After pouring blood, sweat, and tears into cooking, setting the table is like the final boss of entertaining. Now, as more and more people become aware of the concept of a “tablescape,” having a table that looks good enough to post on Instagram is a sign of a successful dinner party. Even if you don’t plan to document it for your social following, a well-dressed table is a fitting way to showcase a delicious spread and make the evening feel like the truly festive occasion that it is.
But having a beautiful table doesn’t have to add more stress to an already stressful time. Decorating the dinner table can be a chance to get creative with all the tchotchkes and trinkets you’ve collected over time, show off that enviable collection of serveware, or get crafty with ribbons and bows. It’s really the only time you’re allowed to play with your food. If you’re looking to step up your game and perfect the art of the tablescape, follow these suggestions from professional hosts and dinner-party planners.
Start with a mood board
A throughline or central theme acts as a good entry point for where to start sourcing decorations for the table. This is how Pearl Banjurtrungkajorn, co-founder of the dinner club series Her Name is Nala, starts every brainstorming session when tapped by brands to host a dinner.
“We look at their brand, as well as ours, and see what elements overlap, what elements we want to bring to the forefront,” she says. “Then we form a mood board around it.”
On it, she pulls inspiration from Pinterest, Instagram, cookbooks, her camera roll, and things she saw on the street to get a sense of the atmosphere she wants to create. From there, she uses the board to begin sourcing what to put on the table. Choosing, say, an autumnal theme can translate to foliage-shaped tableware, like this aspen spoon or these rust-colored plates.
Play with levels
When it comes to actually setting the table, elevating the tablescape can mean quite literally elevating some of the table.
Traditionally, “risers are used on buffet displays,” Banjurtrungkajorn says. “These can actually be used on a dinner-party tablescape to lift up certain plates so that when you look at the tables as a whole, it actually adds dimension and levels to the tablescape. Utilizing cake stands and these risers is a way to create depth in your table and is a fun way to spice it up.”
For an elegant, uncluttered table, Banjurtrungkajorn repurposes standard buffet risers, like Fun Express’ white wood blocks. But for those looking to inject more color, cake stands can offer an opportunity to go bold. A funfetti or a traditional porcelain cake stand, for instance, caters to a maximalist theme.
Use what you have
Before working for fashion brands and other clients to host dinners, Banjurtrungkajorn’s supper club began out of the small New York City apartment she shared with a roommate. As such, she’s no stranger to getting crafty. Often, she begins tablescapes by looking at what she already has. Those coffee table books no one reads? They can stand in for risers (and as theme inspiration) while adding a cozy touch. Leftover fruits? They can be dried and hung into a decorative garland or sculptural centerpiece.
“I’ve been really creative with utilizing fruits and veggies as part of the tablescape and using little metal wires to add structure, adding an orange slice on top of an apple, and folding them together using wires,” Banjurtrungkajorn says. “Just getting crafty with little things that you have lying around the house.” Leftover wrapping paper scraps, ribbons, and bows can be repurposed into table decor.
Suea — the mononymous food designer, chef, co-owner of the New York City home goods store and bar Dae, and founder of Suea’s Dinner Service — also gravitates toward DIY. She often uses the rocks she collects from her travels as a base for taper candles. It adds a personal touch to the table, and it doesn’t hurt that it spares the wallet, too.
It’s all about balance
More is not always merrier when it comes to tablescapes. Whether setting the table for Dae or in the dinners she hosts for brands and clients, Suea makes sure decor doesn’t overrun the table to the point that it sacrifices function.
“I don’t love there being so much stuff on the table that when the cook brings out the food, everyone’s scrambling to move things around,” she says. “I think there should already be room.” This is why she also uses large floral displays sparingly — so that people can still see each other over the table.
“I definitely try not to crowd the middle area too much, but it’s a fine balance because you don’t want guests to first sit down and then it feels so empty, either,” she says.
So Suea finds some harmony by adding color to dishes themselves via vegetables and edible flowers and investing in plateware, often opting for steel and minimalist pieces found in her shop, like Riki Watanabe Uni Trays or metalware from Seoul, South Korea–based designer Yeodong Yun (available to shop in person at Dae or via its Instagram).
“I think that that is the main event of the tablescape besides the food,” Suea says. “I think it’s fun for those types of things to start conversations.”
Chef Martin Benn and restaurateur Vicki Wild, co-authors of the recently released book The Dinner Party: A Chef’s Guide to Home Entertaining, make use of the center of the table without sacrificing functionality by employing the lazy Susan.
“It brings everything together,” Wild says. “There’s something about a lazy Susan that just feels convivial.”
Opt for a marble turntable for a fancy setting, or a dark wood finish for a sleek effect. With the breadth of lazy Susan options, there’s bound to be one that matches even the most specific of aesthetics.
Beware the overhead light
Lighting immediately sets the tone of a dinner party and makes guests feel welcome, so it’s important to get it right: Too much light and people can feel uncomfortable under the scrutinizing glare, too little and no one will be able to see the menu. To get around this, Wild and Benn top their lazy Susan with a modular Danish candelabra from Stoff Nagel.
“There’s nothing worse than a bright overhead light,” Wild says.
Beyond sculptural candelabras — like this wavy one from SIN or Carpenter Studio’s twisted version — the husband-and-wife duo opts for candles and table lamps because they can add a sculptural quality to the table while providing a more intimate, moody setting. For those looking to create a sophisticated mood, Benn particularly recommends investing in table lamps to set across the table. Whether it’s tall, narrow lamps, like these from Anthropologie, or these more bulbous Ikea lights, LED lamps recall the setting of a fine dining restaurant, where rechargeable table lamps feel omnipresent.
“It just adds a fancy touch without being too fancy,” Benn says.
Don’t be afraid to get quirky
Of course, no dinner party is complete without a good conversation starter. Benn and Wild are fond of their set of silly crab- and lobster-shaped napkin holders, which they like to pull out for a seafood-themed night.
“People love them,” Wild says.
They source and get more decor inspiration from vintage and antique stores, where they stumbled across another conversation piece: a vintage fish knife and spoon.
“[They’re] rarely used these days because it’s a bit old-fashioned,” Wild says.
Other off-kilter additions might include Seletti’s hybrid plates, Massimo and Lella Vignelli’s rainbow dinnerware, and Steak Diane’s La Fumée coasters. Between fruit, fish spoons, and rocks, nothing is off the table when it comes to designing a dinner party. The quirkier, the better.
Kelly Pau is a culture and design writer whose work has been featured in Salon, The Cut, Vox and more.