But how do you pull everything together in a creative way that does not feel clichéd? For advice, we turned to interior designers, florists and event planners known for creating striking tablescapes.
START WITH LINENS
“The foundation of your holiday table is the textile you choose for your runner or tablecloth and napkins,” said Liz Curtis, founder of Table + Teaspoon, a San Francisco rental service that offers preplanned table settings starting at $24 a person.
Go with a neutral colour and pattern, rather than a holiday theme, to create “an elegant, elevated feel for your guests,” Curtis said. “Matouk scalloped linens and Aerin Lauder’s line for Williams Sonoma are my go-to for tablecloths and napkins.”
That is not to say you have to run out and buy new linens. “I like to make my own runners out of beautiful fabric that I have turned into the length of my dining table by my local dry cleaner’s alterations department,” she said, noting that “a black-and-white patterned linen works as a base for anything you want to put on top of it.”
MAKE IT PERSONAL
“The holidays are a time to celebrate family, so the most meaningful decorations weave together the personal and the festive,” said Bronson van Wyck, who owns a design and event production company, Van Wyck & Van Wyck, with his mother, Mary Lynn van Wyck.
At Christmas dinner for family and friends in Manhattan, Bronson van Wyck, who is of Scottish and Dutch descent, uses tartan-patterned napkins and blue-and-white china. “Not an obvious combination,” he said. “But even patterns that don’t seem to fit the occasion work if they’re mixed and matched with confidence and whimsy.”
To add another personal touch, Bronson van Wyck said, “I will sometimes embroider the initials of my guests onto napkins, which I then use as place cards” that guests can take home.
“Guests love to see themselves,” he said, “whether it’s their photo tagged on social media, their reflection in a mirror or even just their own name beautifully written on an elegant place card. In an age of personalization, think about how you can take this to the next level.”
“In a season where many of us spend most of our time keeping warm indoors, there is something so special about using pieces from the earth, by adding a garland of greenery or winter fruits down the centre of the table,” said Maggie Burns, owner of Maggie Richmond Design, in Manhattan. “Pomegranates and figs add the perfect punch of holiday red to a place setting, and nothing smells more beautiful than sprigs of evergreen scattered throughout the house.”
Bronson van Wyck, who grew up in Arkansas, likes to hang a magnolia wreath. “It’s a traditional symbol of hospitality in the South,” he said. “And the leaves look just as great dried as they do freshly cut, so it’s not a once-and-done purchase.”
He added: “The combination of deep green and brown and gold is a perfect palette for holiday decorating. You get a lot of bang for your buck, because they work for Thanksgiving as well as Christmas.”
Robin Standefer, who owns the design firm Roman and Williams with her husband, Stephen Alesch, suggested decorating with plants, flowers, fruit and herbs.
“We always consider what’s magical and what brings delight,” she said of an approach that can be seen at the couple’s showroom-and-restaurant hybrid, Roman and Williams Guild, in SoHo. “We take what’s around us — a branch, an apple, an herb — and make it into our tablescape. No, it’s not going to be cookie-cutter perfect; it’s not machine-, assembly-line made. That’s what brings lasting beauty and charm to your home.”
BREAK SOME RULES
“I’ve never used a formula when setting a table, and I definitely don’t want it to feel so perfect that you’re afraid to mess it up,” said Ken Fulk, an event designer in San Francisco known for his exuberant style. “It should be loosely arranged for balance, but not perfectly symmetrical.”
Glassware and silver should be arranged in the order they’re used, starting from the outside and working your way in, he said. “But we give ourselves some flexibility with glasses when there are more than five pairings. In those cases, we’re often mixing vintage glassware with crystal, and it looks so much prettier to arrange by style, size or colour.”
Standefer and Alesch have a similar philosophy: “Stephen and I take classic placement of utensils and tabletop tools seriously, but we don’t let these restrictions limit the needs of our table,” she said. “The standard of outside-in can be revisited depending on the density of the table and amount of guests. So we might put the utensils above the plate if the place settings are close together or if we are using flora on the plate.”
INVEST IN STEMWARE
“Nothing speaks louder in a setting of celebration than the clinking of water or wine glasses,” Standefer said, noting that the right glassware can influence the mood at the table.
So which stemware to choose?
“There really are no absolutes in finding the right pieces for your home, as long as they are functional and beautiful, of the earth and hold narrative,” she said. “A robust glassware collection can be high and low — glass you admire that you’ve found at a flea market or a set you invest in from the collection of an expert artisan whose work you follow.”
The important thing, she added, is that it’s not so precious you’re afraid to use it.
DECORATE WITH FOOD
Caroline Bailly, the owner of L’Atelier Rouge, a Manhattan floral design and event company, likes to use purple eggplants, kale and bunches of root vegetables like radishes and beets to add texture, colour and interest to her floral arrangements. “I am always inspired by the farmers’ markets,” she said.
For one harvest-themed arrangement, she and her creative director, Takaya Sato, turned a bushel of carrots upside down, so the green trimmings flowed over the edge of a bowl and the points stood up like a wonky bouquet. Bailly recommended playing with colour blocks and asymmetry, even when you are working with more traditional bouquets. “You get a more powerful effect by working with colours in groupings, rather than mixing the shades,” she said.
And combining flower stems of different lengths allows certain elements to stand out, adding depth to the arrangement. “The flowers are so beautiful on their own,” she said. “You don’t want” them to be packed together.
“Just because it’s Thanksgiving doesn’t mean that you’re required to put pumpkins and corncobs all over an orange tablecloth,” said Curtis, of Table + Teaspoon. “Placing mandarins or oranges on each plate at a traditional blue Hanukkah table achieves style sans kitsch.”
Occasionally, she will slice the bottom off a pear and stand it in the centre of a plate as decoration, or cut a persimmon or pomegranate in half, with the sliced side up. “Every time I’ve put an orange or a pear or a quince on a plate, at least one guest ends up eating it,” she said.
Jung Lee, a founder of the event design company Fête NY, likes to incorporate tiny figurines and other unexpected elements that will surprise and delight guests. “Little vignettes or collections will spark conversation, especially when elements are not as literal,” said Lee, who added miniature owls to a holiday table she recently created.
LIGHT THE CANDLES
“The easiest, least expensive way to add drama to the dinner table is to light some candles,” Bronson van Wyck said. “Everything and everyone looks amazing by firelight. For the most flattering light, aim for a mix of tapers and votives scattered the length of the table.”
And don’t skimp on them. “You can never have too many,” he said. “For a warm, inviting glow, at least triple what you think you’ll need.”
© 2018 New York Times News Service