Table For Sixteen? No Sweat!
To give a perfect dinner of ceremony is the supreme accomplishment of a host wrote Emily Post on the highly orchestrated ordeal of hosting a formal dinner, and not for the novice to attempt. If this were 1910, I’d be inclined to agree with her; however, today, with a few key elements of classic etiquette and some modern ingenuity & style, anyone can throw a table together for any occasion.
Now that the dust has settled from our anniversary party and I’m in good shape for our holiday line-up at the shop (if you missed it, it was rather epic I must say), I’m back to my blog and though I will keep the identities of my dear friends a mystery, I have been given much trouble by them to share my tricks to designing décor for a dinner party, and more specifically and in the interest of time, the table-scape.
With the holidays nearly upon us, we’re about to spend some serious time at the table with both family and friends and probably some folks we have not yet met (we’ll talk about guest etiquette in another issue), so I thought it timely to talk about what we can do as a host or hostess to properly dress our tables and design an exciting holiday theme.
- Make sure when you’re planning your engagement, that your table is big enough to accommodate your guest list. Guests should have 12”-15” to themselves and not knock elbows when the feedbags go on. Do yourself a favor before deciding on an invite list and measure your table, even if it’s just putting your chairs around to gauge space… no one is bringing a tape measure with them, so don’t get too hung up on space, but be realistic.
- Protect your table! Grandma Janet would faint if she knew I hosted parties without a tablecloth, but while she and Emily would certainly use a properly fitted cloth, runners and placemats are acceptable for use, today. If you’re going to use a cloth, make sure it’s the right size. Tablecloths should have between a 12”-18” drop on all sides, and for the love of God, iron it! Those Victorians had everything pressed… they also had staff. Today, the only thing we’re pressed on is time (unless you’ve got it like that… in which case, you go ‘head). For our table, we have a 70”x140” and it’s nothing short of a miracle to get it on the table, wrinkle-free unless you do the following:
- Run the tablecloth through the wash on the shortest setting
- Dry the tablecloth in the dryer for only a few moments so it’s still damp.
- After laying your table pads down, drape the cloth on the table in segments and have your iron steaming and ready to go.
- Lightly iron the cloth and move it down the table and from side to side until the entire clothe has been smoothed.
- Don’t lose it if you’ve still got some stubborn creases; just make sure you’ve given yourself a day before your event to let the cloth naturally relax
- If you’ve still got those creases and you can’t hide them with some clever table dressing elements, you can spritz them, lightly with some ironing water and give them a good tug to help flatten them out.
- These steps should also be followed for your napkins or any placemats or runners you may use in lieu of an all-encompassing table cloth
Whether you’re putting something together, yourself or you’ve decided to let Von Walter & Funk create something for you (hint-hint), keep these elements in mind:
- Go high or go low – I know it’s easy to run to Trader Joe’s and grab a ready-to-go bouquet and plunge them into a vase, but keep in mind that your guests must be able to either see over them, or under them, and depending on the height of your chandelier, it’s usually best to go low and arrange in a shallow bowl, and be sure your flowers do not exceed 1 & a half times the height of your vessel.
- Hide your mechanics! So you’ve chosen your vessel, just be sure your guests aren’t staring into a clear glass bowl with floral foam and sticks & stems. Either choose a vessel that is translucent or opaque, or use some leaves to surround and hide your mechanics – Hydrangea and salal leaves work very well for this purpose.
- Showcase, showcase, showcase! Your centerpiece is a work of art, so make sure to highlight it by placing it on either a nice mirrored plateau or even just a flat craft mirror – it’ll give your arrangement some shine and bring your table together as a whole.
- Scale, scale, scale! If you’ve got a table set for 12, a centerpiece occupying 15”-20” is a little small. You don’t have to make it any bigger, but consider adding either two smaller arrangements of similar design, flanking your centerpiece, or add some greenery to the table, itself. Most greens won’t fare well for long out of water, but some are perfect. Consider lying some silver dollar or seeded eucalyptus or my personal go-to fave, plumosa directly on the table and just weave it in and around your candles and other accent elements.
Candles & Other Table Accents:
So you’ve got your centerpiece lined up, but don’t forget about your candle lighting and some fun accent pieces. While flowers should be colorful reflections of the season, your accents can be pretty much whatever you like, but are best if there’s a connection to the event. For example, when Jamie and I hosted our wedding dinner, we used Jamie’s great-grandfather’s antique top hats as our accent pieces – For Easter Sunday, we used our rather alarming collection of small ceramic bunnies and paper mache Easter eggs. My go-to accent, however, are my softball-sized brass pheasants. I’ve only got two (for now), so I place them just outside our candelabras, in alternating positions on each side of the table.
