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TURNING THE TABLES : For a festive change of place during the holidays, or for any special meal, set the scene unconventionally. Mix and match dishes, linens and stemware. Garnish with themes and symbols. Let imagination be the centerpiece.


When it comes to setting the table for a holiday gathering, creativity can outshine even the best china and crystal.

To create a personalized table setting, forget about copying tables pictured in magazines and books and, instead, draw upon your ingenuity. That's how interior designers and other home entertainment professionals create inspired tables for themselves and their clients.

Their advice: Use the things around you, don't be afraid to experiment and combine linens and china in fresh ways.

Fred Chuang, display consultant for Tiffany & Co. at South Coast Plaza, describes the act of setting the table the way an artist describes painting or sculpturing. He talks of symbolism, texture and meaning as well as practical matters--such as where to put the dessert spoons and making sure the flatware is, above all, clean.

When asked to set a table for a Hanukkah party recently, Chuang began by thinking about the symbols associated with the Jewish tradition. Choosing the color scheme--blue and white--was easy, but with such formal colors, he wanted to lighten the look of his table.

"I hit upon the idea that a snowflake has six points, as does the Star of David," Chuang says. So he took plastic snowflakes and ironed their impressions on to blue velvet to create a symbolic but sophisticated tablecloth.

"They looked like snowflakes floating in the night," he says. To complement the cloth he chose simple white china plates with blue borders atop silver chargers and cobalt blue bowls for a soup starter.

A collection of silver candlesticks, including two shaped like palm trees to symbolize the Holy Land, stood at the center of the table. For fun, Chuang added a silver dreidel at each bread plate.

"The table was very shiny and mystical," he says.

Before Chuang begins pulling together items for any table, he says, he thinks about the occasion and surroundings.

"That will tell you everything you need to know," he says. "I take apart the symbols of the occasion and then see how many times I can use them."

For a New Year's Eve table for two, Chuang conveyed the idea of time passing by using wristwatches for napkin rings and a clock for a centerpiece. "New Year's is easy. The symbolism is built in--all you have to do is point to it."

Everyone has treasured, familiar or found objects in their homes that they can plan the rest of the table around, he says. That was the inspiration for a Christmas table he designed for children. It had a 20-inch snowman made of popcorn sitting in the middle of a white tablecloth to simulate a "blanket of woolen snow."

Chuang says that a table can be special whether one uses paper plates or fine china.

"You can always use your ingenuity to make what you have appropriate to the occasion," he says.


For Rand Apel, an interior designer in Laguna Niguel, the first rule of table setting is that there are no rules.

"It's more fun to be creative" than to follow somebody else's notions, he says.

He often likes to make use of resources that cost next to nothing.

For a formal beach party, he put sand in the middle of the table along with bits of broken glass. He once created a tablecloth made of fresh flowers and leaves under glass. Other settings have included individual potted plants, potted spices and vases at each place.

More important than the crystal and china are the flowers and candles, he says. They set the mood and add drama.

"You can take a plain white china, add charger plates and gorgeous flowers and have a beautiful table," he says.

To heighten the mood of a New Year's Eve table for an open house at his showroom in Design Center South, Apel chose dinnerware in muted shades of gold, bronze and black and brightened it with a dramatic floral centerpiece and a collection of votive candles.


Libby Jason, owner of Your Home Plate, a custom table-setting service in Coto de Caza, likes mixing china and linen in unexpected color combinations.

To decorate a Christmas table, for instance, she'll begin with a basic Christmas tree china. But instead of putting it on a solid red or white tablecloth, she uses yards of vivid red, green and black plaid taffeta.

"I mix and match everything," Jason says.

She combines the Christmas tree china with a black charger that complements the cloth, then stacks on it with a salad plate that has a green marbleized rim. She tops it off with a bread and butter plate covered in a pine cone and berry pattern.

"It's best to use a bread and butter plate that's fabulous because that's what your eye sees first," she says.

Jason frequently layers different types of linens when the table calls for added color. She'll put a royal blue tablecloth that drops to the floor beneath a smaller white cloth and a bright orange overlay to match the colored rim on a fun set of dishes.

Centerpieces act as the focal point of the table. They're designed to grab guests' attention, Jason says. When looking for a centerpiece, she says, she's often inspired by the theme of the plates.

She says she does not worry about the centerpieces being too big--if they're too small, they look "wimpy," and large ones can easily be moved when guests sit down or the food arrives.

"Don't pay attention to the rules," Jason says. "Do what you think looks good rather than what's proper, because proper's boring."

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