Entertaining expert Liz Curtis, creator of the Table + Teaspoon party rentals service, joined staff writer Jura Koncius on The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who has never designed a table setting before?
A: No one comes out of the womb ready to host a dinner party. We all have to start somewhere. Look around your home and your closet for inspiration. Pick colors and textures that already play a role in your life. For example, if you lean toward preppy attire, go with a navy-and-white nautical theme. If you’re more of a black moto jacket and Converse kind of girl, go with dark hues and unexpected fabrics such as leather runners and jewel-toned water glasses.
Q: How do you get inspired to design a tablescape?
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A: I like to channel the mood of the meal. I ask myself what kind of person will be using the setting, who will be eating the meal and what feeling I want to convey. If it’s a brunch, soft tones such as dove gray and blush provide an elegant foundation. If it’s a bachelorette party, lots of pinks and greens make the meal pop. For something more sophisticated, classic black-and-white prints and dishware are always on point. I always start with the runner or tablecloth first. It’s the biggest piece of your tablescape, so everything else plays off that.
Q: I am tired of ironing tablecloths for the holidays. Can you suggest some attractive and affordable alternatives, please?
A: Ironing seems to be a never-ending task around the holidays. You can alleviate some of this by swapping out tablecloths with metallic, netted place mats. There are several options out there, and the best part is that you can quickly rinse them off after a meal rather than laundering.
Q: I’m hosting a New Year’s Eve party for my closest friends. How do you approach curating a guest list when perhaps not everyone knows one another? What ice breaker games do you recommend?
A: Ice breakers are fantastic whether your guests know one another or not. It prevents people from being cliquey or talking only to the person sitting next to them. My favorite ice breaker is “Two Truths, One Lie,” in which each guest lists two things about himself that are true and one thing that isn’t, and then the rest of the guests guess which one is the lie. This can be as innocent or playful as you want it to be, depending on the type of party and crowd.
Q: How do you prepare for a dinner party? Do I need to set aside a lot of time before my guests arrive?
A: The more time you set aside to prepare, the better you’ll feel going into the dinner party. Set the table the night before, and do as much food prep as possible before people arrive. And don’t be afraid to ask for help in the kitchen once your guests are there — most people love to contribute to the evening.
Q: I always protest but end up hosting holiday dinners at the last minute. How do you recommend putting together a tablescape if there’s no time to prepare?
A: Holidays are usually overwhelming for everyone, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself by striving for perfection. For last-minute table setting, pick one element to focus on. Pick up pomegranates or apples to place at each setting with each guest’s name written directly on them to serve as place cards. Or buy a bunch of greens and place them down the center of the table. Remember, it’s the thought that counts, so skip the stress and have a great time with the people you love.
Q: What’s the best way to kick someone out of your party?
A: This is an excellent question. If it’s a weekend, I typically plan for everyone to have an after-dinner destination (karaoke is always a favorite). If it’s a weeknight, or if your crowd isn’t up for a post-party, start doing the dishes. Either you’ll get help cleaning up, or people will take the hint that the evening is over.
Q: How do you feel about plain white dinner plates? Seems as if they are what everyone is using instead of the fancy china in their cupboards.
A: White dinner plates are a wonderful neutral. I highly recommend them as a foundation for your table. White allows you to play with your textiles — runners and napkins — so that you can create whatever mood you desire for your dinner party, holiday or lazy Sunday brunch.
Q: Can you help me identify what silverware I actually need on the table? I know this varies by occasion and formality, but I see all these amazing tables on Pinterest with more silverware than my guests will need or use. Do I put it all out for formality’s sake, or do you have a “bare-bones” philosophy I could follow?
A: Do not feel compelled to put any dishware, flatware or glassware on the table that you won’t use. I say this for two reasons: First, once guests are seated, they take up more space than you would imagine looking at an empty table before your party. You want your guests to feel comfortable, not crowded. Second, spending hours doing dishes that you’re not sure anyone actually used will probably prevent you from hosting in the future, and nobody wants that. The rule of thumb is to put out only what people need.
Q: We are thinking of hosting this year’s family Thanksgiving dinner, for 20 to 25 people, in an old bank barn in southeastern Pennsylvania. Any ideas for decorating?
A: This is a dreamy idea. I’m jealous! If you have access to chandeliers, that would be a gorgeous way to glam up the space quickly. Rent them from an events company, or find mismatched chandeliers from thrift stores. If chandeliers aren’t your thing, market lights will also do the trick and make the space feel immediately more intimate for your holiday.
Q: What is your favorite unexpected color scheme for a holiday tablesetting?
A: Skip the primary colors that are often associated with the holidays and go with deep jewel tones instead - for example, aubergine and emerald rather than red and green. Another option is to go with an all-white tablescape and tons of white taper candles (this provides a great contrast to the otherwise stark color).
Q: If I don’t have enough forks, knives or spoons per person at a dinner party, is it frowned upon to ask guests to keep them throughout the courses for the evening?
A: Definitely not. I always say that the important part of a dinner party is that your guests feel loved, not that it’s perfectly executed. Most people don’t have 30 forks for a three-course, 10-person dinner party and won’t think twice about holding on to their flatware throughout the meal.
Q: I enjoy looking at beautifully set tables in magazines, but they seem impractical for real life. The center space is full of flowers and decorations, so there’s no room for serving dishes. What’s the solution for those of us who don’t have footmen to hold the food?
A: When I started hosting dinner parties, I often made the mistake of overfilling the table, which resulted in guests taking large floral arrangements off the table and putting them on the floor.
My advice is to do a trial run by placing everything necessary for your meal on the table to determine what space (if any) is left. You don’t need flowers to make a beautiful tablescape. Two tall taper candles or a few scattered votives can be perfect on their own.
Q: Do you have any advice for setting a table made from reclaimed wood? It’s not a smooth surface, so tablecloths don’t work well. Place mats tend to overlap with table runners, so together they look odd. Any unique solutions for mostly casual entertaining that takes place around a rough-hewed surface?
A: I had a table exactly like this and was constantly fighting the urge to use table linens. In this case, the table is the star of your tablescape. Skip the runner and place mats altogether and let the reclaimed wood shine. Find unique coasters for beverages — hammered copper would pair nicely with the rustic wood — and focus on the rest of your tablescape.
Q: How can I put candles on the table in a way that looks professional?
A: The best way to use candles on your dining table is to play with height. Three levels of candle holders or candles (12-inch tapers, 10-inch tapers and tea lights) bring visual stimulation and energy to your table from the flickering light. It’s hard to go wrong, so just make sure you have at least two on your table and not so many that you’re creating a fire hazard.
Q: Any ideas for how to get kiddos involved in fancy tablescapes? I’d love some creative ways to include my preschooler in festive meal prep. She loves making things look “fancy.”
A: Children love chalk, and it’s an easy element to incorporate into your tablescape. Chalkboard stickers that adhere to glassware in lieu of place cards, as well as chalkboard runners, are a fun way for your toddler to safely express her creativity.