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Art of the Tablescape

From lines to decor, tablescapes serve as a feast or the senses.


The ingredients for a memorable meal are undeniably what’s on the plate and those sharing the table — however, the plate itself and how the table is set speak to the intentions of the occasion. As much as an artist composes a still life, dinner party hosts and restaurateurs carefully consider the contributions of natural light, fixtures, furnishings and fittings in the space when choosing flatware, dishes, glasses, linens and decor. A beautiful table should speak to all the senses. To the touch, find elegance from high thread count linens or the warmth of a rough-hewn wood residential-style dining table. To the eye, the look should be captivating and inviting, setting the tone for what is yet to come. The sound of perfectly paired flatware against china or ceramic is a prelude, in perfect harmony with the mouthwatering scents of the food that’s about to be served. While what comes out of the kitchen always drives the dining experience, the tablescape is the true amuse-bouche of the meal.


A garden-inspired tablescape by designer and author James Farmer


The appreciation for well-designed tablescapes has gained traction as diners become more gourmet savvy. “People notice the details and want to know more about the plate itself, in addition to what’s being served on it,” says Morgan Jones-Greenberg, who owns Table One, a boutique business in Atlanta specializing in tabletop decor. China, glass and silverware are her mediums for creativity. Working with chefs and restaurant owners, her team adds on silverware — or gold flatware, as is popular now — glassware, plates, table lighting, coffee service pieces and accessories like salt and pepper shakers. Some are formal, some playful. Each has meaning and intention, layered with practicality.


Emily Followill Photography


Flower farmer Claire Smith, owner of Out of the Weeds on Johns Island, South Carolina, has a deep connection with all things green. The fruits of her 14-acre sustainable farm are available at local farmers markets.


Farmers markets can be the perfect place to pick up fresh blooms for your tablescape. This spring, Smith will be harvesting armloads of vibrant cosmos, which are perfect for centerpieces and in casual vases dotting the home. For this season’s bouquets, she is also excited about foxgloves, snapdragons, delphiniums and flowering herbs. “When creating arrangements, go into the garden and woods,” she advises. “Look for veggie flowers and forage. Trees are budding out — use branches of redbud and snag sticks. You may live where forsythia is blooming — grab your pruning shears and bring it indoors, along with viburnum and dogwood.”


For an arrangement, wisteria vines and jasmine make beautiful textured filler. For a centerpiece, use three or four tall statement flowers, like coneflowers, and don’t underestimate the power of the fillers to help tell the story. Use what’s in bloom, including grasses.


The love of flowers was passed down to Smith from her grandmother and mother — a passion she enjoys sharing with others. As flowers grace your next tablescape, you can also share that love with your friends and family.

“We look at finishes, colors, fabrics, window treatment and tones of metal in the space,” she explains. “Chefs may want plain white plates, a canvas for their food. Some are open to a pop of color. Why not play off a special color that translates through the space?” Jones-Greenberg advises. Southern author, interior designer and speaker James Farmer says his grandmother taught him that we eat with our eyes first. His hallmarks are sumptuous fabrics, warm colors, rich traditions, effortless elegance, comfort and harmony. Around the table of his Perry, Georgia, home, his entertaining prowess is built on his ability to create stunning hyper-seasonal looks, inspired by nature.


Following him around his house before a dinner party, he pushes the doors open to the shady patio where he will set the table, using the dining room table as a buffet. It’s all about freshness, with flowers, fronds, fruits arranged thoughtfully, and heirloom pieces mixing effortlessly with charming kitchen favorites.


“The ignition that starts the creativity is always outdoors for me — like bold and perfectly ripe peaches that become the centerpiece and also star on the menu,” explains Farmer. “You can instantaneously work with fabrics, foliage and beautiful materials to set a great table.”


Finding your inspiration — whether in nature, in colors or in the food you plan to serve — is the first step in the art of the tablescape.


Spring tablescape in The Cloister Garden



Hosting a dinner party at home, menu planning and house cleaning often top the to-do list, but flexing your creative muscle by tending to the table will add layers of joy to the experience. Planning a few days ahead and visiting your local farmers market and a favorite florist for seasonal finds may inspire you.


“When entertaining at home, consider all the elements in the room as well as those on the table,” states Jones-Greenberg. “Consider color, composition, shape and texture, as well as symmetry and asymmetry of the arrangement, background, point of view, depth and color.”


Find a common thread to run among your elements. The cornflower blue from a beloved china pattern might be echoed in hand-thrown pottery bread and butter plates. The wispy loops on antique crystal goblets could complement the pattern on linen napkins. Chunky napkin rings work with organic pottery chargers and nature-inspired neutrals.


Gattle’s Fine Linens, a linen store in Naples, Florida, has been providing discerning hosts with fine linens since 1904. “For setting a beautiful table, I always like to have fun with napkin rings. For plain dishes, find napkins that pop with color and pattern. For dishes with patterns, I love to mix the patterns of salad and dinner plates accompanied by an elegant, plain napkin,” states Sabrina Gamble, who manages their northern Michigan location. Use fine linen table runners, placemats and tablecloths, napkins and coasters to set the stage. Place cards and a printed menu are a nice touch.


Adjust overhead lights as the sun goes down, and light unscented candles. Buy tea lights in clear cups in bulk and mix and match jars, votive holders and shallow bowls depending on your look. Attending to these tasks with gusto will guarantee charming results.


Your guests will remember the meal for the outstanding food and meaningful conversation, but the ambience of your tablescape will create memories that last long after the final toast of the evening.


Tablescapes should be an indulgent reflection of the host, and when Sea Island Associate Director of Event Design Caroline Grogan sits down with clients to plan special weddings, intimate luncheons, important business dinners and gorgeous galas, she interviews with attention to detail. The property offers a delightful backdrop for any tablescape, so it’s up to her and her event design team to seamlessly translate personalities and dreams.


This spring, she is drawn to patterns that feel garden-inspired, honoring femininity through texture and details like hemstitched linens and fresh yet familiar colors. Topiaries are perched near ginger jars in green and white or a more traditional blue and white. Table toppers, rather than full table cloths that hang, placemats and runners are layered for a tailored finish, offering a fine hand from high thread count linens.


“For spring at Sea Island, we are seeing a more elevated, residential, tailored design, leaning into the feel and look of a crisp starched white shirt,” she says.


When creating these looks at home, don’t be afraid of layering patterns and textures if your dining space invites eclectic design. “It’s easy to coordinate if there’s a common style or color tone,” Grogan suggests. “Add texture by looking beyond pattern. Use velvet, rattan, or mix plaid and flowers. These layers only make the design richer.”