A Place at the Table

by Michelle Saxton
April 2017

Modern table-setting trends vary from fashionable to classic

Setting a proper table for Easter or other special occasions involves well-established traditions, which for many include bringing out the fine china, crystal and silver.

But such customs are far from limited to one style. Whether it's trendy, simple, vintage or classic, table-setting techniques are a fun form of expression and a way to present a lovely background for guests to enjoy good food and company.

Local lifestyle shop owners, designers and event planners provide tips to help set the tone for a festive and elegant meal this Easter season.

Fashionable and Flexible

John Jordan, owner of Protocol in Wilmington, says to choose color first when creating a table setting.

"Easter is a way, figuratively and literally, to open the windows and the doors and let new life come in," Jordan says. "The same thing goes for inspiration for building a table -- color first."

Green is one of the more universal palettes, Jordan says, whereas stronger colors like pink are great additions but need some discretion to avoid overkill.

"How great would it be if you walked in and saw a table setting with a white tablecloth and fuchsia or bright green napkins, maybe tied up with a piece of fresh greenery just to give it a little bit of an edge?" Jordan says.

Color sets some trends in glassware, too.

"We see some great whimsical opportunities in bringing color into glassware, either by painting or color-blown opportunities," Jordan says.

There are misperceptions that setting a formal table requires owning, say, 10 of each place-setting item, whereas many people nowadays own a mix of pieces they bought and inherited.

"People might raise eyebrows on this but don't let it bother you -- mix what's in the cupboard that's used for breakfast and lunch every day with the formal," Jordan says. "Table linens are a super way to make those things thread together."

Mixing dishes may be necessary when seating expands beyond the dining room to little islands within the home. Service plates or chargers, typically used as decorative bases, may be mixed with dinner plates to add visual intricacy.

"A nice, confident, fresh color of charger can be a great combination to bring things alive in a staid dinner plate," Jordan says.

Because they are larger, chargers may be perfect for guests seated away from the dinner table.

"That extra two or three inches in diameter can make a tremendous difference in just the sheer ergonomics and comfort of a person being able to manipulate a plate in their lap," Jordan says.

Classically Chic

"Classic, to me, means time-honored," says Estelle Baker, owner of The Fisherman's Wife on Airlie Road. "It means using your grandmother's china. It means bringing elements of things that are not overwhelming. You don't have to have a lot of show; this is more about grace and dignity and honoring your past."

A beautiful linen tablecloth in a solid color, white or ivory, creates a classic look; cloth napkins, good silver and quietly elegant crystal finish the table.

"They don't have to be extraordinarily expensive; it could be something that you picked up at a garage sale," Baker says. "Keep it not low-key but not screaming at you, not a lot of bright, shiny colors, a little more subtle."

If the chinaware colors are primarily lavender, for example, you could use that as a theme and tie in more lavender with flowers for the table or dyed eggs in a basket with a matching bow, Baker says.

Camellias floating in a bowl of water, daffodils placed in a vase or African violets arranged like a nest make pretty centerpieces, as does a bucket of sand, a basket of Easter eggs with grass, or artwork created by young family members.

Flowers can come from your own yard or a florist. Found objects in the home can be transformed into embellishments for the table, such as a rock collection placed in a glass dish.

"We all have some talent, whether we realize it or not," Baker says.

There are many ways to set the table, but the real goal is being together with loved ones.

"Most people are thinking about going out on the beach or getting out on the boat or going for a long walk. The important thing is what we're celebrating. And the important thing is that we're all together and we're sharing something together that is meaningful."

Early Attic Appeal

Blending antiques and family pieces into table settings can give a distinct and personalized look, and a natural theme to build on will help keep the table from being too busy.

"Vintage pieces stand out and tell the story of what you're trying to share with your guests," says Jenne Harris, project manager at Salt Harbor Designs in Wilmington.

That could include napkins, vases or old milk glass serving pieces passed down through generations.

"They can be eclectic and different, yet all the same color," Harris says, adding you also can bring color to the table with flowers and other elements.

