By Arrangement Interior Redesign in Livermore, California
Not Your Grandmas Table

There's a good chance you learned how to set a "proper" table as a child…especially if you are among the baby-boomer or depression era generations and are American or European. A typical "proper" dinner table would have been set like this according to tradition:

Typical Dinner:


A formal dinner table meant adding specific additional utensils, plates and glasses as seen here. These additional pieces indicated the greater variety of food consumed at a formal dinner, that the meal was consumed in courses and that the host or partaker was probably paying someone else to wash all those dishes!

Formal Dinner


As a baby boomer representing middle America, my family's formal dinner table for special occasions usually resembled a modified version of a "proper" formal table. Our place setting lacked one fork, one spoon and one goblet from the "proper" setting and we placed a folded napkin under the forks, since our 2 forks would fit. Somewhere along the way I was made aware that the upper crust not only had more rooms in their houses, cars in their garages, but also utensils, plates and glasses on their tables. I remember fearing being seated before such a table setting and not knowing what each piece was for! I imagine that our childhood family tables reflected the era, economic status, size of our table and the number of family members that sat around it too? I don't recall being taught the "proper" way to set the table for breakfast and lunch? In our home we pretty much had the same setting for all meals. How about you? Did your family table reflect these "proper" placements?

If you have ever suffered from "place setting fear" like I did I would like to encourage you to feel free to express yourself with confidence in your own unique table setting practices. As a designer I naturally want to be free to explore a variety of creative forms of visual self-expression. A few years ago I was challenged by a Bay Area newspaper to come up with some "Table Décor for Dummies" as they titled the article. So I accepted their challenge and set out to break the table setting rules of the past! I'm such a decorating rebel!

Here are some of my favorite ideas and tips:

    1. Think out of the box
      • Do something new with those utensils
          1. Tuck them all together either into or on top of a napkin. Find something that goes with your décor and theme to tie around the napkin to keep them bundled up.
          2. Place the knife and spoon horizontally above the plate (handles placed on opposite sides from each other) then place the salad fork to the right and the dinner fork to the left of the plate.
      • Use a kitchen towel as a big napkin
          1. Buy thin cotton towels from the dollar store. (fun for those messier meals)
            -Look for appropriate seasonal colors or themes. (chili peppers, fish…)
      • Find new ways to display the napkin
          1. Fan the napkin in a small ceramic vase in stead of using a napkin ring.
          2. Experiment with new ways of folding napkins with different napkin holders. I like to use silk floral leaves or flowers cut and twisted around a fabric napkin.
      • Rethink placemats
          1. Layer them: Use 2 different colors, shapes or textures etc., for one plate.
          2. Create your own with any flat large item than can anchor a plate. (big leaves, trays, small T-shirt…)
      • Mix and match your dishes
          1. Pair your solid white dinner plates with colored or patterned salad plates or bowls
          2. Alternate every other place setting if you are short matching sets, but have 2 settings that have something to unite them. Avoid mixing patterns & colors that clash with each other. White and ivory works together; a formal flower pattern and contemporary geometric does not.
          3. Use large goblets for water, smaller for wine (alcohol dehydrates you), use stemware i.e. martini glasses for serving fruit, desserts, yogurt & granola or as a decorative touch with a floating flower or candle at each place setting.
    2. Design Tips to incorporate
      • Repeat shapes.
      • Use all one color such as all white, red, blue etc. on a different colored tablecloth for contrast.
      • Keep all items in scale with each other, i.e. avoid large heavy plates or patterns with tiny delicate stemware.

What ever your past experience and training has been, today I'm urging you to break tradition and get creative in setting your table. I'm not suggesting anything crazy or uncivilized…I do believe in eating with utensils and I believe that good design is best when it is also practical & efficient. So start thinking of how you might break away from tradition and create a table that may have shocked Grandma but will delight your spirit and your guests!

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