Tablescapes

For the first year Jack and I were married, we had no dining room table. Then, we had an antique-store find dining table with no chairs that would match it. Then finally, last year, my mother brought up my grandmother’s dining room table, complete with leaf and eight chairs.

I was at a loss. I’d spent a quarter of a century without a dining room table, and here was a big one. It loomed outward, seeming to grow larger by the minute – a big, empty void, mocking me. I wandered around places like Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel in a daze – did one actually need placemats? Do non-tacky napkins rings exist? What were those really big plates for? If I actually bought that complicated garland-looking thing, what were the odds of me being able to arrange it in such a way that didn’t look like the Big Bang theory?

Shit. I needed help.

The Internet was of virtually no assistance at all – I kept stumbling onto blogs maintained by a bunch of middle aged ladies dragging out their Southwestern-ware and Precious Moments figurines. To each her own, but they were definitely not me. It took a lot of Googling, a lot of asking around, and a lot of tearing pages out of magazines before I hit upon the four basic rules to tablescapes: function, levels, texture, and color. But more about those in a moment – first, a primer:

Tablescapes 101

Although the article is not outrageously helpful, the best definition of “tablescape” that I’ve found comes from Janice Benolt at Entertaining101:

While you may be hard pressed to locate the definition of “tablescape” in a traditional dictionary, the functional meaning of tablescape in the catering, entertaining, and decorating industries refers to all of the decorating elements that you amass on your table to create a vignette.

There are a lot of things that should take precedent in your budget before the tablescape itself, and indeed, there are plenty of competitors: food, drinks, invitations, that fancy kitchen gizmo you feel you need to make crepes, new hand-towels for the powder room, household cleaning supplies, the cost of taking three dogs to daycare for the evening (okay, maybe that last one is just me, but y’all, people can not eat with a wiley beagle or an excited schnauzer in their laps.)

This is why you build your tablescape supplies a little at a time, focusing on items you can use over and over again. I have a stockpile of vases in the panty; everything from artistic pieces Jack and I purchase on our travels to the glass containers from receiving flowers to things I’ve picked up at the antique shops.

If you’re anxious to jumpstart your collection, you could always pick up some bosphorous vases and bowls from Pottery Barn. When we got married, I had a friendly ex who sent me half-a-dozen and they are a staple in my entertaining trove. Likewise, Crate and Barrel has a dizzying array of vases.

You can fill these with flowers, candles, vase fillers (ex: rocks, seashells, autumn leaves, dried lavender, lemons and limes, beads, faux snow, Christmas ornaments, pinecones, bamboo, marshmallows, pasta, you name it), or a combination. Vase fillers can be collected by you, out on your adventures, or be purchased everywhere from craft stores to Crate and Barrel to Target to Meijer. The best kind are the kind that can be easily stowed away in a sealable bag or box and reused in tablescapes to come.

Likewise, anything you love can go on a tablescape. Small sculptures, candlesticks, tiered dessert trays, mirrors, you name it.

Function

Just what are you decorating for? Are you building a tablescape without a specific event in mind, just so that your dining room table will look nice when people stop by unexpectedly? Then you have a lot more leeway.

If you’re building for a specific purpose, however, you need to take some time to think. Brew a cup of tea or coffee, and go sit at your table and think about your event.

Determine your “functional” items first. Brunch, lunch, dinner or cocktails? Space is finite. Determining what event you’re going to use it for will dictate how much functional “stuff” you need. Flowers and vases and candles are pretty, but they become annoying when there’s not enough room for the actual china, flatware, glasses, or serving pieces.

The easiest thing to build a tablescape for are the things that don’t require a lot of room; afternoon teas, for example, where you’ll simply have a tea set, cups, plates, napkins, and some cake trays to contend with – you have a lot more room to play. Likewise, if you’re just inviting people over for cocktails, you can have a large and glorious tablescape that doesn’t have to make room for much.

If, however, you’re doing a buffet brunch or large dinner, you’ll want to take that into account. Will everyone just load their plates in the kitchen and then sit down at the table, or will you be serving from the table itself and therefore need more room for serving dishes, etc? Or will you be serving from a buffet or credenza, and then people will sit at the table? Are you going to be using the full onslaught of china – salad plate, bread plate, dinner plate, dessert plate? Red wine glass, white wine glass, and water goblet? All of this requires a lot more space for people to be able to function, and therefore a more simple tablescape.

How many people? This will also dictate how much space you’re afforded. If you’re filling your table up with people – all eight or ten chairs full – you’re going to want to leave more room than if you were only seating four people at your cozy eight person table. Likewise, if you’re only having cocktails, and people are expected to stand or sit in various locations, you can draw up a nice, elaborate dining room tablescape, but you’ll also want to pay attention to how other surfaces look – the drawing room side tables, the bar or credenza, the fireplace mantle.

