Designer shares unusual ideas on setting a pretty table
Sandy Chilewich, a New York-based designer known for her iconic placemats, first became fascinated with textiles when she cofounded hoisery company Hue in 1978. Today, her Chilewich range continues to evolve into new products and several of her designs are in the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Chilewich joined staff writer Jura Koncius last week on the Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt. Q: What are the basic components of a properly set table?
A: One component I’d suggest you rethink is the typical floral arrangement at the center of the table. Fruits or nuts or flowers can work as the purely decorative part of your table setting. It’s more beautiful and a lot less expensive to break up your flowers and put them in small vessels around your table. During the holidays, a beautiful container with a composition of fruit (whether fresh or dried) and nuts can easily take the place of flowers. Q: How does one think about mixing and matching without everything looking cluttered?
A: You can be cohesive with tonal color combinations. Shades of blue, for example. You can be cohesive in bringing out the color of your plates by adding a vase with flowers in that same color somewhere on your table.
Setting your table is an opportunity to be creative and experimental. There are some people that are matchy-matchy in the way that they dress, but most people today are much more experimental. I think we need to treat things on the table more like you would an accessory (such as a scarf or a necklace) when you’re getting dressed. Think of it as a personal choice, rather than worrying about “rules” to follow. Q: Do you think cloth napkins are necessary for entertaining? Are tablecloths more appropriate for holiday meals if you are using fine china versus a Chilewich table runner?
A: Tablecloths used to define “fine dining,” and this is a concept that I thought was ripe for shaking up. I don’t think they are necessary for entertaining.
As for cloth napkins, I like them and use them all the time, often with napkin rings. Q: What does the table setting in your home typically look like? Do you have a go-to set or do you mix-and-match?
A: I look at the table as a canvas and a foundation for everything that goes on top, so the textiles that I use are very important, and I’m constantly changing them.
For me, it’s about surprising people. It can be anything, from a collection of perfume bottles to containers around the house. Also, don’t ever just use salt and pepper shakers. It’s an opportunity to put condiments in unconventional receptacles. Any opportunity to mix textures and colors and materials is an opportunity to delight and surprise. Q: I favor a modern aesthetic, and my only place settings are white square plates. How can I keep the modern look but also have a festive and inviting table for Thanksgiving?
A: A simple white square is a great starting point. For example, if you like the geometry of your plates, you can counter that and bring out the beauty of that square by putting it with small round or rectangular containers. Play off the shape you’re using. Don’t let it constrain you - think of ways to enhance and complement it. Q: I am considering supplementing my dining table with a plastic folding table to accommodate guests at Thanksgiving. Any tips for dressing it up and pulling the tables together visually?
A: tablecloths to make the foundation more uniform – for example, a traditional white tablecloth on both surfaces, and then on top of that, you could be experimental, layering placemats and table runners. Q: I want to use different colored placemats on my table, but I’m not sure how I could combine them.
A: Tonal combinations are always a good way to go. Or neutrals combined with any color always work, as long as the neutral is predominant.
I also love creating dimension on your table. Try overlapping different sizes and shapes, or placemats and runners. Q: What is the most memorable or your favorite table setting you have designed?
A: I set a table for my husband’s 60th birthday party. It was in the private room of a restaurant, so there were real limitations. All I had to work with was one giant table with tons of white tablecloths layered over it.
I brought things in from home, including a couple of candelabras and our Dahlia placemats (these are lace-like, and the open surface looks great on a white tablecloth). I also put flowers around the table in tiny vessels. (I always go to places where I can pick individual stems and make my own strangely pretty combinations. You end up spending so much less money, and you have something that’s truly unique) I put more flowers on decorative plates, with just a touch of water, and placed them around the table. It was a very special night.
Sandy Chilewich is the founder and creative director of Chilewich.