramatic dark entryway lit with tons of candles, and replaced the furniture in her Brooklyn Heights living room furniture with one long dining table draped in flowers, candles, and the finest tableware available in a twenty-something’s kitchen.
“We had the time of our lives having this very lovely, classy dinner,” says Aki, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Austin, Texas before relocating to New York after college. All of the planning and preparation was worth the invitation she had to turn down to make it happen: On the day of her event, she was supposed to be at styling a magazine shoot with Lenny Kravitz at his Miami home. She chose her surprise party instead. (Kravitz called to wish her happy birthday.)
While the 25-year-old Aki might not have been able to predict the turns her career would take (over the years, she worked in magazines, the fashion industry, and museums, including the famed Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) or where life would take her (after New York, she relocated to Paris with her Swiss-born husband), it’s no surprise that she would eventually find herself merging her natural affinity for building communities with her well-trained aesthetic eye. Aki has emerged influencer in the world of entertaining (at the end of 2020, Vogue Australia named her one of its “New Martha Stewarts“) and is the founder of Madame de la Maison, an expertly curated shop offering new and vintage tabletop accessories for sale and rental.
Aki has always been a lover of beautiful objects, she says. As a young girl, she became obsessed with her mother’s wedding china, which sat untouched and on display in her childhood home in a glass-front china cabinet. One Easter when her family was hosting their church community, she convinced her mother to set the table with the coveted dinnerware. “It was so beautiful, so glorious,”Aki recalls. And then [my mom] said, ‘Okay, let’s put it all back.’ I was like “What? That wasn’t part of the plan!” (They ate off of plastic plates instead, much to her chagrin.)
Aki’s mother died not long after; the china was packed up and lost. “It kind of formed something inside of me that maybe I couldn’t quite grasp at the time… If something is so precious and wonderful you should use it,” she says. The experience helped fuel her collector’s spirit: Although Aki had been embarrassed at being dragged to garage sales as a child, her mother’s motto of “one man’s trash is another’s treasure” took on new meaning. Today, she gladly scours antique warehouses and flea markets to find the unique pieces of dinnerware and other home curiosities that will thrill her clients, whether they are adding them to their collection or temporarily renting them for a special event.
Aki’s globe-spanning background also helped hone her appreciation for entertaining as a crucial way to create community and connection. She watched her parents do this when they immigrated from Nigeria to Texas, and she has adopted this practice in every place she has lived since, though her philosophy on the rules of entertaining has evolved.
“Ridiculous” is the word that Aki uses to describe the early birthday parties she threw for her oldest child in Paris. There was the garden party with six types of tea sandwiches and €1,000 worth of plants and flowers; the party where she made individual hats for 100 miniature Noah’s Ark animals. It was during the latter, as she frantically worked to make everything perfect rather than enjoying her guests, that Aki had a very French epiphany: “Entertaining doesn’t need to be an intimidating ordeal with rigid rules. It’s something we can all embrace and enjoy in our own way, because what’s most important is finding our joie de vivre with the people we care about.”
Today, Aki spreads that joie de vivre by focusing on her strengths—setting a gorgeous table and creating a transporting experience—and throwing out the quest for perfection and rules on the rest. (If you have a Michelin-worthy feast at Aki’s, it is mostly likely beautifully plated take-out.) For Aki, entertaining is gift to give to friends and family. Just take the event she is most looking forward to hosting once pandemic restrictions lift: an epic, Great Gatsby-themed lawn party in the South of France that was planned for her 40th birthday last year, but postponed due to COVID.
“I want it to be a party where everyone can have the time of their life, with a long table, a crazy buffet that looks completely over the top,” Aki says. “I want people to walk in and say, ‘Whoa, you did this for us?!’”
And, of course, you can bet your best flapper dress that the good china will be used.
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Ajiri Aki's Favorite Things
Mix and Match Blue and White Plates, Set of 4
“I love to travel around France and visit antique warehouses and the ephemeral weekly flea markets to find pieces.” $130. madamedelamaison.com
100% French Linen Napkins, Set of 4
“For our collection, I wanted to work with 100% linen seed after visiting flax farms here in France and learning about how sustainable it is.” $61. madamedelamaison.com
"The Art of Gathering" by Priya Parker
“Lockdown only inspired me to want to entertain more and reminded me the focus should be on the act of gathering and the people and less on perfection, rules or formalities.” $28. bookshop.org
Diptyque Citronelle Candle
“Diptyque candles have the best scents.” $68. neimanmarcus.com
Marco Polo Tea Tin
“I love to sit at a café alone to process all my inspiration and brainstorm ideas.” By Mariage Frères, $32. neimanmarcus.com
"T.E.V.I.N." by Tevin Campbell
“My last few dinner guests have been enjoying my 90’s R&B playlists.” spotify.com
Essie Watermelon Nail Polish
“I’ve been loyal to this polish for my toes since 2008.” $9. essie.com
Mattemoiselle Plush Matte Lipstick
“A bright matte red lip, always.” Lipstick in Ma’Damn by Fenty Beauty, $22. boots.com
Trio of 1930s Bakelite Bracelets
“My go-to for all occasions: a stack of vintage Art Deco bakelite bracelets.” $1,200. 1stdibs.com
Handwoven Kaftan No. 76
“My style is a combo of Dior’s New Look and Hollywood Heyday with a touch of Studio 54 kaftan glamour.” By Pippa Holt, $852. pippaholt.com