Where to splurge, where to save, when pulling together a table for two or feast for a dozen? Here are six tricks of my trade to help you set a perfect, and lushly layered, table.
1) Shop Outside the Box
Don't limit your shopping to the tabletop departments in home stores. The tablecloth here is a burlap moving blanket, and the "runner" is a street-vendor pashmina, laying the groundwork for $10, total. Craft and fabric stores also have colored burlap by the yard, or check out remnant bins for an interesting textured swatch, to use as a main covering or an accent.
I craft a table like I build a room: the biggest pieces first, and generally from the bottom up. So these two pieces, short on expense but high on inspiration, set the stage… er, table. With these two pieces and dinnerware in place, I had my first textural and color cues.
2) High and Humble, Naturally
Again like designing a room, the mix is much more interesting when you use high and humble elements. The gold-rimmed wine glasses and formal flatware seem even more elegant against that burlap backdrop.
To me, fall is all about texture and natural elements, so it seemed natural to pick pieces made of natural materials. Plus, when working with a natural palette, it's really hard to go wrong, and you end up with a confident and sophisticated look that's still relatable, perfect for meals this time of year that are also usually a combination of happily hearty and all dressed up.
3) Color Outside the Lines
Fall decorating doesn't have to mean pumpkins and pilgrims. There's a lot of other inspiration, especially color-wise, this bounteous time of year, whether it comes from outdoors, your favorite store, or your own decor.
Don't forget what food brings to the table — autumn cuisine is rich with color. For any hardworking cook, it's only fitting and fair to let the food be the real star of any table. Even the poured wine plays a role, mixing the colors of the red roses and the raisin runner.
4) Layer and Mix
You dress in layers for fall, so why not set your table the same way? Layering gives a great texture to your table and a real wow factor when those dining room doors are thrown open. Here, the layering was contained mostly to the individual place settings, keeping much of the rest of the table free. Who says you can't use a placemat (here, oval and woven) and chargers? I've even layered napkins... a great way to look indulgent, without a lot of outlay. Plus, it's practical for multi-course meals: whisk the first napkin away with the soup bowls, and everyone has a clean, fresh start for the main course.
As you layer, make sure to consider what you're already working with, and draw from similarities to what you've already got going on. The flatware pattern was chosen for its plate-echoing raised-bead detail, making the beaded-edge napkins also a perfect choice. Playing up the bird theme started by the salt and pepper shakers, I added the woven decorative quail, nest-y chargers, and even that woven centerpiece basket. The pheasant feathers tucked in with the napkins share a banded effect with the woven placemats, the tiny pussy willow relate in color and beaded pattern to the dishes.
5) See Past the Season
As tempting as retailers make it to snap up holiday- and seasonally-themed plates and platters, I prefer to select pieces that have life past the season. Bird-nest inspired chargers would be perfect for an Easter table, and the heftier woven wicker chargers could find their place at any summer picnic. The dinnerware itself, while Thanksgiving-perfect, is a truly neutral starting point.
6) Splurge on a Centerpiece
Sure, you can run out to the deli or flower market and grab a bouquet, but I think special occasions deserve special flowers. And if you save elsewhere, like I did with the tablecloth and runner, you can splurge on a made-to-order centerpiece (or if you're florally-inclined, you can whip up something yourself).
But here's a way to keep costs down, even on your big floral splurge: take your own container to the florist, and have them make the arrangement in your bowl, basket or vase. It also helps to assure your completed arrangement will be the right scale for your table if you start with a container you already own.
Even though you're using a professional, don't be afraid to "art direct" the arrangement, giving the florist ideas about how elegant, formal or casual you want the final arrangement to be, and what colors you're planning on. Also, talk more color than favorite flower — let them use what's seasonally available, in your preferred palette, and you'll save again. It's also important to convey where you plan on placing it (at the center of the table, or as a focal point of a buffet, for example) to help determine the final height. You can even bring samples of your napkins or other elements you plan to incorporate. You'll end up with a table that looks coordinated to your focal point, and not like you plunked down the flowers your great aunt sent in from out of town.
Even though there is a great centerpiece bowl that's part of this particular line of dinnerware, here's a case where it's more stylish to mix, not match. The piece I gave the florist was a woven ceramic serving basket lined with moss, tying in to the chargers and playing up the overall avian theme with its bird's nest-evocative shape and design. After this arrangement arrived, I tucked in feathers and mini faux pussy willow, to tie in the individual place settings. Don't be afraid to add your own touch to the delivered arrangement, like adding fresh garnish or your own spices to a store-bought side dish.
The non-traditional palette of the flowers came from the table itself — deep romantic reds, raisin. That dash of true purple keeps things fresh and a tiny bit modern. It's also a great way to incorporate a color from your interior onto your table.
(Images: Linda Greene/Lenox)