Creating the Perfect Tablescape

Mary Cook contributed to this story. Cook is the founder and president of Mary Cook Associates. Her new book, “The Art of Space: Seven Fundamentals That Guarantee
Great Interior Design” demystifies interior design and makes it accessible to everyone.
It’s available on

You’ll hear me say it again and again. It’s one of the Seven Fundamentals of interior design in The Art of Space. And it’s no different with dinner parties: start with a plan.

To formulate that plan, you have to decide what kind of party you’re having. Is it formal or informal? Is it a sit-down dinner or a casual gathering? Is it an anniversary or special celebration, or a child’s birthday party? You can see right away that “party” can wear many different hats.

So, starting with a good plan is essential. It will help you make good decisions along the way. And it will help to make the decision-making process a lot easier. The journey is always easier when you know where you’re going. And a clear plan will lead to a great party, without a lot of wasted time or money.

Choreograph Your Event

Making a great party look effortless takes some effort. But if you plan it right from the beginning, it will take care of itself when your guests arrive. Start by choreographing. That means building a guest list of friends and family you’d like to include. They don’t all have to know each other. Some of the best parties result from people making new friends.

Then, strategically seat them at the table. Use place cards. There are a lot of fun ways to do that. From simple handwritten cards to small-framed card holders, your guests will appreciate the extra effort. But there’s a more important reason to plan seating. By alternating man/woman and separating spouses, interaction is encouraged. Usually there will be at least one person who is a good conduit for engaging others. Be sure to seat “the life of the party” in the center of the table to keep both ends connected. A carefully choreographed seating plan will prevent all the men from sitting at one end of the table while all the women sit at the other end.

It also helps to think of a few interesting topics of conversation to lob out to get things going. Good gatherings become great gatherings when people are included and engaged. You’ll be amazed at how a seating plan can make that happen.

Keep it Low to Make it Flow

Keep your tablescapes low. Nothing is worse than sitting down to a dinner with a huge floral arrangement sitting in the middle of the table preventing you from seeing the faces of the people across from you. A good rule of thumb is to keep your tablescape no higher than a bottle of wine. It’s easy to see over a bottle of wine. And at most good parties, it’s usually on the move anyway. An average bottle of wine is about nine inches tall. Keeping your tablescape to that height or less keeps sight lines open across the table.

Choose your china, flatware, stemware, linens, centerpieces, candles, and candle holders and work them all into a pleasing composition. Remember to keep the design fundamentals of function, scale and proportion, color, and pattern in mind. And here’s a tip for you that will pay off for the rest of your life: lose the scented candles. If you’re going to go to the trouble of preparing delicious food and serving it with great wine, the last thing you want is a perfumey aroma getting in the way. Scented candles will actually change the way your food and wine taste. And not for the better.

If you’re serving wine before people are seated at the table, make sure to have a fresh set of glasses on the table when guests are seated. Otherwise wine glasses smudged with lipstick and fingerprints will be brought to the table and will become part of your “scape.” Sounds like a small thing. Believe me, it’s bigger than you think. Also, leave room on the table to integrate carafes or pitchers of water along with the wine you will be serving with dinner so guests can help themselves. It makes them feel more at home. And more comfort means more conversation and interaction.

Prep Ahead

Use sideboards or other furniture near your table to set up for the next course. A little early prep can go a long way to make things run smoothly. Having a dessert buffet or cheese course ready to go so your guests can serve themselves will allow you to spend more time with your guests. Your guests want you to be a part of the party. They really don’t want you running to the kitchen all the time. You don’t want that either.

A little planning. A little shuffling of guests. Allowing them to see each other across the table. Sounds like some pretty simple ways to make a good gathering into a great one. They are. And they really, really work. Try them yourself. The results will amaze you.

Watch Mary Cook explain how you can craft the perfect tablescape in the “Toll Design: Tablescapes” episode on Toll Lifestyle TV.

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