If you're stressed out about holiday entertaining, relax. Styles in home design are trending to simpler, more casual, more modern -- and that applies to the table as well.
How you entertain, of course, may be a matter of your personal style. There's a camp that's locked in to tradition, say, for decorating the Christmas tree or setting the Thanksgiving table. Year after year, there are some who just won't deviate: same menu, same dinnerware, perhaps something passed down in the family, same kind of centerpiece.
Yet there are others who prefer to shake things up, who can't resist introducing something new: a tureen, a platter, napkin rings, linens -- just like tweaking an outfit with a fabulous new scarf.
Still another group may opt to totally refresh, like purchasing a whole new wardrobe, doing a 180, perhaps lightening up from tight formality and traditional plate patterns and going rogue with edgy or modern dinnerware punctuated by playful, whimsical touches.
While dress-up luxe looks are ever-present, especially toward Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations, there's also a less-buttoned-up approach with an emphasis on cozy and comfortable, reflected in many shelter publication features and the on the pages of retail catalogs.
In the October issue of Southern Living magazine, photographer Helen Norman showed off her own autumn table in a barn in the rolling countryside of Maryland.
"This particular table setting is a good example of where consumers are now," says Southern Living's editor in chief, Lindsay Bierman. "They're much more into the mix of high and low than older generations. There's an interest in casual entertaining, but still a desire to have a table that reflects family tradition, (while at the same time) making it their own."
So Norman brings an unexpected palette of blue and white (her late mother's china) to her lovely fall table," a mix of rustic and refined. It's still really pretty, rooted in tradition, but it reflects her home, not just her mother's."
Vintage plates shine on a country table as well as with stark, modern dinnerware in white or the popular taupey shades of today. Some of the painterly seasonal motifs that almost appear watercolored can be striking as accent pieces. Inspiration derives from a myriad of sources, including English lodge style, with porcelain plates decoratively rimmed by a border of curving antlers at Pottery Barn. At Crate and Barrel, a snowflake motif is fired with a reactive or "living" glaze, which also promotes a crackling in the pattern. There are also the quirky doodlings on porcelain "Oliver" appetizer plates: childlike black and white "sketches" that show a frenzied figure juggling holiday gifts or one holding a string of jelly bean lights with strategic hues that look like pages from coloring books.
An especially fresh treatment, also on Norman's table, is allowing the wood of the table to be exposed, save for a runner. Table runners nicely set off centerpieces, and these days, it's popular to do multiples or an uninterrupted display scattered seemingly randomly down the center of the table rather than a single, central arrangement.
Lots of bare wood "is an intentional choice meant to convey that casual feel," says Bierman. "And I love combining fruit and flowers. Fruit is a really nice way to add instant color."
Consider the kind of "props" that layer in texture and color, such as colorful turkeys, pumpkins or ornaments in a wide range of materials from feathers to metal to glass or woven rattan. And even if bling's not your thing, a little sparkle can add magic. Some of this year's pumpkin crop is glittery, in a variety of expressions. Consider beaded placemats or napkin rings, even trees crafted from crystal beads, or beaded garlands threaded through a chandelier. Along with candles, they'll light up a room.
By all means, use lots of candles. They add immeasurable glow and a romantic ambience to the table. Votives, pillars and tapers cohabit nicely, as well as vintage with modern. Some of the metal finishes, especially warm golds, are emerging as new favorites in home design, and mercury glass has practically become a staple. Try unusual shapes, such as gourd luminaries from Pottery Barn that look like carved pumpkins with lacey cutouts.
Strategic shots of coordinated color are a tabletop fashion statement. A red tablecloth may compete with your interior, but imagine pristine white, with napkins bordered in red, red glass vases filled with red and white flowers and white candlesticks with red tapers. Never boring. Ditto with almost any hue played this way -- tapped as a bold accent in a neutral vignette, just as stylists draw out key colors in punching up interiors for photography.
Look to nature for unexpected palette pairings: Orange and aubergine, inspired by ornamental cabbages, are rich together. In fact, you might include some of those cabbages on the table, along with branches of bittersweet or Chinese lanterns.
Linens, of course, can be snowy white or natural. Some have subtle patterns, such as an overlay of snowflakes on natural linen cloth that also has a silvery sheen, at Crate and Barrel. There are some fabulous prints as well as embellished solids. Beading and embroidery can dress up runners, placemats and napkins. One option at Williams-Sonoma features harvest themes crewel-stitched on vivid burnt orange cotton; even the napkins sport a single leaf. At Pottery Barn, there are linens with dimensional pumpkin embroidery as well as chocolate cotton decorated with delicate crewel stitches in a rich palampore print -- a nod to hand-painted Indian motifs from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Add your own signature by tying napkins with ribbon, yarn, woven tape, and perhaps tucking in a sprig of greenery or a leaf. You might even decorate linens with your own borders. Or just for fun, add small jingly bells to the corners of napkins or runners.
The idea of place cards might seem old-fashioned, but not if you're creative. Combine the marking with a takeaway for guests. Helen Norman simply gathers leaves from her yard and writes guest names with a gold pen. A gift box, an ornament, a pretty cellophane-wrapped container with homemade goodies -- are not only nice gestures, but they can be key to the table tableau.
Dressing the table may well reflect how you dress for the occasion.
"And that might not necessarily be Sunday best," says Bierman. "But in a way, that shows your guests -- friends and family -- that you've made an extra effort. That makes the whole thing more memorable."
After all, that special hospitality and good cheer, expressed as part of the decorating ambience, as well as the warmth that comes from hosting, are what make holiday entertaining a standout -- an occasion to remember.
-- Crate and Barrel, 800-967-6696, www.crateandbarrel.com
-- Pier 1 Imports, 800-245-4595, www.pier1.com
-- Pottery Barn, 888-779-5176, www.potterybarn.com
-- West Elm, 888-922-4119, www.westelm.com
-- Williams Sonoma, 877-812-6235, www.williamssonoma.com
-- Wisteria, 800-320-9757, www.wisteria.com
EXTEND TABLETOP DECOR TO OTHER SURFACES
Setting a beautiful table for the holidays is just one ingredient of the decor recipe. Creating an equally captivating tablescape at a sideboard or on a fireplace mantel is as simple as weaving in elements of the season, including autumn leaves, fresh cut hydrangeas or cuttings of evergreens from the garden. Don't forget the icons of the moment: turkeys, pumpkins, trees, angels, reindeer, Santas and sleighs.
-- Beads and bling can lend a glamorous vibe, but they're especially intriguing when teamed with more rustic or homespun elements.
-- Novelties such as special plates to mark an occasion can handsomely complement existing dinnerware. Choose on-trend graphic designs such as scripts that spell out a warm message or playful images of reindeers or architecture.
-- Painterly images or scenes distinguish dinnerware and serving pieces for the holidays. Turkeys, botanical pumpkins, snowbirds on branches with pine cones are favorite motifs.
-- Symbols of the season abound, including small pumpkins, gourds, bowls full of pine cones, trays of Christmas or Hanukkah cookies, tiered plates packed with greenery and pretty wrapped gifts for guests.
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