A Wildly Elegant Wedding at The Cloister at Sea Island

“I am always most interested in art that plays with opposites and surprises me,” says Stephanie Bulger of her wedding design at The Cloister at Sea Island in Georgia. “Once I realized I needed to work with and respond to the architecture of the room, rather than try to disguise it and make it something else, that’s when everything fell into place.”

By falling into place she means that she and Mike Guzjejka, both psychotherapists, hosted an “edgy art party in opulent formal space," filled with modern florals, mirrored tables, unexpected details, and a few surprises from mother nature, too. Stephanie collaborated with Elizabeth McKellar at The Nouveau Romantics and the team at Sea Island for the celebration, which she says she approached "more like a multi-media art project than a traditional wedding." This allowed her to honor the heritage elements of the historic property but also instill some personality to liven up the party. “The wedding I envisioned was not the traditional Cloister wedding,” she explains.

Despite a brief rainstorm—which actually excited guests more than dampened the mood—the party went on with the couple saying “I do” in the outdoor garden among raindrops and umbrellas, before a four-course dinner and an all-night dance party with a live band.

Read on for all the details of Stephanie and Mike’s coastal Georgian celebration, planned by The Nouveau Romantics and photographed by Heather Waraksa.

Stephanie hired artist Emily Snyder to hand-calligraph the design for their invitation suite. "Emily’s approach to calligraphy actually served as an inspiration for what I was trying to achieve with the overall aesthetic of the weekend," she explains. "Wedding calligraphy is traditionally this very proper, formal medium, and Emily’s work honors that classic elegance yet it also has this incredible painterly wildness to it. It reminded me of the Spanish moss, the vines of ancient oaks dripping, and wrapping around the historic architecture of The Cloister. It was that juxtaposition of natural wildness and polished elegance that I hoped to capture in our design."

Stephanie and Mike met in Los Angeles, while in the same graduate school program, and are now both practicing psychotherapists in southern California. After initially looking at wedding venues in the Texas Hill Country, Stephanie's mother suggested the coastal Georgia property. (She grew up vacationing at Sea Island, as her family lived in Atlanta, then Texas.) It was a hit, combining Stephanie’s desire for fields of grasses and Mike’s vision of a beach celebration. “We booked a flight to Georgia that night,” she admits.

Stephanie and Mike knew from the start that they wanted a multi-day celebration that would feel like a vacation for all their friends and family. For that reason, festivities kicked off on Thursday. “That's why Sea Island was the perfect venue,” Stephanie says. “Once guests crossed over the bridge onto the island, they got out of their cars and didn’t have to worry about travel or logistics for the rest of their time.”

For the Western-themed welcome party on Friday night, Stephanie wore a Zimmerman dress and custom Yee-haw cowboy boots by Miron Crosby (to honor her Texan roots!). Mike opted for APC jeans, Frye boots, and a vintage bolero.

“It really felt like a work of art,” Stephanie says of her Reem Acra ball gown, which she found at the brand’s trunk show in Los Angeles. “It felt like a very classic shape—the ball gown with a full skirt—but the cut-out details on the bodice, the ornate detailing, and the modern paneling on the skirt were so different than anything else I tried on.”

Stephanie admits she’s not super into flowers but does love the Japanese art of flower arranging, ikebana. It became the guiding principle for the day’s florals, including her bouquet. 

To get ready, Stephanie wore a blue-and-white set by Sleeper. Before walking down the aisle, she added another "something blue"—an embroidered handkerchief from Etsy that read, "Keep your shit together!"—and a "Feelings" pin from Kitsch x Justine Marjan.

Stephanie got dressed with her bridesmaids, who she asked to wear long black gowns of their own choosing. "My only directive for my bridesmaids was that everyone wears something that made them feel confident and sexy," she explains. "My friends have excellent taste, and I’m a firm believer that the best photos come when people love what they’re wearing—so everyone got to choose their own!"

At the last minute, Stephanie added Magda Butrym pearl anklets to her look as a nod to all her childhood summers spent at Sea Island. She wore Jimmy Choo heels.

From her first visit to the property during wedding planning, Stephanie knew she wanted a photoshoot in the abandoned rubble of a former hospital on the property. In fact, sharing that concept when she interviewed photographer Heather Waraksa was the moment she knew that Heather was hired. “She was game, and I knew we were a match,” Stephanie adds.

The dress code was black tie, so Mike and his groomsmen all wore classic black tuxedos

The couple did a first look amid the ruins of a former hospital on the Sea Island property. 

“Don’t forget to plan your marriage too,” Stephanie advises. “This is such a typical therapist thing to say, but the research shows that most couples start marriage therapy six years too late for it to make a difference. Mike and I balanced therapy day by also making that our dance lesson day. Sometimes, we would have a really aggressive dance practice, but mostly it was a really sweet reminder of why we are in this.”

