Casey Lange, who lives in Connecticut, treasures her set of antique blue-and-gold English dinner plates, which she and her husband, Brian, received as a wedding present 15 years ago. “I always pair them with a white tablecloth and clear crystal. What else really goes?” asks the 43-year-old owner of a corporate-gift business and mother of two young boys.
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Entertaining Essentials for a Romantic Table
The surprising answer: purple and light blue. “Those colors make the room look more romantic,” she says. “It’s not at all how I ever envisioned my dining room, but I love it.”
The centerpiece: Instead of the predictable floral arrangement or a cumbersome candelabra, modest milk-glass cake plates are piled high with a purple cornucopia—plums, grapes, eggplants, and pears. “I love that I can buy all the elements at the supermarket at the last minute,” says Casey.
The place cards: Bunches of champagne grapes from the grocery store placed atop napkins tied with grosgrain ribbon allow guests to nibble while waiting for dinner to be served. The place cards nestle next to them, but they don’t need to be tied together.
The china and the flatware: Gold-rimmed salad plates (which coordinate with Casey’s antique plates) seem less regal when partially veiled by humble white cotton napkins. The simple hand-hammered silverware is elegant but not pretentious.
The linens: A conventional starched white tablecloth would make the dining room look like a haughty hotel restaurant. A pale blue one is a more lighthearted alternative—and the creases keep the table from feeling too uptight.
The glassware: In place of crystal, chunky colored-glass goblets are fun, not fancy. “Frankly, purple is not a color I would usually bring out,” Casey says, “but I’m crazy about this look.”
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A Dash of Spice
Most people feel they must use “the good china” for company. But Sherry Akbar, a 31-year-old jewelry designer in New York, and her husband, Nader Paksima, prefer to serve guests on the white dishes they use every day. “I have a set of formal china that my mother made me register for, but I’ve never used it,” she says. “I always prefer a simple table.”
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Entertaining Essentials for a Casual Table
The centerpiece: The traditional way to light a dining table is with tapers or votives. But chunky pillar candles are more dramatic—just place them on those bread plates you never use.
The place cards: “Even for small gatherings, place cards create a sense of occasion,” says Sherry. These placeholders double as party favors. Jars of holiday spices—nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon—evoke the colors and smells of the season. Wrap each with ribbon and secure it with a sticker on which the guest’s name is written.
The china and the flatware: White dishes illuminate the seasonally colored linens. The stainless-steel flatware is sturdy enough for regular use but smart enough for a dinner party.
The linens: “I usually shy away from color, but a runner and napkins are an easy way to experiment,” says Sherry, who normally uses twig place mats. Napkins in complementary colors keep the settings from becoming monotonous.
The glassware: Fancy wineglasses and water goblets would be as out of place here as high heels at a yoga class. Streamlined 14-ounce tumblers are a fine way to serve table wines and large enough to be water glasses.
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Mix It Up
Combining different collections can be as daunting as mixing friends who don’t know one another at a dinner party. As a rebellion against the modernist aesthetic of her childhood home in Wisconsin, Jennifer Parsons became a collector of flowered dishes, pastel pottery, and antique flatware. Now living in New York with her husband, Michael Phillips, the 33-year-old interior designer mixes her eclectic pieces together for a look that is inviting and cozy but never chaotic.
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Entertaining Essentials for an Eclectic Table
The centerpiece: Mismatched vintage containers stretching the length of the table let everyone smell the roses—literally. “I like low centerpieces that don’t have to be arranged symmetrically,” Jennifer says.
The place cards: Candlelight beckons guests to their appointed spots. Strips of parchment paper with friends’ names are wrapped around glass votive holders and secured with transparent tape.
The china and the flatware: Layering white dishes with flowered ones creates a sense of order and keeps the table from becoming too prissy. Jennifer picked up the mismatched silverware at flea markets.
The linens: A machine-washable quilt is a surprising twist on the usual tablecloth, and plain white hemstitched linen napkins are a refreshing counterpoint to the play of patterns.
The glassware: Clear glasses would be lost on such a vibrant table. Because green is the color of flowers’ stems and leaves, these 20-ounce tinted tumblers are a harmonious, if unorthodox, addition.
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Everyone eats together at Eloise Goldman’s New York home. “There’s no kids’ table at my Thanksgiving,” says the 38-year-old public-relations director for the Mitchell Gold Co., a furniture manufacturer. Her holiday table is designed to engage the imagination of her three young sons while still appealing to her husband Jon’s sense of occasion. “We don’t want anyone to feel left out of the fun,” she says.
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Entertaining Essentials for a Family-Friendly Table
The centerpiece: Think inside the box. Look into the toy box (or sewing box or toolbox) for items that can be used to decorate the table. Here, a classic Lincoln Log fort (no plastic roof!) is a playful nod to American history.
The place cards: Dish towels do double duty as napkins and seat assignments after the application of collegiate iron-on letters with each guest’s initials. (Plus, they put everyone in the mood for watching football after the meal.) “Towels are so much easier than linen napkins, which need to be pressed,” Eloise says.
The china and the flatware: The white platinum-banded dinner plates seem less grand when set upon tartan chargers with a country feel. The antique sterling-silver flatware was a wedding gift from Jon’s great-aunt.
The linens: If it’s machine-washable, it works. This buffalo-plaid wool blanket is at home at tailgate parties and on the dining-room table. “I love the colors, the bold pattern, and the fact that spills won’t show,” says Eloise.
The glassware: Stemware and kids don’t mix. These sturdy glasses will stand their ground around rambunctious boys and busy adults.