In the depth of winter I had a few friends for cocktails before a pretty swell event. As with all parties, big and small, it took a good bit of energy getting ready. I had to have the linen cocktail napkins monogrammed. I needed to pick up the mixers in the stylish bottles. I wanted to flip through recipes so I could cook a little something to put in people’s stomachs before they consumed too much booze. But as I was ticking those details off of my list, I was also thinking about how I would arrange everything.
I am good at details. I can think through what needs to be handy: water—both soda and flat—fruit, stirs, glasses of all sizes. And I am good at buying charming things, but I am not so good at styling. For this particular party, I had a friend in from out of town, and as he stood at the rustic farm table that serves as the bar in my dining room, laden with a heavy silver tray and plenty of the aforementioned booze, he said, “This table is such a moment.”
It was, of course, the best of compliments. But I did not create that vignette in a moment. (He’s styleish, too, so he knew this.) Whether you’re arranging something that will last one night, like a bar table, or sorting a bookshelf that will, hopefully, last a bit longer, it can take some effort. It took parts of two days, shifting and sorting, to locate the right height pitcher and to unearth the silver stirs and choose the glasses. The highballs were cut crystal, but the wine glasses were tall and modern so the table would not look like a registry display.
What I’ve learned over the years is that the whole business takes some time. I’m sure there are people who magically pull tablescapes out of their hats, but I’ve found that I do better with a free evening, good music, my favorite drink-of-the-moment and a pile of stuff.
It’s nice, of course, to have the type of friends who notice the details (especially if you’ve spent a lot of time on them), but it’s almost better for them to not. The important thing is that the company is lively and that everything they need is at their fingertips. The arrangement of table and bar are just one more gesture, no less important than the preparation of the food, toward making their time in your home special.
Styling is not easy, but it’s not brain surgery either. Here are some tips to creating tablescapes that engage and delight.
One thing is certain: you have to have things. Even if you are a minimalist, you need some things. Fewer and better things, if you plan to go lean, but things nonetheless. The upside is good things don’t have to be expensive. You can find relatively reasonable boxes and trays at any of the large retailers. Seashells from your last trip, a blue-jay feather, the shiny rock that your toddler found on the playground, can all add to an interesting vignette.
Change is Inevitable
I’ve heard stories of decorators who take pictures of tablescapes to leave for homeowners so they can recreate vignettes themselves after the dusting is done. Nonsense. Don’t be afraid to shift it around, to take something out or put something in. The joy of tablescapes is that they delight the eye. They are the bon vivant of the party. Even if they are sometimes too bold or unbalanced, you just have to let them be.
You need to consider arrangement both side-to-side and front-to-back. Lining items up like soldiers across the back or down the middle says “Move along, there’s nothing of interest here.” A lamp at each end may be all you really need, but you want the eye to travel. Don’t make the entire arrangement symmetrical. A sculpture to one side will create interest. A small painting on an easel adds color and depth.
A tabletop is a great place to use small bits of color without worrying about overwhelming. If you’re mad for the strong pink of begonias but worry that it would be too much as a wall color or even in upholstery, a lacquered, bright pink tray on the front hall table might be just the thing. That said, a completely neutral palette or one limited to two colors—say black and white—can be very engaging. What is key is using different textures. Gleaming brass, rough raffia, the soft glow of marble and the subtle brush strokes of oil in a painting add interest when they are used together.
Boxes, Stands and Cloches
An easy way to change the scale of something is to put it on a stand, atop a box or inside a cloche, which is a glass dome. A pile of books makes a great platform. This doubling up of elements adds dimension and can adjust height. Perhaps your mother’s spelling-bee trophy is something you want in everyday sight, but it’s lost on the expanse of the buffet top; a Lucite stand or blown-glass cloche can give it the weight it needs.
“It’s really all about balance, but it takes a practiced eye to attain it. Remember that straight lines shine when juxtaposed with curvilinear, each appears more interesting because of the presence of the other. And fresh flowers always add life. An expertly styled tablescape or bookcase is a lovely thing to behold, truly a work of art.”
Jan Kyle Design
“I love seeing anything sculptural on a tablescape. If it’s something that you’ve collected in your travels or just a piece that speaks to you, it adds great texture and material to the scene.”
Mindy Day Designs
“Styling is different than decorating. Styling is using what you have to its best advantage. People can get a little too attached to their things or where they are. It’s like your hair stylist. It’s the hair you already have, but he cuts and colors to bring out the best in you.”
Antiques dealer and stylist, Stage Left & State Right
“Just do something. Start with the larger pieces and don’t be afraid to shift stuff around. There’s often a common thread that runs through a collection, and I like to play on that. Love it or hate it, but get a reaction. I’m never satisfied with fine.”
“In order to not feel overwhelmed by a large blank space, I like to define a smaller area or just a tabletop to begin. I assemble a group of objects and begin to layer them, always juxtaposing several antique items with at least one more contemporary or whimsical object. In the shop, I like to layer 18th-century candlesticks and use vellum books as risers on which to place singular sculptural objects. I also often like to include geodes, coral or quartz crystal clusters to add an organic touch. Be a serial rearranger. I recommend it!”
Q: How do I transform a small upstairs room into something more than a resting place for unused items?
— Kelly Dillman, Kansas City
A: It’s easy, in the midst of our busy lives, to dump homeless items in a spare room. But these out-of-the-way spaces can become real jewels. Using a twin bed as a daybed is always a good idea as it can serve as seating (or lounging) if you sneak away to watch To Catch a Thief one more time or to accommodate an overnight guest. A wall of bookcases can keep your library in order or hold your collection of seashells. Spare rooms can make great offices or home gyms with the addition of a yoga mat or some weights. Without a doubt, have some fun with color or patterns. It’s a room of your own; open up and play.