If you’ve decided to use a tablecloth for your event, it should be predominantly white or ivory, so as to maximize and highlight the items you’ve decided to dress your table with, but along those lines, often times some small, seasonal fruits or vegetables can add wonderful pops of color to your table-scape, especially when they’re pitted against a clean white back-drop. Lastly, Emily would say, have silver that shines or none!. And while I do agree here, a light patina on your sterling or plated candelabras is okay, but it should be clean and noticeably silver. Alternatively, pewter tableware is quite stunning and requires far less maintenance than silver. Match Pewter makes beautiful tabletop accessories that we carry at the shop and has prompted us to begin swapping out some of our high-maintenance silver pieces for a similarly styled line. So whether you’ve got some big ole’ 3 or 5 arm candelabras, or you’re working with some random single candle sticks (which, by the way, I am kind of in love with... 3 or 4 different sticks all clustered together? Gorg!), just make sure whatever you do at one end of the table, you do at the other…. And know this: There is no such thing as a dripless candle... No Such Thing! I sell them at the shop, but unless you’ve got a perfectly straight candlestick (which also doesn't exist), make sure you’re protecting your table and/or cloth. You can buy some ghetto wax guards, but I use vintage boboches that I’ve collected from junked chandeliers over the years. They catch the wax and add stability to your candle game and they add just the right pinch of fancy to the table… I like it because it’s sparkly.
Last, but certainly not least is the tricky business of putting just the right pieces, in the right places on the table for each place setting. Below, I’ve included a picture that I use regularly when I get into trouble but please know that there are a number of versions of the classic, American, Continental & Intercontinental table settings, but this one should get you through any occasion without judgment. To begin, let’s start with some Don’ts:
- Never leave anything in bottle on the table (ketchup, condiments, jellies, etc.). 1) This is insulting to the chef, and 2) it’s just hideous. If you must have these items, they should be in small bowls or accoutrement dishes with small serving spoons. Keep it classy.
- Overly colorful dishes or serve-ware should be avoided. Choose a china pattern that is predominantly white and if you don’t have enough place settings to get through your dinner with all guest places, either mix patterns symmetrically or scrap the whole thing and make each piece totally random and unique.
- Be sure each course has the appropriate flatware already on the table, and if you’re breaking out the sterling, be sure it’s polished - there are no exceptions here; it’s either high shine or stick with your stainless.
- The dinner plate or charger is used to build your entire setting around. The charger remains on the table through every course.
- Remember your B’s & D’s. Use your right hand to make a ‘b’ & your left hand to make a ‘d’ – this is an easy way to remember where your (b)read plate goes (the left of the dinner plate) and your (d)rinking glasses (the right of the dinner plate).
- The napkin should be folded in thirds and placed on the dinner plate – making your guests remove their silverware from the napkin to place it in their lap is used only in an informal setting.
- Silverware should be placed to the left (forks) and right (knives & spoons) of the dinner plate and never more than three of any utensil (3 forks, 3 knives, etc.). If additional forks or knives are necessary for your service, they should be brought to the table with that course. **Flatware placement and presence is contingent upon the menu and the order in which each course is served. Traditionally, and for our purposes today, we will serve:
- Forks should consist of no more than the following and in this order moving from the outside to the inside of the setting from the left, based upon the menu sequence, above:
- Fish or Appetizer Fork
- Salad Fork
- Dinner Fork
- **Though this adds a fourth fork to the table, it is commonly acceptable to add the dessert fork to the original table setting, directly above the dinner or service plate/charger in a horizontal orientation.**
- To the right of the dinner plate should consist of no more than the following, in this order, from the inside to the outside of the place setting, based upon the menu above:
- Dinner Knife (you may also add a knife rest to your table for use once the dinner knife has been employed. Before use, it should be placed directly above the dinner knife)
- Salad Knife
- Fish or Appetizer Knife
- Soup Spoon
- **The butter knife should be placed diagonally over the bread plate**
- Drinking or Beverage glasses are always cascaded in the upper right corner of the place setting and from left to right should be as follows:
- Water Glass
- Red Wine Glass
- White Wine Glass
- Champagne Flute or Aperitif Glass
Yikes, I need a drink-drink after that! After you’ve got a dinner or two under your belt, you’ll have this totally down and if you get into trouble, you can refer back to this guide or find a similar one online.
So that pretty much wraps it up. Just remember to be creative with your table design and that there really are no unforgiveable moves. It’s the holidays and we’re really excited for another great season at Von Walter & Funk. We’re here for all your tabletop needs, inspiration and how-to, so if you’ve got a host/ess conundrum on your hands, we can help you out!