The couple kept the bridesmaids and groomsmen outfits classic in all black with bouquets and boutonnieres inspired by Stephanie’s admiration for ikebana. 

The fairytale-like Cloister Chapel provided a backdrop for more pre-ceremony photos. It also served as Stephanie’s staging area before the planned ceremony in the garden. 

The ceremony was set up in the Cloister Garden, which is shaded by giant Spanish moss trees. A giant floral arch was erected to frame the couple on the altar, with the property’s solarium in the distance. 

Just before the ceremony was set to kick-off, a freak thunderstorm caused guests to run for cover. Stephanie, waiting in the chapel, didn’t even know about the rain until her planner arrived to come up with a last-minute plan B.

I saw everyone gathered under the walkway, the rain pouring around them, and I realized: I’m getting married outside. I will never forget how I felt at that moment.

Instead of moving the wedding inside, Stephanie got her wish of saying “I do” in the garden, thanks to the covered portico leading to the solarium. Her father walked her down a makeshift aisle while the string quartet played. “I saw everyone gathered under the walkway, the rain pouring around them, and I realized: I’m getting married outside,” she says. “I will never forget how I felt at that moment.”

The fact that our guests had to be huddled closely under the walkway with us created a sense of intimacy...The physical presence of all of us gathered there was so powerful.

The couple took a unique approach to their wedding readings. They asked their officiant to adapt a “Modern Love” podcast of Ada Calhoun’s “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give.” “I found the idea of walking into our own marriage owning the hardship that will certainly come to be much more powerful and romantic than promising perfection forever,” Stephanie says of their decision to include the popular Modern Love essay as part of the ceremony.

“The fact that our guests had to be huddled closely under the walkway with us created a sense of intimacy that wouldn’t have come if they were watching the ceremony from chairs,” the bride says. “The physical presence of all of us gathered there was so powerful.”

Stephanie loved the juxtaposition of modern greenery and botanicals with thoughtfully-placed object d’ art and the classical décor of the venue, so she worked with Elizabeth McKellar to accomplish that vision with the wedding décor. "As soon as I spoke with Liz, I knew I was going to hire her! She got my vision, and most importantly, she had a background in architecture, which was perfect because she really understood that I was approaching my entire wedding like one huge art project," she explains. "She was game!"

The reception took place in the property’s Club Room, where a Baroque-style of ornamentation overwhelms the space. To counteract the reception feeling too "old-world," Stephanie and her planning team made the tables very modern.

Mirrored tabletops reflected the ornate ceiling but the tablescape otherwise featured ikebana-inspired florals, modern vases, and black accents. Black taper candles, black flatware, and black-rimmed chargers offset the clear glass vessels and crystal stemware at each place setting. Vine Garden Market created arrangements that included one of Stephanie’s few favorite plants, allium, as well as palms and anthuriums. 

Dinner included classic Sea Island fare like a baby beet salad with local goat cheese, lobster ravioli, and a choice of roasted beef tenderloin or pan-seared sea bass. Emily Snyder, the artist who designed the couple’s invitations, also hand-lettered the black menus with white ink. 

The couple took their first spin on the dance floor with a choreographed performance to their band’s cover of “Fresh Eyes” by Andy Grammar. Stephanie says dance lessons were one of the couple’s favorite parts of the planning process, describing them as a time to decompress from the stress of picking décor and organizing logistics. “Dancing together forces you both to remember to work together and be a little vulnerable—and have fun,” she adds. 

Since Mike doesn’t drink, the couple designed a signature mocktail with cayenne and ginger, which was a hit with non-drinking guests. There was alcohol too, though: “My drink was the white wine spritzer, which everyone knows is the best drink of all time,” Stephanie says of her go-to cocktail.

Sea Island’s pastry chef designed the couple’s three-tier wedding cake that featured the resort’s salted turtle and devil’s food cake flavors, as well as their “Southern Decadence” red velvet cake with cream cheese icing. 

“They brought it non-stop all night,’ Stephanie says of The Royals, their live band. “My top wish was a full dance floor all night long and they made it happen.” In fact, for the dance party, both the bride and groom made a quick shoe swap. Stephanie opted for high-top sneakers, which she paired with a cowboy hat—and veil! As a surprising pop of color, Mike donned a pair of hot pink Gucci Princetown mules that Stephanie gave to him as a joke. “They ended up being a hit and actually looked pretty cool with his all-black look,” she adds.

After the wedding, the newlyweds jetted off to another destination: the Brando Resort in French Polynesia for their honeymoon. 

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