Levels

Examine your space. How high is your ceiling? Will a tall, dramatic tablescape overpower the room, to say nothing of the table? Will people be able to see and talk around your tablescape?

I’m opposed to building anything too tall, wide, or distracting for dinner companions to easily converse across the table. Still, levels are important – they add contrast and interest to your table.

Some people recommend setting books or small boxes of varying height on your table, then covering it with a tablecloth and building on top of that to create levels. I don’t use table cloths, because I like the dark beauty of our wooden table, but you could always try it and see how it goes. I’m also opposed to anything adhesive on our table, and as such, am afraid that building this kind of foundation would send a salad bowl careening to the floor at an inopportune moment.

Lovingly borrowed from Jaime over at ItsaJaimeThing.com.

Texture

Texture is important; much like color (see below), contrast is the name of the game. Different textures break up lines and provide more interesting vision for the eye. You need a minimum of 3 different textures to keep things interesting, but as you can see by the examples below, this is not hard.

Summer Romance tablescape designed by Legima Events for Southern Weddings Magazine:

From more humble beginnings, Lori over at All That Splatters adds texture to what might have otherwise been a boring beige tablescape:

Sarah over at A Beach Cottage pumps up a monochrome-based color scheme with loads and loads of texture.

Color

Like textures, you want to contrast, contrast, contrast. Don’t fall into a matchy-matchy mindset – you don’t want to match the tablecloth and napkins and whatnot to the exact same color and pattern. This is the biggest pitfall I see the most often in amatuer tablescapes: women see a matching set of napkins, placemats, and tablecloths on sale and then put them out onto their table together, at one time. Then it becomes a fingerpainting game – they run around trying to match that exact green or purple to their napkin rings, vases, flowers and candles.

And, unsurprisingly, they’re left with one big, uninteresting blob of hunter green or sky blue or violet. The eye literally glances over it without really seeing it, because it can’t easily pick up on any contrast.

You are so much more interesting than this – don’t do it!

Solution A: The Color Wheel

There are primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), and then there are secondary colors (green, orange, and violet). This makes up the basic color-wheel you learned as a child.

Designers first expand this wheel into tertiary colors (red–orange, red–violet, yellow–orange, yellow–green, blue–violet and blue–green), and then use it to build a color scheme using complimentary colors (opposite one another on the color wheel) or analogous colors (next to one another on the color wheel).

For a crash-course in colorschemes, go build your own with a few clicks at the online Color Scheme Designer 3. Get an idea of how warm and cool colors work, what happens when you move analogous colors closer or further apart, and working with accent colors (example: a little bright yellow among a sea of purple hues, or a splash of teal among more rusty, Southwesten colors).

Solution B: Look to History

You are not the first or even the thousandth person to tackle color schemes – designers have been doing it for centuries, and just like anything else, colors go in phases and fashions. Lately I’m seeing a resurgence of fine pink shades accented with brilliant gold – a hallmark of the roaring 20s era that fell out of fashion for years.

Looking to history is often helpful if you know what kind of an emotion or feeling you want to create, but don’t know where to start with the colors.

Victorian Era colors, much like the pink and gold referenced above, are largely subdued, soft, and warm. I love to break away from the ironclad pastel requirements for Easter and work within Victorian schemes instead (think Late Victorian Queen Anne colors or the French Louis XV colors which Paynith over at dry toasts calls light, facile, feminine, floral, mirthful, piquante, and pastoral.)

Colonial Colors (roughly 1607-1776)

TEST TEST TEST TEST

Throughout this period, people left their homes in Europe and crossed an ocean to settle in the New World. Colors range from navy to rose to light grey. The classical elegance of Europe was blended with local carpentry and local materials, resulting in clean and simple lines.

Federal Colors (Late 18th – Mid 19th Century)

Federal Colors

The Federal period (design-wise) overlaps slightly with the Colonial Period, and runs through the mid-19th-century. Professional architects began to take an interest in America, and a higher degree of elegance emerges. Crown-molding and sash windows make an appearance. Colors become more muted.

Italian “Primitive”

Italian "Primitive"

“Primitive” is often a misnomer, as many of these colors have stood the test of time and are still used today – don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. “Primitive” also implies a lack of sophistication or understanding, which is not true – these bright colors are reminiscent of gelato on a hot afternoon, color awnings of street vendors, and bright dresses of women laughing. Their strength is in their unabashed simplicity, and they give a wonderful look of youth and passion.

Gauguin

Gauguin

Whether art imitates life or the other way round, the connection itself is unmistakable. Named after the color theories of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, colors are pure, intense, and a sometimes a bit muted. Gauguin introduced the theory of making a small amount of one color “pop” by surrounding or outlining it with complimentary colors.

