The Tantalizing Table

By Lesley Myrick

Designer tips for the haute holiday tablescape

The weather is cooling off here in Waco, and the slightest hint of crisp air means I’m grabbing a pumpkin spice latte (or pumpkin anything, really) and my leather jacket before heading out the door to meet a client. Cooler temperatures also mean that the holiday season is rapidly rolling in, and it’s time to start thinking about creating a captivating tablescape for Christmas or Thanksgiving.

Tablescaping is more than setting a table and popping on a centerpiece. The “Fearless Fresh” blog by Stephanie Stiavetti defines it as “the act of creatively and intentionally arranging a tabletop so it conveys a specific theme, mood, or experience.” A tablescape is a work of art, a small-scale styling masterpiece, a visual display to be remembered. Done right, it’s that little detail that elevates a holiday meal into a spectacular event shared with family and friends.

Ironically, while I could wax on for hours about my love and appreciation for a beautifully set dinner table, there are three areas of design that people assume I must be totally into but I’d rather avoid: party decorating, holiday decorating and — you guessed it — tablescaping. I’m a minimalist at heart, and the thought of stockpiling dozens of decorations and a plethora of platters gives me major anxiety. And the sheer effort of decorating for a brief season or event sounds like too much trouble. But I clearly stand alone because most people I know love all the things and can’t wait to crack open their many boxes of seasonal decor when temperatures start to dip.

Despite my aversion to event design and decorating, I do appreciate a good party and beautifully set table. I’m actually pretty fascinated by tablescaping. I learned a thing or two about designing a drool-worthy tabletop in my former life as a set designer and stylist for a home retailer. Selling platters, plates and place settings required pushing the envelope to create an enviable ambiance to attract consumers. So how do design experts create a photo-pleasing table?

What sets a tantalizing tablescape apart from a regular ol’ dinner table are two crucial elements: levels and layering. Varied levels and heights created with cake stands, candelabras, glass apothecary jars or vases make a dynamic first impression. Instead of quickly panning over a traditional table setting, the eye moves up and down around the tablescape, taking in every little detail and enjoying small visual surprises along the way. While place settings should remain low for obvious reasons — unless your guests are up for a teetering dinner adventure — centerpieces, platters and florals can be raised to varying heights. However, please ensure your guests can still see each other and enjoy meaningful conversation. No one likes having a face blocked by an intrusive poinsettia.

Layered objects also add depth and richness to a holiday table. A brass charger placed under a dinner plate, a cloth napkin peeking between a salad plate and bowl, a patterned table runner layered over a solid tablecloth. These little design details go above and beyond to create lush ambiance.

More is more when it comes to tablescaping, and layering for a dinner is quite similar to layering with clothes and accessories for a night out. There’s a difference between your everyday outfit and one you’d wear for a special occasion. This is a special occasion, baby! Add layers and baubles to your fabulous table just like you add to your fabulous self.

Organic accents are an unexpected addition to a haute holiday table, and you know I love the element of surprise in design. The juxtaposition of rustic natural materials with polished finishes, like ceramic dishware, is a contrast that’s quite appealing to the senses. A cluster of birch logs or a bundle of sticks tied with twine lend a comforting, homey quality. Winter greenery, like evergreen garlands studded with sparkle lights, can be a little more glam and elegant. And of course, iconic holiday poinsettias are a welcome burst of red and green for a classic approach.

And it is the holidays after all, so don’t forget to add a little bling to finish things off. Mixing matte and sparkly finishes creates visual interest and plays beautifully with candlelight. Glossy Christmas ornaments, curled metallic ribbons or shiny copper serving spoons contrast beautifully with cloth table linens and leafy organic accents.

Designing a dynamic tablescape is all about creating visual interest through contrast: high and low, rustic and polished, matte and shiny, patterned and solid. This is an opportunity to have fun and play. Take time to experiment with your tablescape long before your guests arrive and savor the creative process just like you would a good meal.

Now that I’ve taught you how to create a stunning holiday tablescape, can I come over for dinner? I’ll bring the pumpkin pie.