When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers.

Here, we talked with a couple of Bay Area creatives: Natalie So, an art director and story producer at Epic magazine, and Danny Haeg, an interactive exhibit developer at a technology museum in San Jose. Their August wedding was full of deeply researched vendors and a long list of surprises (many of them kept from the bride), including a mariachi band, contortionist sisters, and drag queens reenacting A Star Is Born

Natalie: In early 2017, I matched with Danny on Bumble. In my profile photo I was lying on a rug at an art exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum. Danny said, “You’re sitting on my brother’s rug.”

Danny: My brother is an artist and had created a giant 30-inch hand-knit rug, and it traveled around to different museums, and the idea was that visitors could add to it. It turned out Natalie had volunteered for the installation on the same day that I had, in 2015. So we made the connection.

Natalie: He proposed in September 2018 on Bernal Hill, in San Francisco, where we live. He proposed with my mom’s engagement ring, which I had never seen before because she keeps it in a safety-deposit box. Danny knew I wanted to design my own ring, so the weekend after we went down to L.A., where he’d made appointments at all these boutiques. In the Jewelry Mart, which is not hip or sexy, I fell in love with this cornflower sapphire, a ring with a sapphire and aquamarine and baguette diamond on it.

Danny: We knew we didn’t want a traditional wedding in the sense of just doing things because other people had done them. Looking at venues, we stumbled upon the Swedenborgian Church, and we immediately fell in love with it. It’s rustic and it’s there to honor the connection between nature and spirituality. It felt true to us.

Natalie: We weren’t planning on getting married at a church. But I read up on the history—Bernard Maybeck, a classic Bay Area architect, was involved in building it, and Robert Frost was baptized there. It uses madrone wood from the late 19th century, these exposed beams. It just felt like a sacred space. It did mean we could only invite 90 people to our ceremony. The reception had 150 total.

Danny: We got married on the rug that brought us together. The policy for the rug is that you have to take your shoes off, so we got married in our socks. Her friend Matt Sundquist officiated. And we created a ritual where people were handed different pieces of flora as they walked in, and there was a moment where they could all come up and place it on the rug to symbolize their wishes for us. I loved that we had a moment with every person in the chapel. And there were readings —

Natalie: My friend Aku read Jane Hirshfield’s “A Blessing for a Wedding” to start, and then two of Danny’s nieces read poems: “Habitation,” by Margaret Atwood, and “From Blossoms,” by a Chinese poet called Li-Young Lee. We incorporated a tea ceremony where we served our parents tea. Then we read out our flaws and vulnerabilities. I said, “I eat off his plate all the time, and I’m prone to anxiety, and I cry a lot, I have a lot of feelings.” Then he did the same.

Danny: It made me uncomfortable at first, but we’re committing to spending our lives with each other, so it was important for us to say we’re accepting the person as they are, including the most vulnerable parts.

Natalie: For my dress, from the very beginning I wanted to do things differently. My friend Akari Tachibana made me silk pants, but that ended up feeling too casual. I went to a few different places where stylists rent dresses, like the Albright Fashion Library in L.A., and didn’t find anything there. Ultimately, I found Aleksandra Sotelo, this Serbian seamstress in San Francisco, and I had this idea for a flamenco-inspired skirt that I wanted. She made that skirt in a marigold color I love. Then I found a braided vintage belt on Etsy for $12. I was going for many iterations of what the top might be, and the week of the wedding I found this white top at a bridal store, Lace & Liberty, in the Mission. They only had it two sizes too big, so I bought it and I immediately got it taken in. That was what I wore to the ceremony.

Danny: Then for the reception, we only visited one venue and it was the one we chose, Foreign Cinema. It’s just a fantastic restaurant on its own, and we wanted a place that was beautiful as is, without having to put in lots of time and money decorating it.

Natalie: Outside of Foreign Cinema, they have these two movie posters, and Danny had changed up those posters to have really old pictures of both sets of our parents when they got married, as a surprise for our parents. My friend Jen did all the flowers as a gift to us; she isn’t a florist but just a creative mind. She ended up putting all kinds of weird fruit and vegetables on the tables: figs and dates and artichokes. It was gorgeous. And all the ceramics on the table, the vases, were a surprise present from Dan’s brother.

