Serving a meal is about more than just feeding your guests.
“It’s about people and sharing a moment together,” said Amanda Reynal, an interior designer in Des Moines. “The visual, the scent, the taste and the sound of your loved ones or friends around you are all critical to creating an unforgettable experience.”
That’s why taking the time to set a beautiful table can be rewarding — for a Thanksgiving dinner or any other special meal.
“There’s a saying that ‘we eat with our eyes first,’” said Shea McGee, who, with her husband, Syd McGee, runs the design firm Studio McGee and hosts the Netflix show “Dream Home Makeover.” “That’s usually about food, but it’s also about what’s around us. When you set a beautiful table, whether it’s for eating with your family or having guests over, it makes them feel like they matter, because you’ve taken the time to show you care.”
What makes for a beautiful table? Mr. Reynal, Ms. McGee and other designers shared their advice.
Begin With the Basics
Before you think about table decorations, take a close look at the space where you plan to have the meal. Do you need to add table leaves to extend the dining surface, or maybe bring in a children’s table? Are there enough chairs for everyone? Do you need to use a buffet to free up space for dining?
A dining table doesn’t need to feel expansive. In fact, when Kate Martindale and Amy Neunsinger, the partners of the Los Angeles-based design firm Rose & Mortar and the hosts of the Magnolia Network show “Capturing Home,” set a table, one of their tricks is moving the chairs closer together.
“When you seat people close together and they rub arms, and they’re passing things and interacting, they get to know their neighbors,” Ms. Neunsinger said. “We’ve found the closer the people are, the better the party.”
The designers also don’t hesitate to pull up benches or mismatched chairs when necessary to accommodate everyone.
Run With a Theme
It’s often helpful to choose a theme — anything from a creative concept to an overarching color scheme — before you make any further decisions.
For one dinner party, Ms. Martindale and Ms. Neunsinger wanted a fashionable literary vibe, so they rolled out a hemp tablecloth and scattered it with vintage books, bird cages and pages torn from magazines. The tablescape “just created a really fun environment,” Ms. Martindale said. The materials cost almost nothing, she added, but “it felt like you were being transported somewhere else.”
Charlotte Moss, a New York interior designer, once composed a sophisticated Halloween dinner table with yellow spider mums, orange bittersweet, black candles and pumpkin cakes.
Meals with friends “are moments of celebration,” Ms. Moss said, “so they should be special.”
For another meal, where she planned to use decorative kale centerpieces, she chose green and purple dishes and table linens to reflect the coloring of the leaves.
“That was totally inspired by the kale,” Ms. Moss said. “When I saw the colors, I went, ‘Oh, I have a cloth, I have these napkins, and I have all this purple stuff.’ I just pulled it together.”
One tried-and-true way to set a table is to start with a grounding tablecloth and build up with layers of linens, dishes and decorations on top.
“A tablecloth gives you a good idea of direction, of style and mood, as well as a good color palette to work from, so I usually start there,” Ms. McGee said. “It’s also an easy way to dress up an everyday table.”
Next, she chooses accessories and flowers that go with the pattern and color of the tablecloth. “When I’m selecting a napkin, I’ll make sure it complements the tablecloth in some way,” she said, “whether that’s a coordinating color or a pattern that plays off it.”
Ms. McGee also likes to use things with pleasing textures, so she might add place mats woven from natural grasses, glassware with visible air bubbles and iron candlesticks.
Benjamin Reynaert, a stylist and creative consultant in New York, is a fan of maximalist tables. “I’m a more-is-more type of guy,” he said. “The most important thing, to me, is layering different materials and textures.”
Still, he thinks about which pieces will get the most attention and tries to create an overall sense of balance. “If the tablecloth has a dense pattern, you can offset that with more solid colors when it comes to plates and linens,” he said. “Then more neutral tablecloths — like ginghams, checks, tone-on-tone or solids — are great backgrounds for Moroccan pottery and more patterned plates.”
Fancy or Casual?
Setting an elaborate table with a luxurious tablecloth, chargers, fine china, cut crystal and cut flowers can be wonderful, but there are other ways to welcome guests. Many designers prefer a more casual look, depending on the event.
“The table doesn’t have to be overcomplicated to be beautiful,” said Bradley Odom, an interior designer and the owner of Dixon Rye, a store in Atlanta. “I like an approachable table. When it’s casual, you can sort of belly up to the table and just enjoy spending time with the people you’re with.”
Mr. Odom once used a worn piece of sailcloth as a tablecloth, added napkins with frayed edges from Target, and scattered magnolia leaves as decoration. Then he set out simple white ceramic dishes with intriguing shapes from Astier de Villatte.
“In my shop, we talk a lot about this idea of combining raw and refined,” he said, “and how that can create something luxurious.”
Use What’s Around You
It would be easy to spend a small fortune on distinctive dinnerware and centerpieces. But most of the designers interviewed for this article said the best dishes and table decorations are often hiding in plain sight.
“I truly believe that incorporating unexpected items — and pulling things from other rooms of your house that maybe you wouldn’t think to use on your dining table — are the most fun objects to incorporate,” Mr. Reynaert said. “I’ve used decorative glass fruit, candlesticks of different shapes and sizes, match strikers and all kinds of decorative objects. It’s all about bringing your personality forward.”
TJ Girard, a food designer and the founder of Taste:Work:Shop in Los Angeles, is another fan of using unexpected objects and family treasures.
“When you’re surrounding yourself with your loved ones, it’s a nice time to maybe bring out your aunt’s embroidered linen,” Ms. Girard said, adding that she has used her grandparents’ antique silver wine tasters, or tastevins, as serving dishes.
“I’m also a collector when I go to flea markets and travel,” she added, “so it’s an opportunity to share those objects with other people.”
That philosophy extends to the garden: Seasonal flowers, branches and even fruits and vegetables are ideal table decorations, said Ms. Reynal, who once designed an autumnal dinner table inspired by the yellows and greens of squash and a Christmas table awash in holly and red plaids.
“Use anything fresh you can find and get creative with it,” she said.
If you don’t have a garden, she added, it’s perfectly acceptable to use items from the grocery store: “Find colors in the produce section, and enjoy them as the bounty of the harvest, on the table as well as in your food. It’s a visual reminder of the season.”
Most important: Don’t get so swept up in designing a beautiful table that you forget to enjoy the meal with your guests. The table should always be set before they arrive, Ms. Girard said.
“It’s all about being relaxed and present for that initial greeting when people come in,” she said. “It’s part of welcoming people into your home.”
You should also consider how the table will function as the evening progresses. Ms. Girard, who was once an owner of the New York-based catering company Pinch Food Design, likes to designate serving platters and utensils for every course, labeling them with tape so there’s no guesswork once the meal has started.
She also tests the serving vessels on the table ahead of time, to make sure they’ll all fit. That way, “if you’re doing a big tablescape down the middle, which is very on trend, you know there’s room for everything when the food comes,” she said.
“These are little tricks you can use,” she said, “so you can be the mellow, cool host who’s just serving people drinks and telling jokes and stories.”
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