Decorative fabric for the table center can come from scraps of old dresses or quilts.

"It can be any type of fabric to bring in your color or your vintage style," Harris says.

Old-fashioned cameras handed down from a grandparent or quaint photographs and assorted frames serve as engaging centerpieces.

"Each thing reaches out to different people as far as what is important or what they've collected over the years," Harris says.

Layering for a table setting could start with an old family tablecloth, then a runner, charger, plate and napkin with a wrap reflecting the holiday, says Anna Mintz, Salt Harbor office manager.

Old cigar boxes and mason jars can be repurposed as vases for flowers, and antique silverware passed down from several family members can be mixed together for cutlery.

Cardstock or ivory resume paper makes great menus or name cards to personalize place settings.

"Something that we always like to do is add a sprig of greenery or lavender into the napkin so that it brings a natural element," Mintz says.

Harris suggests foraging, a popular trend right now, to find something that speaks to you.

"It can be different foliage to go in all those different little milk glass vases, and it's all green and white, and it's crisp and clean to give a beautiful aesthetic," she says.

Keeping it Simple

Mixing plates also works for a more streamlined style, as does choosing just one fancy component -- china or silver -- to serve as the focal point and simplifying the rest.

"One of the biggest things is not to overdo yourself," says Tricia Melvin, owner of Dragonflies in Wilmington. "Do what you can within the time that you have and keep it simple. Sometimes the simple settings are the most beautiful. They're just easy for a relaxed environment."

Melamine dinnerware, which is colorful and break-resistant, is a good and practical choice for an al fresco Easter dinner or brunch.

"So many people are outside, with our weather," Melvin says. "So that will be a nice way that you can set a pretty table. You can do it indoors or outdoors. And if you have a lot of young children, you don't have to worry about something getting broken. Or if somebody was on a boat even, they're nice for that."

A tablecloth dresses things up, while a runner and napkins add color. Offer springtime flavor with flowers and other greenery. Do-it-yourself details work, too, for various occasions, such as collecting and painting pine cones for place cards, she says.

"That's always nice to add a natural element to the table," Melvin says.

Mason jars are a charming idea for drinking glasses, or simple water goblets work as well.

With cutlery, check thrift stores and find items to mix and match with what you have.

"Nowadays they have some plastic flatware, if you first look at it, it almost looks like silver," Melvin adds.


A Place for Everything

For those wondering what goes where at a formal place setting, Wilmington-area etiquette experts Tracee Meyer, owner of Cape Fear Cotillion, and Karen Thompson, owner of Arrow Business Dynamics, offer tips:

Counting Letters

When setting cutlery by plates, remember the word "right" has five letters, as do the utensils placed on the right -- knife and spoon. The same rule applies on the other side. The word "left" has four letters, and so does the corresponding utensil -- fork.

Which Glass is Mine?

When seated at a round table and wondering which bread plate and glasses are yours, Meyer suggests making circles with your hands and lifting your forefingers as a reminder. Your left hand makes a "b" (think "bread") and your right hand makes a "d" (think "drink"). Your bread plate will be on your left and your drinks at your right.

Another tip is to remember "BMW," Thompson says. That tells you bread is on the left, the main course is in the middle and water is on the right.

Outside In

Standard table settings typically have utensils placed in the order courses will be served, starting at the outside, or farthest from the plate.

"If you are self-conscious and you're at a dinner party and you're not sure which utensil to use, a good rule of thumb is just always work from the outside in," Meyer says.

A place setting can indicate what will be served before the food is presented, Thompson adds.

To Switch or not to Switch

American-style dining etiquette involves holding your fork in your left hand and knife in your right and cutting two or three pieces of food, then resting the knife so the blade faces down, taking the fork and switching it to the right hand while placing your left hand in your lap.

Continental-style dining drops the switch. Instead, diners keep the fork in the left hand (tines down) and the knife in the right and use the utensils together in tandem, with the knife acting as support. This style is believed to have evolved in the 1850s as a more graceful and fashionable way to dine, Meyer and Thompson say.

 


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