When I was setting the table for my first dinner party as a young newlywed in 1981, I had Emily Post in one hand and a ruler in the other. My copy of Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers, given to me in the 1960s, was close at hand for backup.
Thank goodness, in 1982 Martha Stewart exploded onto the scene with her groundbreaking hosting how-to, Entertaining (ooh, those Bourbon Balls). Pillow shams as place mats on a brunch table! Mismatched china! Kale as a centerpiece! The possibilities for visually delighting your guests were endless. Comb the flea markets, trawl your grandmother’s linen closet; better yet, use what you have. Adieu to white damask tablecloths, origami napkins, and overwrought floral arrangements.
Setting a table for a meal has its origins in ancient times. In the Middle Ages of England, the phrase literally described setting a board on top of two trestles. Guests brought their own utensils and ate off a slice of bread—an edible place mat.
The table itself is a blank slate waiting for you to create a festive, convivial experience for your guests and visually enhance the menu. Imagine facing the task of decorating a 35-foot-long, 5-foot-wide kalantas mahogany table that seats 42 dinner guests—an empty, yawning dark brown runway to be transformed into a tropical fantasy.
Last May, Marion de Vogel, a board member of McKee Botanical Garden, did just that when she hosted an event in honor of retired General James Mattis, the 26th U.S. secretary of defense, following a commemorative ceremony in the garden. The dinner was held in the timbered Hall of Giants, which has a very high ceiling, stained glass windows, and a dark, magical atmosphere. De Vogel, a descendant of Arthur McKee, considered all these aspects of the structure as she set about creating a lush, tropical fantasy for the guests.
To bring color onto the table, de Vogel alternated woven place mats in yellow, orange, and blue, unified by white linen napkins with woven rattan napkin rings. Faux silk leaves were tucked into the napkin rings and served as place cards.
Seven “very tall centerpieces in glass cylinders were designed to appear as if all the elements were pulled from the garden,” explains the hostess. Vivid orchids and bougainvilleas popped color amidst the greens, and below were more tropical flowers and “hundreds of textured glass votives running down the center of the table,” she says.
High-end rental china, flatware, and crystal reflected the flickering candlelight. Flamenco music and dancers entertained the guests throughout cocktails and dinner.
At the other end of the spectrum, Loggia owner Sandy Howe adores having dinner parties in her home. “I love to cook!” she exclaims, adding, “It’s personal.” Howe builds her tablescape starting with a lively tablecloth. “There are so many beautiful tablecloths out there now. Then I’ll add pretty place mats. It makes the table seem to float,” she says.
An avid collector, Howe has “old French bubble glass cutlery” in various colors, and adds, “I don’t use my silver anymore.” For napkins, Howe says, “I either mix my napkins or use one pattern. You don’t have to have eight or twelve of the same napkins.” As far as plates go, she says, “Nothing ever matches. You unify with linens.” Her centerpieces come from her vast porcelain collection.
Helen Cook, who also serves on the McKee board, co-chaired a benefit with de Vogel for the Children’s Garden. She suggests that you “think about what’s being served in terms of the china,” but adds, “or, you can do it in reverse.”
Despite all the current table-setting permutations, the “golden rule” still applies: utensils are placed in the order of use, with forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right.
And that’s a good thing, right Martha?