What we once merely called 'setting the table' has been elevated to an Instagrammable craft as people seek to make the most of their homes post-lockdown, writes Meadhbh McGrath
To say our social diaries aren't what they used to be is an understatement. Festivals have been cancelled, weddings have shrunk and nights out at the pub have been banned until at least the end of the month.
In their place, many of us have turned to socially distant dinner parties for catching up with friends and family. And although summer socialising looks a little different this year, it's also a lot more stylish thanks to the rise of tablescaping, the most fashionable lockdown activity of the season.
Tablescaping - the art of dressing your tabletop - has a long history, often traced back to the transition in the late 1700s from service a la Francaise, the aristocratic practice of laying all the dishes out at once, to service a la Russe, when meals were served course by course.
Suddenly, there was more space on the table to be filled, calling for an eye-catching array of candlesticks, flowers and other decorative objects. Today, most people are familiar with elaborate tablescapes at weddings, but since the pandemic, they have become increasingly common in the home.
"It's about making your table into something that's really inviting for people and creating a sense of occasion," says Orla Neligan, stylist and owner of creative media company Cornershop Productions. "We've never spent so much time in our own homes, and our homes have never had to work so hard either - they were gyms, they were schools, they were offices, and to be able to do something social with them as well was nice for people. You can do something different and elevate a space for yourself."
If you've never gone beyond putting a tablecloth down for Christmas dinner, a glance at the hashtag #tablescape on Instagram, with over a million tagged posts, may be intimidating. We asked the experts for their tips to create a beautiful tablescape in your own home.
Gabi Kmitas, founder of Cork-based wedding design and styling studio Petal and Twine, advises beginning by considering the mood of the evening. "Is it an intimate wedding, a birthday party, a gathering for your friends? That will decide which way you're going to go and how you're going to style it," she says. "It should reflect your personality and creativity as well."
She recommends choosing a theme - modern, rustic, luxe, seasonal, retro, etc - to help coordinate things, but notes that mixing and matching works well as long as the pieces complement one another. "The key is finding commonality among the pieces for a harmonious design," she says.
A simple way to do this is through your colour scheme. Orla suggests sticking to two or three colours max. "If you're going for something fresh and you're using a white tablecloth, then you might use some nice greenery or pink roses in the middle, and maybe a paler pink linen napkin, so you're using a subtler variation of that colour. If you've too much colour, it's just too much for people."
Another tip to create visual harmony is to match your napkins and candles. "If you have candles and napkins in the same colour, I don't think you can go wrong with anything else. That ties everything together," says event designer and wedding stylist Kristine Hayes. "If that matches something else in the room, then that's even safer and you can have more fun with the rest."
Begin from the middle
Before laying anything down, think about your centrepiece. "You might have a lovely centrepiece of succulents in the middle and taller candles at the end, then you would intersperse the spaces in between with staggered heights of candles and flowers," says Orla. "If everything is at the same level, your eye's not really drawn to anything, but if it's staggered height, it creates visual interest."
Most tablescapes feature fresh flowers as the centrepiece. "It doesn't have to be anything fancy or even anything bought," Kristine points out. "You can just go and forage for something nice in the garden or on a walk outside."
Shop your own home
While there are many affordable places to shop new pieces for your table - Kristine names H&M Home and Zara Home as her go-tos for linens, gold cutlery and place mats - part of the fun is working with what you already have, whether it's arranging flowers in a jam jar or bottle, or just swapping a vase from one room to another. During lockdown, Orla shared tutorials on shopping your own home to her Instagram Stories (@oneligan).
"We didn't have access to big budgets, we didn't have access to shops, and deliveries were being delayed so you couldn't just order something online and get it the next day," she explains. "It was nice to be able to look at your home differently and see if you moved that from a different room and use it in this room, it would give it new value."
What to avoid
The trickiest part of tablescaping is hitting the right note between under and overdoing it. Though you don't want to play it too safe, it's important to avoid overcrowding the table so guests won't feel cramped.
"Keep it simple," says Gabi. "With too many flowers, you can't move, you can't see somebody across the table. If you're facing someone, think of the height of the candles and centrepiece so you can talk to the person. Go for something lower and maybe more unstructured, or more minimalistic."
Orla observes that it's often a delicate balance. "If something is too large, it might overpower the space; if something is too small, it might get lost," she says. "Try to create a bit of symmetry. If you've all your height on one end, it's going to look slightly weird, so maybe you need to balance that out with two candlesticks either end and something big in the middle. And be mindful of your plate size.
"Sometimes, really huge plates can overcrowd a table. I would say less is more - you don't want to assault people's senses when they walk in the door.
"If you're worried about putting too much on the table, pare it back a bit, and then just consider unique personal things - for example, if you have a set of ceramic pinch pots you got in Greece - and special touches like a sprig of rosemary on a plate. It just shows people you've done that little bit extra for them."
Whatever you do, if you love it, your guests probably will too. "I don't think there are many mistakes you can make, it's just to have fun," says Kristine. "It's about creating that sense of occasion, so you can't really go too wrong."
The next level
Once you've mastered the tablescape, you might consider applying your skills to other areas of your home. Another popular trend is styling your mantlepiece, or 'mantlescaping'. Orla points out it's the top tutorial request from her Instagram followers.
"People end up looking at [their mantlepiece] for so long that they start to think, 'I'm so sick of looking at those same vases'. It's nice to be able to change it up because it can inject new life into a space," she says. "Mantlepieces are a lovely visual thing to have because it's like another shelf in the middle of your room, so it really stands out."
The same guidelines apply, although while you might change a tablescape after each dinner party, with a mantlescape, you only need to replace the flowers or greenery regularly and can leave the rest of the setting up as long as you like.
"In any space you're styling, there are a few rules of thumb: staggering the height and mixing the shapes, so if you've got a vertical vase at one end, you might put a horizontal box next to it to balance the height," Orla advises.
"Incorporating something organic would be another rule of thumb, whether it's something personal or a piece of art - something that tells a bit of a story. That's the idea behind styling: you're trying to tell a story, whether it's on a mantle, a shelf or a table."