Delight your audience with a memorable play of vintage and modern elements
Look back on a lifetime of meals from great to grim, served in restaurants, hotels, cafés, diners, dives and joints: You might remember the food, the wine, the desserts, sometimes the glow of candles and the sounds of a jazz act or a jukebox. But you almost never remember the table settings, because practicality corrals restaurant china and linens into all-too-familiar shapes and boring colors. In other words, the table, which can be a beautiful stage set for conversation and emotion, remains blank for many of our most special meals.
It’s only in someone’s home that we see star–quality step into the spotlight, with mixes of grandmother’s dishes, wedding china, and dessert plates or water glasses bought at a favorite store or on a trip. At home, we can take the time to hand–wash a fragile dish, or bring down the vintage stemware from its high shelf. At home, we can create a memorable visual experience for friends and family. We can refresh and elaborate upon our own tastes and traditions.
The first step in producing our own dining drama is to drop the idea of a perfectly matched dinner service. The United States Constitution does not require the dinner plate to match the dessert plate, or the teacup to match the saucer. Wine and water glasses do not need to look alike. In fact, it's better that they don’t.
It’s much more impressive when the things you touch and look at lift the spirits and elicit moments of surprise and beauty, and you can’t do that when everything matches. Or when nothing ever changes. Spring is the time for shake-ups and re-awakenings, for new ideas. Set your sights on Easter and Mother’s Day, and the rest of the year will take shape before you know it.
Tips for Tabletop Dramatics
Pick a color strategy. What’s your favorite color? What looks best in your home? Pink or blue? Gold or silver? Once you “pick a lane,” keep your eyes peeled. Run through the tabletop sections of both local stores and national chains with your color strategy firmly in your mind. Everything (YES, everything!) looks coherent and cool in a tone-on-tone scenario.
Hit the fleas and the thrifts. Our grandparents and great-grandparents were taught to set a good table, and there is a fantastic assortment out there of everything from finger bowls to cordial glasses, to mountains of cups and plates. Much of it can be had for a few dollars. You can always start slow with, say, one cobalt blue wine glass at a spring flea market. Stick with it and you could have the coolest collection in place by Christmas.
Scour online sale sections, and sort by price. Every site from Pottery Barn to Neiman Marcus has a sale section. Check in once in a while and see what they have. December-January and July-August tend to be particularly rich times of the year. Etsy, eBay, and various small auction sites are also hot. Mid-century wine glasses from Phoenix are suddenly just a click away. You can usually sort by price, which makes collecting and curating fun and affordable.
Be a renegade. Welcome to the 21st century, where an 1890s bread-and-butter plate can serve tapas, a 1950s cordial glass can serve up a shot of infused vodka, and a 1970s fondue fork makes a nifty skewer for a fruit dessert. A pretty tea towel can be a placemat, and a colorful, brand new washcloth can be a lunch napkin. Break the rules: You know you want to.
$70 per place setting
In good weather, blue can be a sultry, seductive color, especially mixed with purples. Stunning indoors or out, the bluish light of long evenings makes this combo even more beautiful. Use the flatware you already own because any kind of silver works here. Or try something clearly new! Invite your favorite couples over for long, languid talks about each other’s lives and your dreams for the future.
Placemat: Kim Seybert Tangle Placemat (KimSeybert.com), $2; Vintage goblet: Etsy (Etsy.com), $11; Napkin: Barberry Handmade (BarberryHandmade.com), $32; Vintage blue and white plate: Flea market find, $5; Salad Plate: Anthropologie (Anthropologie.com), $14; Bowl: TJ Maxx (TJMaxx.tjx.com), $5. Finishing touches Cobalt dinner and salad plates: Wexford General Store Antiques, $10 and $8; Double-old-fashioned glass: Barberry Handmade, $48 each; Flatware: Kim Seybert Faceted Flatware, $105 per placesetting; Napkin ring: Kim Seybert, $16; Flowers: Cuttings (shopcuttings.com)
Younger Than Springtime
$32 per place setting
Millennial pink is a hipster thing right now. It was also a popular 1930s Depression glass color. Blend this tender tone with coral accents and fresh Icelandic poppies to make a lunch tribute to Mom or a girlfriends-only catch-up dinner.
Vintage goblet: Wexford General Store Antiques, $8; Double-old-fashioned glass: TJ Maxx (TJMaxx.tjx.com), $4; Flatware: Wayfair.com, $7 per place setting. Dinner plate: Target (Target.com), $5; Dessert cup: Anthropologie (Anthropologie.com), $4; Placemat: Target tea towel, $3; Napkin: Anthropologie washcloth, $1. Finishing touches Bird bread-and-butter plate: Hot Haute Hot (hothautehot.net), $17; Depression glass plate: Wexford General Store Antiques, $8 Dotted side plate: Target, $4; Flowers: Cuttings (shopcuttings.com)
$450 per place setting
Ancient artisanal details, like crackled glazes and hand-blown glass stripes, are the height of luxury. Beautiful to touch and to see, they remind us with their handmade irregularities that we are not alone in the world — that our lives connect somehow to every other life. Modern finishes and materials, like matte black metal and sustainably sourced African ebony scrap wood, only deepen the composition.
Bali crackled dinner plate and small bowl: Urban Zen (urbanzen.com), $70 and $50; Flare Placemat: (KimSeybert.com), $107; Distressed napkin: Kim Seybert, $30 Crackle platinum tumbler: Kim Seybert, $65; Murano drinking glass: Barberry Handmade (BarberryHandmade.com), $65; Vintage wine glass: (Etsy.com), $4; Flatware: Design Within Reach (DWR.com), $55. Finishing touches Square charger and large bowl: Urban Zen, $70 each; Tangier double-runner: Kim Seybert, $170; African ebony spoon: Barberry Handmade, $18; Flowers: Cuttings (shopcuttings.com)
TASTE OF HONEY
$100 per place setting
A table for two. In a garden. Candlelight. Champagne. It worked (arguably) for Adam and Eve, didn’t it? Moving your best dishes outside automatically makes for a very special occasion. If they glow with gold rims and metallic lusters, you win! Thrift shops are crowded with old wedding china: Watch for the simplest ones with only gold or silver details and build a collection over time.
Vintage dinnerware: flea market finds, from $5-$12 per piece; Vintage flatware: Etsy (Etsy.com), $10 per place setting; Vintage wineglass: Etsy, $12; Champagne flute and water glass: Barberry Handmade (BarberryHandmade.com), $25 and $20; Twisted paper placemat: Wayfair.com, $1.50 each. Finishing touches Vintage Khmer silk runner: Flea market find, $20; Votive candles: Target (Target.com), $3; Flowers: Cuttings (shopcuttings.com)