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A place at the table

Elevate entertaining and sit down to inviting decor

“The holiday season is a perfect time to reflect on our blessings and seek out ways to make life better for those around us.” —Terri Marshall

Regardless of age, the holiday season feels as if it holds a magical secret—the comfort of gathering around a Thanksgiving table, nostalgia and recalling the days of anticipation leading up to Christmas morning, and in the thought and care we put into decorating: sparkling lights, warm and cozy textures and special mementos that make us smile.

There are tricks of the trade to help embody that magic while hosting meals and parties during this time, much of which comes alive in tablescaping: “the act of creatively and intentionally arranging a tabletop so that it conveys a specific theme, mood or experience.” (fearlessfresh.com.)

However, area design professionals say the most important component to consider and a great first step in creating memorable tablescapes is something you can’t buy.

“When you think of sitting at the table, you’re sitting with friends and family,” Joelle Miller, floral designer and owner of Seven Thymes in Neenah, says. “It’s all about a sense of relationship and community and supporting one another. I believe your table should be a reflection of who you are.”

“What do you want your people to feel when they see your table?” Tina Palmer, owner of Red Mercantile in Neenah and Tablescapes with Tina, encourages hosts to ask. “You want them to feel love, you want them to feel welcomed. You want them to feel like you intentionally want them to be there.”

Building a meaningful, unique tablescape 

  1. Relax (but plan)! 

Palmer explains that after many years of stressing about decor and getting things “just right,” she’s come to realize that bringing fun into the planning process is vital. But don’t procrastinate preparing either.

“Do what is comfortable for you,” she says. “Relax and have fun! It’s so much better when you don’t stress about it. But don’t think about it the night before. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner, think about what you want to have and what you want your table to look like a couple of weeks ahead of time.”

“Trust yourself,” Miller says. “If you see beauty in your design, it’s beautiful. If you created it out of love, it’s lovely. If it brought you joy, it’s perfect.”

  1. Look for inspiration in the season. 

Whether a full blown theme or hints of the time of year, tying components together to create a cohesive space and gathering is key. 

“I think the season, the guests, and the food being served are solid inspiration to any tablescape,” Amanda Thorpe, Design Director of August Haven, says. “A pizza party for a football game with friends has a different feel from Christmas Eve with the in-laws.”

“I’ll think, ‘Why are we gathering and what are we celebrating?’” Miller adds. “You can find inspiration in so many places. Look outside, look at the trees and their colors, look at the foods you’re making… I’m all about foraging. Right in your own backyard, there’s greenery.”

The outdoors provide a plethora of ideas during Thanksgiving, like autumn colors, pumpkins, gourds and invoking warmth, while Christmas lends itself to wintry whites, pinecones, fir garland and more.

  1. Think layers and balance. 

“When you decorate with layers it’s instantly cozy,” Palmer says. “It’s visually interesting and it draws you in. I love to use different chargers. Find something you have multiples of: old books, a record album. It just depends on your vibe, your feel. Cutting boards work really well as chargers too.”

She suggests beginning with a bigger charger and then including your plates and napkins in layers, noting her love of vignettes.

“I believe that one element should be your focal point, that’s your lead. Everything else is a supporting actor,” Miller explains. “It should have a balance. If you have a busy china pattern and a lot of color, then maybe you go gentle with the colors of the foliage you have. You don’t want it to be overstimulating.” 

“Another rule would be to enhance the shape of the table,” Thorpe adds. “If the table is a long rectangle, use long elements to enhance what you already have going on in the room. If the table is round, you could do varying heights of candles with radiating foliage elements to enhance that shape.”

  1. Shop your home and local thrift stores.

To remain cost-effective and eclectic, one of Palmer’s and Miller’s favorite ways to gain inspiration and gather tablescape items is simple: they shop their homes first, and ultimately like to utilize others’ treasures as well.

“Use your things! Go in your cabinets, see what you have for dishes, pull out your favorites, maybe dishes that were passed down to you, things that you treasure,” Palmer says.

“Shop in thrift stores,” Miller adds. “You can find so many castaways that pull together beautiful things for your table—especially vintage vases and glassware.”

  1. Incorporate personal touches and gifts. 

Considering who is sitting around your table is a great way to incorporate special touches that mean something to each guest while simultaneously creating intimacy and sparking conversation. 

“Is your grandma coming to Thanksgiving dinner? Consider using the silver she passed down to you,” Thorpe says. “It would be meaningful to her and would be a great conversation topic.”

“I’ve pulled things that belong to other people in my family that aren’t with us anymore,” Palmer adds. “I have this really cool, very old pair of binoculars that belonged to my grandpa. I have a really fun little trinket dish that belonged to my grandma.”

“Maybe it’s heirloom china, maybe it’s incorporating someone’s favorite flower growing up,” Miller says. “Use something that is a conversation piece but is so meaningful and rich.”

Giving gratitude during Thanksgiving is a readymade theme, and an easy way to add thoughtful touches in the form of gifts for each person to take home.

“One of my favorite things to do during Thanksgiving is to use parchment paper to write a little message to each guest. I roll it up like a scroll and I put that at the table,” Miller explains. 

“If you write something about each person that’s coming to your table and put that at their place, they already have something there that makes them feel special,” Palmer adds. “You really thought about them being there.”

  1. Think outside the table. 

“A tablescape doesn’t have to be limited to the table,” Miller says. “You can have your decor extend from above as well, like a floral chandelier where the texture and foliage drapes down over the table… you’re not occupying real estate on the table and it adds warmth and coziness. You can create that sense through your lighting and decor.”

Utilizing separate buffet and bar areas helps to create an uncluttered, cohesive look:

“Think outside the dining room and set up a bar in the entrance to welcome guests with a signature cocktail!” Thorpe suggests.

“With a buffet, you want to think heights,” Palmer explains. “Don’t have everything at the same level. I love using pedestals. It can be as simple as taking a glass, putting a plate on it and using that as a pedestal.”

While our experts say some rules are meant to be broken, there are a few universal design guidelines that can profoundly affect the outcome of your tablescape: 

    • Three is key. Cluster in odd numbers. Candlesticks at varying heights, for example, are more appealing in groups of three.
    • Avoid scented items. Use only unscented candles at the table and buffet to keep from distracting guests from enjoying the flavor of the food and wine. 
  • Consider heights to promote conversation. Tall vases and flower arrangements can prohibit talking easily amongst guests. Make sure your guest is able to see the person across from them.
  • Anchor your space. While it doesn’t have to be a typical “centerpiece,” include something in the center of your table to anchor the space. 
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