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Special Design Issue

Setting the Scene

The Ultimate Table Defies the Rules of Convention

November 10, 2002|Barbara Thornburg

Whether you're hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the family, a holiday buffet for 50 or a romantic dinner for two, setting an artful table is a very personal, freewheeling affair. It's about setting a scene.

As in contemporary fashion, steadfast rules--matching napkins and tablecloths, as well as the requisite centerpiece with three tall tapers--are passe. An array of props--candles, flowers and vases, china and crystal, napkins and tablecloths, place cards and party favors--can be seamlessly woven together to create a mood. Table settings are, of course, as variable as the hosts and hostesses who set them. But whether simple or grand, party planners agree, the memorable ones are imbued with a sense of personal panache.

For florist Kimm Birkicht of The Velvet Garden in Los Angeles, setting an artful table is all about the details--a handmade tablecloth of moss and succulents, a pretty napkin wrapped in an exotic leaf, a chair festooned with flowers for the guest of honor. Birkicht, who previously worked in fashion and store display, is known for her zany combinations of flowers with objects: Wheat grass and pink poodles, Eiffel Tower candles and colorful bird feathers, ribbon-and-crystal magic wands and a bed of pink roses. "Setting the table is a lot more than a vase with flowers and a few plates. It's about setting a mood, telling a story," Birkicht says. "Some of the best tables are when people bring in their own vases or ask us to design a table around something they collect. Everything is handmade and personal. It makes people feel special."

Bicoastal party planner Colin Cowie, whose new book, "Dinner After Dark," is about "sexy, sumptuous supper soirees" says he rarely decorates his own dinner table with flowers. "Once you have a florist do $350 of cut flowers, your impromptu dinner becomes an event. I take things from around the house--a sculpture from the mantle, a wood bowl I line with monstera leaves and then fill with limes, coconuts and sliced kiwi fruit for a quick centerpiece. It makes the table look sensuous instead of catered."

For party planner and caterer Andrea Bell of L.A. Celebrations!, a beautiful table setting is about textures, layers, colors and nuances. For her own family Thanksgiving, she seats everyone at the same table--"no matter how many." She decorates the table top with seeds, pods and leaves she gathers from neighborhood sycamore and liquidambar trees. Spicy vanilla and cinnamon-scented votives inside baby pumpkins pepper the table. "An artful table appeals to all your senses," Bell says. "It's what you see, feel, smell, taste." Event planner Mary Micucci of Along Came Mary develops a central theme with continuity and balance. "It's paramount to setting the scene," she says. For her best friend's 40th birthday she selected an informal Tuscan dinner with guests sitting in the garden under trees filled with lanterns. A 32-foot-long linen handkerchief runner extended the length of the table; terra-cotta pots filled with multicolored roses and votive lights decked the top. "We let people sit where they wanted and served family style," she says. "The minute you start to pass plates of food, it breaks the ice. It makes everyone feel like they are part of a family."

Florist Suzane LeMay of Les Sculptures Vivantes in Los Angeles likes an eclectic look, mixing glassware and china in different colors and patterns. For a Mexican dinner party, she arranged an array of south-of-the-border patterned chargers topped with a rainbow of solid plates in bright red, yellow, green and blue. Junky goblets and napkins in the same hues kept company with sunflowers and bunches of red and yellow roses in colorful pitchers. "Personally, I don't like things too matchy and perfect. Dressing a table is like dressing yourself--some people wear a Chanel suit with matching shoes and handbag. But a Chanel suit and a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt conveys much more personality and style."

Florist Clifford Miller of TFS (The Flower Shop) in West Hollywood sets tables with unexpected pieces. For the holidays he pulls out his great-grandmother Mami's antique Limoges and fills the soup tureen with flowers and the gravy boat and teacups with moss. An old pickle jar with a silver fork never fails to prompt conversation, he says. "They're objects for the eye to play with."

In the end, the artful table is a very personal affair. What matters most, it seems, is to convey thought, warmth and a reflection of your own individual style.

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Styled by Kim Wong

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