Decorating a table, whether to entertain guests or for a simple family dinner, is slightly more complicated than plopping down a tablecloth and some placemats. Interior designer, author and television personality Elaine Griffin, who was born and raised in Brunswick, says to make sure colors, textures and seasons complement one another and to remember decorating rules follow a continuum.
“When you’re tackling something creative, whether it’s designing a room, a tabletop, or an outfit, breaking it down to its most basic elements and working backwards from there takes the challenge out of the operation,” she said, adding that every room in the world is made up of four walls, a ceiling and a floor — the furniture one puts into it has to relate to those three things. “And every dining tablescape is just about six – something to eat/serve from; something to drink from; something to eat with; something to protect your table’s surface; eye candy to add personality, texture and pizzaz and something to light it all up. Put those six elements together and voila, your table is dressed.”
Griffin said the effort one puts into dressing a dining table, along with the food one serves, is the most personalized thing people share with guests. So, a tablescape should always reflect two things – the host’s personality, way of dress, lifestyle and the occasion, even if the latter is just Friday night.
“It’s not really so much about what’s right, although Emily Post and my mother would disagree with me here, but what’s you,” she said.
Mother Nature is the first place Griffin looks for her color palette inspiration, unless a traditional holiday, like the Fourth of July or Easter, which have defined color palettes, is being celebrated.
“Know that if a color combination exists in nature in a flower, a fruit or a landscape, it will work in your home,” she said, adding that when choosing textures cues should be taken from the season first, then the look, feel and flavor of the dining room’s adjoining spaces. “Coarser, casual fabrics like burlap and cottons are easier going than fancier silks and linens, but there’s a time and a place where both are right. And as much as I love the inextricable drama of a grand and fancy moment, honey, I’m a throw-it-in-the-machine kind of girl most days of the week.”
Incorporating elements from Coastal Georgia’s beaches and lush landscapes can add texture to any table. Griffin says they should be tweaked seasonally to avoid style monotony.
“We’re in high summer mode right now, which is about iterations of summer brights and tropicals, grounded with lots of whites, ivories and beiges,” she said. “Once the days shorten again, as opposed to when temperatures drop, which our Yankee counterparts can use as a guide, it’s time to bring out the darker tints of our summery hues and segue into fall.”
Centerpieces can also become a controversial item. A common complaint at dinner parties and receptions is that some centerpieces are so large they block guests’ views of one another. Griffin said it doesn’t have to be so.
“My rule of thumb for guest-friendly centerpieces – many and mini,” she said. “Floral arrangements that are taller than a sheet of legal-size paper, no matter how gorgeous they may be, are too darned tall, unless you’re hosting professional basketball players.”
One centerpiece is not enough. Griffin suggests having a cascading line of smaller mini-bouquets, meandering down the center of the table, which gives guests something to look at, starting with the person across from them, which is the best view. Hosts should think “really small” for their flanking bouquets – tumbler-sized vases and double old-fashioned glasses are perfectly sized, or bud vases, that can hold one or two large-head flowers like peonies or magnolia blossoms, may be used.
The trick is to balance a lux look with the practicality of dining.
Griffin said to visually divide the table into thirds, lengthwise. The outer thirds hold the place settings; the center is “command central” for style. Centerpieces should be anchored with objects of varying heights.
“We grouped seashells and pieces of driftwood for our Fourth of July table, and sprinkled a table-length carpet of tiny white cockle shells for sparkle,” she said. “Colored beach glass (available at craft stores) is another great option for adding a base layer of light to the center.”
Unapologetically over-the-top, Griffin admits to being a “more-is-more kind of girl,” when it comes to table décor.
“Diana Vreeland declared that ‘the eye must wander!’ and she was right,” she said. “Layered elements of varying textures and heights are what make a tablescape sing. Remember, though, that you do need space to breathe, and surreptitiously sit your elbows when nobody’s looking.”
First, before setting the perfect table, there are some basic elements every host or hostess should have in their arsenal.
“For seated dinners, let me share my No. 1 rule of thumb,” Griffin said. “Your living room should always seat the same number of places as does your dining room table. Folks forget that, and dragging dining chairs back and forth between spaces is a major buzz kill.”
Chargers, used from the appetizer course, through dessert, always add to a table. Griffin also recommends having an assortment of matching platters, which can be picked up affordably at a number of local retailers.
“Whether it’s a buffet or family-style serving, food presented on a gorgeous platter tastes even better, and adds to the mood,” she said.
Don’t bring ketchup and other condiments to the table when hosting grown-up events. Griffin said this is a “style no-no,” and it’s easy to score square ramekins or sauce cups at two of her favorite local secret shopping resources, the Habitat ReStore, and Goodwill, in Brunswick.
And, no matter what, don’t forget the beverages.
“Finally, whether it’s a pitcher of margaritas, or just H2O, when company comes, you’ve got to serve beverages in something pretty,” she said.”