Whether, like Coco Chanel, you believe in getting ready then taking one thing off or you subscribe to the more-is-more approach, how you dress your table is as telling as how you dress yourself, writes DAMIEN WOOLNOUGH.
The days of being judged by your shoes are over, with dinner guests now casting their eyes straight to your table setting. It was easier when a pair of red-soled heels or polished brogues distracted onlookers, but these days if you want to win the admiration of the Joneses or Zampattis, your cutlery needs to match your wardrobe.
At the 50th-anniversary dinner for US designer Ralph Lauren during New York Fashion Week last month, the blue and white floral-patterned china on silver platters, matched by navy-trimmed cream napkins and country-style flower arrangements, garnered more attention than the steaks flown in from the designer’s Colorado ranch.
Just as Lauren’s latest four-figure, handcrafted patchwork evening gowns will inspire more-affordable silk-blend dresses, there’s a trickle-down effect from the runway to tabletops.
“It’s true that fashion leads the way when it comes to table arrangements,” says Melbourne hostess, businesswoman and reality-tv star Chyka Keebaugh. “You certainly look to it for inspiration.”
In fact, putting a table together is remarkably similar to assembling a going-out ensemble.
“You have to layer it up,” Keebaugh says. “At the moment I’m all about mismatched florals and patterns. I love the idea of metres of fabric and different china to create a story.”
Stylist Megan Morton also belongs to the more-is-more school of entertaining. While Coco Chanel told people to remove something before leaving the house, Morton is happy to throw in a little something extra the moment before guests arrive.
“When I daydream, I actually think about tabletop combinations,” Morton says. “There are Portuguese plates, French glass, Croatian linen, German pottery… Sadly, I put so much into my tabletops sometimes the actual food suffers, but I do believe that we eat first with our eyes.”
Morton is on the money when it comes to entertaining sample-sized fashion types who prefer to gorge with their eyes and are more likely to compliment plates layered in the plum, mustard and olive palette that matches a Zimmermann dress than the cassoulet you slaved over.
As the sight of Kim Kardashian in bike pants demonstrates, not everyone shares the same taste and one host’s artfully mismatched dining table diorama is another guest’s disaster zone. Think twice before mixing your Wedgwood and Dinosaur Designs sets if a post-hipster is in the carving chair.
“Mismatched crockery is the Brit pop of the dining world,” says Young Henrys beer impresario Oscar Mcmahon. “I won’t hold it against you, but please don’t think it’s rebellion.”
Jake Smyth, who hosted Double Rainbouu’s show during Australian Fashion Week at his Sydney pub the Lansdowne and spends a great deal of his life running Sydney hamburger haven M Marys in a Bonds singlet and footy shorts, agrees. “Our tables are carefully curated works of anarchy.” Then again, Smyth also confesses to having once constructed a centrepiece replica of the Eiffel Tower using Spam.
Stylist Ken Thompson suggests looking to your own wardrobe as a guide, whether your spirit animal is Kurt Cobain or Donatella Versace.
“Develop interesting table palettes from studying the preferred hues in your wardrobe and play with a mood board reflecting this,” Thompson says. “Place settings, vases and napkins will convey the essence of your own style and make for a totally fashionable event.
“Let your imagination run wild based on a great designer print or even the tonal simplicity of your favourite cashmere sweater. Designers such as Dolce and Gabbana and Versace indulge you in epic opulence that can turn the simplest of pastas into a Baroque Roman feast, but if you’re in for a more stealth approach look to Jasper Conran for Wedgwood or Armani Casa.”
While plates and napkins are obvious accessories for turning your table into a summer trendsetter, glassware, like Spanx, is the hidden secret for a winning table silhouette.
“Don’t let your crystal sit in the cupboard,” Keebaugh says. “Bring it out and use it. I have a rule that everything should have three uses. Good glassware can be used for drinking, a vase or for serving dessert.”
Certain things should not be seen on the table, however. Interiors stylist Jason Grant suggests leaving your scented candles in the bathroom.
“Your food shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the scent of lime, mandarin and basil coming from a candle,” Grant says. “Let nature inspire your setting but not take over the meal.”
Keebaugh’s buffet bête noire is also nature-based. “Gerberas. Just no.”
Like polishing your shoes, ironing your blouse or getting a power blow-dry the essential ingredient for success is making an effort.
“Beautiful has always been beautiful. No Pantone review or Milan runway show changes this,” Morton says. “The most loving thing anyone can do is to host a meal for another.”