Setting the holiday table sets the mood
Elevate your holiday dining decor to give your guests a special place at the table
A festive table setting is about more than just providing some decor for your holiday dinner.
Afestive table setting is about more than just providing some decor for your holiday dinner. It can set the mood for a party, spark conversations among guests and give you an excuse to dust off your grandmother’s silver and china.
But how do you pull everything together in a creative way that doesn’t feel clichéd?
“The foundation of your holiday table is the textile you choose for your runner or tablecloth and napkins,” said Liz Curtis, the founder of Table + Teaspoon, a San Francisco rental service that offers pre-planned table settings starting at $24 a person.
Go with a neutral color and pattern, rather than a holiday theme, to create “an elegant, elevated feel for your guests,” Curtis said.
That’s 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.
At Christmas dinner, 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, 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.”
“There is something so special about using pieces from the earth, by adding a garland of greenery or winter fruits down the center 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.”
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.”
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 color.”
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, color and interest to her floral arrangements.
“You get a more powerful effect by working with colors 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 to 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’ll slice the bottom off a pear and stand it in the center 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,” 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.”
Designer Bronson van Wyck dresses his holiday table in tartan linens to reflect his Scottish heritage. “Even patterns that don’t seem to fit the occasion work if they’re mixed and matched with confidence and whimsy,” he says.
A pear with the bottom sliced off is a festive, unconventional way to decorate a place setting, says Liz Curtis, the founder of Table + Teaspoon. It’s also one that guests often end up eating.