Peruvian

Peruvian

The South American country of Peru has a diverse and colorful history: influences from Native Americans, Africans, Spaniards, Italians, Middle-Easterners and Asians. These colors are a small example of the many palettes to come from a country jam-packed and ready to roll with color – a great many more can be found here as part of a Landmark Colors series.

Arts and Crafts Period (Late 19th and Early 20th Century)

Arts and Crafts

A relatively short-lived but resonant period. The ideals of this period struck down the stoic ideas of divisions of labor in favor of more romanticized master craftsmen. Colors are bold and beautiful, and often heightened by using a flat toned background or base. Simplicity and nature were emphasized (maple, oak, and suede colors were popular, as were forest green and spruce.)

The Jazz Age (Post WWI-Great Depression)

Jazz Age

The period of the Roaring 20s may have been fast-paced, but its colors were all about being laid back and having another drink. Pastels ruled – celadon green and petal pink accented with peacock blues, mauves, and golds. Colors were festive, but more subdued than the nearly overwhelming colors that were to come out of the next post-war era.

Suburban Modern (1950s and 60s)

Federal Colors

This era’s tagline should have been, “And now – for something completely different…” Designers were abandoning the past and looking into the future. The ranch-style housing trend explodes. People were not afraid to bring color into anything – kitchen appliances, toilet seats – if you could see it, it was fair game. Their homes were their castles, and those castles were hopping a train out of the city, into the suburbs. The nation moved from a chicken in every pot to a pink flamingo on everyone’s well-maintained lawn.

Parting Words: Lily-Beth’s Tips on Finding Your Groove

  1. Small picture first, then big picture. Start with an item or group of items that you love – a sculpture, a bird-cage, gold-glittered pinecones, fake skulls and bones, those big hand-carved bowls you bought off a tribe in the Australian outback, your grandmother’s milkglass punch bowl, whatever. And let that lead you. Do you love that milk-glass punchbowl because it reminds you of the 20s? Go with that. Do you love those bowls because the wood grain is so rich and beautiful? Let that be your guide.
  2. Build inside to out. This is physical manifestation of “small picture first, then big picture.” Start in the middle of the table, highest items first, and then fan outward to small items, like votives, until you hit your dishes.
  3. Speaking of dishes: your flatware, glassware, plates, napkins, etc. are all part of the big picture. Make sure they fit your scheme, or at least don’t detract from it. We own more sets of china than we have house for – the result of the death of Jack’s mother, my grand mothers, and my brother-in-laws divorce. And yet, the one set I always go back to, over and over again, is my mother’s Noritake china in the Candice 3161 pattern. It’s white, it’s crisp, it’s delicate without being too feminine – it’s the perfect base to build off it. I can switch out the chargers and napkins and have a whole new color scheme.
  4. Resources: A theatre director once told me, “Ms. Tempest, all good directors steal. Only the really good ones steal a lot.” And he’s right. The only magazine subscription we have is to Harper’s, but I’ll randomly buy haphazard single-issues that strike my fancy all the time. I know women who carefully cut out hundreds and hundreds of pages and put them into a complex filing system (and hey, maybe you want to do that too), but you can get away with slapping a sticky note on the page, book-mark style, and keeping the magazines you want to save all together on a bookshelf (instead of strewn around the house like, well, me).
    • Martha Stewart Living: Okay, so Martha and I might have had some words over the past few years, but picking up her magazines (pricey little bastards that they are) are a great source of inspiration for clean, elegant tablescapes. She even makes Halloween look elegant – it’s incredible. And yes, she’s product-driven – would you expect anything less from a Queen of an Empire? But that means that if you’re stuck, you can, indeed, buy the exact things Martha makes her tablescapes with – like these skulls, a long-time favorite of mine.
    • Martha Stewart Weddings: not just for weddings anymore! Well, okay, it’s for weddings, but you can lift the majority of those ideas (and products) for other uses. Here are some beautiful table arrangement ideas right here.
    • The Knot.com: Look, adding “wedding” to your keyword search is usually the easiest way to weed out those soccer-moms with neon green nails using their Garfield salt-and-pepper shakers as centerpieces. You can be as anti-wedding as you want, and still steal, steal, steal. A wedding is just a big party, after all.
    • Apartment Therapy: just butt-loads of great ideas, designed by both real people and pros.
    • Style Me Pretty: Yep, more weddings, but just look at this “Inspiration to Reality” photoshoot! Lord, there’s some gorgeous stuff there.
    • Timeless Paper: I just couldn’t let this entry go without a reference to Timeless Paper. They have the most wonderful little place-cards, menus, you name it. If you want something unique, go here.
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