As much as I love to go on and on about how there are no formal rules in tablescaping, years of experience has taught me that there are certain ways to do things that help create a better experience for my guests. By that, I mean that while tablescaping is an art, it’s also first and foremost a thing of utility. My priority in designing a great table is not only to make it look pretty, but to be the base for which a spectacular event happens. There’s no point in creating a beautiful table that can’t be used effectively (unless, of course, you’re creating one for a competition—in which case scape away!), because the whole purpose of a table is to be enjoyed by all the senses.
This doesn’t mean however that those crazy floral centerpieces are out of the question! But I do realize that as a hostess, it’s my #1 duty to create a welcoming, pleasing, and comfortable environment for all, and that sometimes means cutting out those extra hundred roses. My favorite thing to remember is that throwing a fantastic soirée requires both great food and great conversation. The tablescape merely aids your guest’s experience, but throwing an awesome party is so much more than that!
Since it’s the start of a new decade, I’ve decided to outline a few of my tablescaping “rules” below. Listed are some of the tips, tricks, and thoughts I’ve gathered over my past few years in tablescaping, which I hope can be of some use to you. Let me know what you think below!
Note: I won’t point out the obvious and include rules on how to set your table properly. The following list is more of a guideline on how to tablescape effectively. For more of the former, check this handy guide out.
Let’s get this out of the way first, since funnily enough I believe that the rules for formal settings are easier to follow, although there are fewer occasions in which they can come in handy. Formal settings describe anything you’d create for a formal wedding and other large events, and they are usually served à la russe.
- I am a big believer in charger plates. Chargers are a personal must have when being served à la russe. They keep your table from looking completely bare when the dishes are being taken away, plus an empty charger signals the waiter that it’s time to serve you.
- Speaking of being served à la russe, for formal dinners with 8 or fewer guests and where the meal is served this way, I consider it polite to wait for the other guests to finish their courses before starting on the next one. Obviously for larger dinners where there are more guests, each person should be served as soon as they’re done with their course. For throwing formal dinners at home (assuming one has no help), I recommend never serving à la russe as it breaks the flow of conversation every time the host stands up to serve the courses.
- Try as much as possible to keep your tablescape symmetrical! In my previous post I talked about table composition and the effect it has on your tablescape. Keeping your table symmetrical not only adds to the formal look, but it also helps keep the ambience of calm, harmony, and balance, which are all very important for formal dinners. This means having the same amount of candles on either side of the centerpiece, or similar floral arrangements down the center of the table. Whatever you choose to do, keep it balanced!
- On the subject of centerpieces: they can be tall or short, depending on the amount of people and the size of the table. Remember that the centerpiece helps direct the flow of conversation between your guests. Having a tall centerpiece at the middle of your table cuts the conversation in half; people will naturally talk to those seated beside them (and not to the ones in front of them). Depending on what you want out of your event, this could work to your advantage! Case in point? Very formal dinners, especially those held on long banquet tables, can accommodate very large centerpieces, as people should be talking quietly to those seated beside them and not shouting over the table to get their point across (literally and figuratively). For smaller dinners, say for 10 people or less, I highly suggest sticking to small centerpieces so that everyone gets to be a part of the conversation.
- Depending on the type of table you have and the size of your party, the host should always aim to sit at the head of the table. From this point, you can control the flow of conversation and address any issues should they arise. When in a larger gathering, like on the aforementioned banquet table, the host/s should always sit at the middle to help direct the flow of conversation to either side. In the case of 2 or more hosts, always aim to sit on both ends of the table.
- Use place cards to your advantage, and predetermine where your guests should sit beforehand. Group guests that have similar interests together, so that they can create a natural flow of conversation without needing your direction. This may mean a few extra hours of planning on your part, but trust me when I say that it will all be worth it when you see your guests enjoying each other’s company!
This is where things start to get interesting. Since I know that you know that I’m a firm believer that tablescapes should be used for any occasion,—yes, even for Wednesday night dinner—informal tablescapes are my jam. While throwing a laidback soirée means that there may be more leeway in the design of your table, having a casual tablescape also makes planning a lot more complicated in it’s own way. I’ll try and break it down below.
- For an event with 8 or fewer people, use food to your advantage and serve it family-style on the table (also known as service à la française, to contrast with the service à la russe mentioned above). As you may know, I’m a believer in using food as centerpieces, and serving family-style is a fantastic way to showcase your cooking and plating skills to your guests.
- If you’re serving food this way, make sure your centerpiece/s are unobtrusive. I wouldn’t, for example, use any candles or at the very least only use short ones, as maneuvering and passing around dishes can already be quite taxing.
- As for the placement of your table décor, I suggest placing them at the corners of the table, or placing a centerpiece right at the center with food surrounding it.
- A big part of a great “user experience” is never wanting for anything, and that goes for anything from condiments to drinks. For a small event, ensure that each guest gets enough to drink by placing your drinks at the corners of the table, or within the comfortable reach of all. As a standard rule to go by, I place one bottle of wine and a pitcher of water for every 3 or 4 guests.
- For a larger event, which for me is anything past 8 people, consider serving buffet-style to make it easier for everyone to get what they need.
- Unlike formal events, I would avoid any large centerpieces to keep the flow of conversation going between my guests. Keep your table décor simple and sweet—a few bouquets of flowers here and there can do wonders for the ambience of the room.
- Don’t overload your table with too much detail, or risk your tableware getting in the way of your guests! A simple wine glass and water glass combo should be enough. Anything too “fussy” (AKA a whole boatload of tableware on the table), just gets in the way of creating a casual atmosphere. Plus, informal soirées tend to get a bit rowdier than their formal counterpart, which makes having too many breakables impractical.
- Just like with the situation above, sit yourself on one end of the table wih your co-host directly opposite you. Part of being a fantastic host is anticipating what your guests may need, and the head of the table offers you the fullest view of the room.
- This is a nugget of wisdom passed on to me from my grandmother: for whatever event you may have, always sit yourself facing the door so that you’re prepared for whoever walks in, and whatever may happen.
As a general guideline that applies to both formal and informal settings, try thinking of your tablescape from a “user experience” point of view, and work from there to create your tablescape. Think of the kind of atmosphere you want present at your party and your goals for the soirée. By starting at the end point and making your way backwards, you’ll eventually come up with the ideal tablescape for your event.