Danny: We were off getting ready for the reception as our guests were gathered at cocktail hour, and they were entertained by a middle-school mariachi band. We discovered this band at a lowrider show in the Mission, just across the street from Natalie’s apartment (now ours). We were immediately enchanted with this group because of their energy and their joy and earnestness — and also their skill. We needed to have them perform because they’re amazing, but also because they represent the neighborhood where we live, and where we were getting married. We entered while they were playing. All I can remember is smiling so hard it hurt. I was just so happy.

Natalie: My reception dress, I saw it on Instagram and I fell in love with it right away. I immediately messaged the owner of Happy Isles Salon, she sent it to me, and it fit like a glove. Even before the dress I had bought this Valentino cape on super sale that I really loved, and ended up wearing the cape that night with the dress.

Danny: For the first course, you could have a tomato squash bisque or a Little Gem salad with spicy green goddess dressing. For the main, there were four options: swordfish, sesame fried chicken, Champagne risotto, and flank steak.

Natalie: A special thing about the restaurant is that every night while they serve dinner they play a foreign film on the brick wall in the courtyard. They said we could play whatever we wanted, so we played a DVD of the Ross Sisters, these contortionist sisters from the 1940s. I noticed that throughout the night the waitstaff would just stand and stare at the videos. They were just mesmerized. They’re just the strangest videos, but we just thought they were really fun. For our first dance, we picked out an Al Green song, but Danny, the king of surprises, pulled out a keyboard. He does not know how to play piano.

Danny: Her dad Frank is a professional pianist, and he’d written a song called “For Natalie” when she was born. So she grew up hearing this song on the piano but she thought the sheet music was lost, because it was lost. When I asked her parents for their blessing to propose, I asked if he could remember it and write it down so that I could learn it, and play it for their first dance. Which he did, but I didn’t know how to play the piano. Didn’t know any other instruments. Didn’t know how to read sheet music. I spent a few months learning. It wasn’t until the week before that I could actually play it consistently, but I was nervous out of my mind. It was a whole process getting the piano set up without her knowing — they literally pulled a sheet off it, and I told her that she’d be dancing to her song with her dad.

Natalie: When Danny sat down at the keyboard, I was really confused as to what was going on. We had spent a few hours picking a song by Al Green to dance to; we’d even gone to a dance class to practice dancing to that song! Then Danny explained to the crowd that he was going to play the song that my dad wrote for me. I was too shocked to cry, actually. But we heard later that several of our guests did. So the first dance was a father-daughter dance, then my dad took over and played the song while Danny and I danced.

Danny: I knew I wanted to have another surprise at the end for her too.

Natalie: The DJ — her name was Bijou McDaniel and she goes by DJ Kream — had been playing for a while by then. We had solicited some requests from our guests beforehand and gave her some of those songs to play. Toward the end of the night, Danny took the microphone and said, “Hey, everyone. I just received a text from my ex-girlfriend. She says she’s in the area, and she’s coming to crash the wedding.” I was like, “What is going on?” Also, Danny’s extremely private, so I knew something was up.

Danny: I interrupted the dancing to explain, unconvincingly, that my ex-girlfriend had been texting and I wanted people to be on the lookout for this woman. As I was saying that, the first notes to “Shallow” started playing, which is the joking version of “our song.” Then a drag queen, dressed in matrimonial attire, came in and started singing the song. Natalie’s freaking out.

Natalie: Wearing a white suit and a veil. Then Danny’s like, “And Natalie’s ex is in the house, too.” And another queen bursts in the door singing the Bradley Cooper part of “Shallow.” Both of them were in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and along with our emcee, they sang three songs. It was a surprise drag performance at the end of the night. Danny had so much planned for me. I learned he’d been sending different schedules to our day-of coordinator, to the photographer, to the videographer. I cannot believe that I was getting a different schedule than everyone else.

Danny: The night ended up going like an hour longer than we had planned, just because we had so much fun that we had lost track of time.

Natalie: We decided to skip the cake — we just didn’t feel like that was that important. We had planned an after-party at this famed tiki bar called the Tonga Room, but we got married on a Sunday night because it’s less expensive, and by the time our reception finished late, the Tonga Room had closed. It’s funny because really the last thing was that drag performance.

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