Find your place: Discover competition tablescaping
To dine for: Why setting the table has become so much more than taking out the good china
Setting the table used to be a simple household task. First you'd count heads to see how many plates to put out. Then you'd turn the kids loose with a handful of cutlery. Finally, you'd do a quick circuit of the table, turning the upside-down spoons the right way up. It was an everyday event with no particular aesthetic. Few homes had matching china and, if something got broken, it didn't really matter.
Christmas dinner though was a thing apart. It was almost the only time of year when anyone really cared what the table looked like. As kids, we weren't let near it. The 'good china' would come out of storage (and nobody would breathe easy until it was back in the cupboard again). So would the fiddly crystal glasses that the grandparents had been given as a wedding present. And we'd all try really hard not to spill anything on the table cloth. Stress!
None of us had ever even heard of tablescaping. The word "tablescape" comes from America, where competitive table setting has been a thing since the 1930s. It's a highly exacting discipline and a regular feature at county fairs, where people enter in the same way that they enter flower arranging competitions. Their creations are rigorously judged. You might lose points for having a wine glass out of place, for example, or gain them for your interpretation of a theme. The themes for the tablescaping competition at the 2018 LA County Fair included 'Candy Land', 'How the West Was Won', and the mind-boggling 'Get Your Kicks on Route 66'. It all sounds like mad fun.
I'm not aware of any tablescaping competitions in Ireland, but the art of setting the table has become a lot more creative than it used to be. Christmas is still the highlight of the year, but minor celebrations and dinner parties are also becoming artistic events.
"It's about having fun with it," says Liz Matthews, homeware buyer for Arnotts. "Table settings aren't as formal as they used to be. Most people start off with a neutral table cloth or runner, with napkins in grey or beige, and mix-and-match the tableware."
I have a phobia of cloth napkins. My former father-in-law used to take snuff and he sneezed a lot, usually into his napkin. One day, I used his napkin by mistake. Horror! I swore that I would never, ever, use a cloth napkin again. But, for everyone else, there's the John Lewis Croft Collection at Arnotts. It includes a set of four Malvern napkins (€17.56) neutral in colour but with a textured rough weave. A table cloth in the same range costs €38.36.
According to Matthews, the good china is more or less a thing of the past.
"Most people use the same tableware the whole year round and dress it up for special occasions," she says.
Star-shaped chargers (€3.16 from Arnotts), for example, come in gold, red, and silver and would make the Christmas dinner table look like you'd made an effort. Combine that with gold cutlery from Next (€50 for a 16-piece set) and you're edging towards the maximalist side of festive. A bit OTT? Natural greenery and pinecones will calm it down. And plain white candles.
For Helen James, designer of the Considered range for Dunnes Stores, the starting point is the palette. "Plan it like you're planning a mood board so that all the separate pieces - flowers, napkins, plates - echo each other." At one level, she's creating an aesthetic experience, a carefully curated ensemble of objects. At another, she feels the coherence of the table setting helps put everyone at ease. "It's all about creating a mood," she says.
James does her own flower arranging. "My mother was amazing with flowers," she says. "That's where I got my interest." Rather than use a vase, she tends to put the flowers straight into oasis, and display vases on the table as decorative objects. But she also recognises that creating a floral centrepiece is a bit much for most of us. "Don't stress... use a florist. But tell them what colours you want to use." For her autumn/winter 2018 Considered collection, James took the colour palette from food - pomegranates, apples, nuts, and dark Muscadet grapes - that she left carefully strewn around the table. "I went for a plain navy table cloth to make the rich colours bounce - that way you add whatever you want. Then pick up your palette from the flowers and mismatch the colours."
Sounds intimidating? That's why designers like James produce collections with colours that work together. And, while you don't want to buy everything from the same source, there's no harm in having a few pieces that you know are going to work together. A Helen James Considered metal vase costs €8 for the smaller version in raspberry and €10 for a larger one in teal. The shapes are slightly different and the pair will work either singly or in tandem. They will also combine well with the metal trays in the same range: a smaller pink one costs €8 and the larger raspberry one is €15.
The first step is to make sure that you have enough space. "Don't overcrowd the table," James says. "There's nothing worse than feeling cramped." For large meals, like Christmas dinner, the sideboard is your friend. "I would lay all the food out on the sideboard and serve it from there so that you're not sitting looking at a half-eaten turkey."
It's also important to keep the sightlines clear. Craning your neck around a magnificent flower arrangement to speak to someone on the other side of the table is no fun at all. Neither is squinting across an ill-placed arrangement of candlesticks.
"Don't put the candlesticks in a place where they will block the view and never use a scented candle in the room where you're eating. It interferes with the food." And, while using beautiful food like fruit and nuts to enhance a tablescape, you wouldn't want to be too precious about it either. Letting your guests devour the food that you've left artistically strewn around the table is all part of the fun. "Leave a nut cracker on the table and let them get on with it," she says. "At the end of the day, the food is there to be eaten."
See dunnesstores.com, arnotts.ie and next.ie