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Putting It All on the Table

Arranging a table isn’t just about accessories — it’s about attitude. The way we approach both is changing.

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A table set with many dishes of food, candles, and a gravy boat. A hand reaches to light one of the candles. Dina Ávila/Eater

The tablescape, a concept once reserved for prop stylists and wedding planners, has lost its fuss. In the past few years, it’s become a focus of how-a-cool-person-does-it service journalism and product lines — and, of course, social media. The modern tablescape is more wabi sabi, anything goes than just so. Thankfully, all this attention hasn’t led to a homogenized look. At least not entirely.

But if social media perpetuates sameness, why have tablescapes become such a source of self-expression? You could argue that individualization itself is a trend. That may be true, but if the current state of tablescapes is a reflection of the increasingly relaxed, idiosyncratic nature of entertaining, it also is a reflection of the host, and of the growing confidence people have with cultivating their personal style at home. And where better to do it than where you eat? For renters, tableware is a takeaway investment. And for homeowners who prefer their built-ins boring (all the better for resale value), a terrazzo cutting board might scratch a similar itch as a terrazzo counter.

Tablescapes have become a cultural focal point because they’re a visual representation of shifting ideas around how we think about home, entertaining, and pleasure. Arranging a table isn’t just about accessories — it’s about attitude. The way we approach both is changing.

On one hand, there’s more willingness among hosts to have fun, break rules, or not even care which rules exist. That was Julia Sherman’s goal with her entertaining-focused Arty Parties cookbook, published in 2021.

“What I tried to bring out in Arty Parties was really this idea of not focusing on the perfection, not focusing on making everything feel buttoned up, and not pretending like your home is a restaurant, but rather treating it like a studio, treating it like your little laboratory, treating it like a place where you can try new things,” she says.

Since then, Sherman’s seen more people “not doing the most expected thing all the time” when it comes to arranging a table, and she draws parallels to the growing number of florists who forage and use vegetation in their work, such as Sophia Moreno-Bunge.

On the other hand, there’s a willingness to just spend more on tableware. Kalen Kaminski, a New York City–based prop stylist (her credits include Nothing Fancy) and the co-founder of Upstate, a clothing and home goods brand, is seeing the shift in tablescape norms among the clients she styles for and the customers who buy her products. These days, Kaminski says, customers who purchase Upstate apparel are also more game to spend $60 on a single, locally made, handblown glass. (When she started selling glassware back in 2019, shoppers assumed that price was for a set.) Her customers are beginning to view dressing their homes in a way they once reserved for their wardrobes. And on the client side, she’s noticed more demand from brands for “lived-in” tablescapes, as opposed to “something that looks like it came out of a catalog,” Kaminski says.

That appetite for individual style over top-down tastemaking jives with what Katherine Lewin is seeing with her customers at Big Night, a dinner-party shop that she opened in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in 2021. Big Night sells food alongside tabletop and design objects, and that home-focused part of the business has grown with the second, much larger location in New York City’s West Village. The “dining room” section of the store is piled high with a collection of objects that are functional but lively, with wares from brands like Dusen Dusen, Sophie Lou Jacobsen, Fredericks & Mae, and Misette. Lewin takes each of them out of their distinct brand worlds and assembles them together in one space — kind of like, and pardon the metaphor here, guests at a dinner party.

Naturally, Lewin encourages that spirit of mixing and not matching for her customers, too. “I would say our general approach to tablescaping here is like, let’s not stress about things matching and let’s just gravitate towards the things that actually bring you joy,” she says.

She has a theory about why eclectic, festive tablescapes have become such a focus for dinner parties, as well as party-of-one meals at home.

“I really think people have, or had, matching anxiety,” Lewin says. “The thing about, like, Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma — and no shade to those businesses, they’re ginormous businesses — but I do think people felt like they were supposed to or should buy things in large quantities, and that they should all match, and that there was only one time in your life to outfit your home and it was when you get married? I mean, just saying it out loud, it sounds so antiquated.”

It’s worth nothing that registry-abetted regimentation wasn’t always the norm. Modular tableware had its heyday in the mid-century with Russel Wright’s “American Modern” line, which changed the way people bought ceramics when it first appeared in the late 1930s. Designed to be accumulated over time, Wright’s rounded-off, richly colored dinnerware was hugely popular. Fiestaware debuted around the same time. But tableware brands of today, like those stocked at Big Night, are doing something different. They aren’t necessarily pointed toward completing a set, however gradually. Instead, they’re responding to consumers who are living (and buying) for the moment — people who aren’t waiting for a partner or a forever home to start enjoying themselves or entertaining others.

Of course, an individualistic approach to celebrating the everyday isn’t necessarily something that needs to be marketed to. For a more organic data point on how our culture is redefining dinner parties, take Don’t Cook for Cowboys, a Madison, Wisconsin–based interactive community event series that’s centered around tablescapes. Today, the two women behind Don’t Cook for Cowboys mostly deal in potluck dinner parties, but the concept is growing.

“So I’m kind of, I would say, like a curated hoarder,” says Nikki Hageman, one half of the duo. “A collector,” interjects Kaitlin Sherman, her partner in plates.

Hageman, an industrial designer by day, has an encyclopedic knowledge of her vintage finds. In college, she had an apprenticeship cataloging one of America’s largest collections of mid-century tableware. It eventually went to the Smithsonian. (Martha Stewart bought the textiles.)

“It was all this random knowledge about plate stamps and what era this came from and how they would use them,” Hageman says. “And so yeah, when Kaitlin came up with the idea, it was like, yes. This is my calling.”

The pair became friends about two years ago, after they both had just gotten out of relationships. “Establishing friend groups in your 30s is so hard,” Hageman says.

They were craving community, and they found it at the dining table. After Hageman hosted Sherman for a number of home-cooked meals with elaborate decor, Sherman was inspired. Why couldn’t they do this all the time?

“So we were like, let’s dedicate at least one night a month — I don’t know, usually it’s more — to just bringing everyone together, going all out, making it lavish and just having fun together,” Hageman says. “We had no idea it was going to amount to what it has today.”

What started as a series of friend dates evolved into a creative outlet centered around feminine energy — and a lot of thrifted tableware. Sherman came up with the name one night while doodling and set up a TikTok account. It now has over 16,000 followers, who visit for posts on Goodwill hauls, how-tos (butter molds, DIY twisted candles, centerpieces made from gutted pumpkins and flowers) and, of course, rich eyefuls of plates, glasses, fruit, flowers, candles, and knickknacks. The concept quickly evolved into a source of inspiration for those in their local orbit (the pair just did a tablescape for a wedding, their first client) and those outside it (brands like Fishwife and Ghia have sent them products).

“I’m definitely in it for just cultivating community and figuring out what we can do,” says Sherman, who works full-time as a therapist. “And it’s amazing that people care so much about tablescapes.”

Despite how elaborate modern tablescapes may appear, their appeal seems to come not from careful planning or arranging, but from intuition. They promise that following your gut and curating things you like is enough of a unifying vision. The early aughts set designers at, say, ABC Carpet & Home or Anthropologie might disagree with Lewin’s assessment about pre-pandemic “matching anxiety,” but generally the point stands. Even in the era of home decor, when eclecticism was the style, it was still a style. It didn’t leave much room for your grandmother’s floral dishware set or loaves of bread impaled by taper candles. Today’s tablescapes have gotten more interesting, and the shift seems to be coming from the bottom as opposed to the top. For now, it’s not brands or magazine editors driving interest in the way tables look and feel — it’s real people.

Rachel del Valle is a New York-based freelance writer.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Photo assistant: Eric Fortier