IN GRANNY’S HEYDAY, dining rooms tended to be prim-and-proper lairs of etiquette queens like Emily Post, no-man’s-lands for elbows on the table or chipped china. But just as heels and hose have been traded for peep-toe pumps (or beachy flip-flops), so, too, has the dining room been dressed down.
“A dining room should be relaxing and comfortable — where friends and family are encouraged to hang out long after the meal,” says Tai Tsang, owner of home boutique Tabletop (1608 20th St. NW; 202-387-7117). But just as “comfortable” isn’t a byword for sporting saggy sweatpants to supper, neither is it an excuse for slacking when it comes to outfitting the dinner table.
“A stylish dining table creates ambiance. It promotes better conversation,” adds Manvi Drona-Hidalgo, 29, a Takoma Park interior stylist and design blogger.
Luckily, tables today look novel and chic topped with a clever miscellany of linens, dishes and glasses instead of the coordinated sets of bygone days. “All the flatware and dinnerware doesn’t have to match, or it’ll look like you dragged out your wedding china,” says Joe Nye, Los Angeles interior designer and author of “Flair: Exquisite Invitations, Lush Flowers and Gorgeous Table Settings for Special Occasions” ($30, Rizzoli). “I like mixing really beautiful, expensive items with inexpensive things. It’s that whole high and low thing — like how you’ll wear a Chanel jacket over a wife-beater T-shirt.”
You can apply that attitude whether your cupboards are stacked with Great-Aunt Violet’s gilded Aynsley china or white Ikea melamine plates. Because even fusty heirloom porcelain feels fresh if you arrange it with a forward-looking eye. “Beautiful antique dishware can be popped out by using a bright tablecloth — pick one of the colors in the pattern,” says designer Kim Myles, host of HGTV‘s “Myles of Style.” “Charger platters, whether silver or gold, make it more presentational, and sends a message that the plate is special.”
And if you don’t own a complete set of dishes or stemware, don’t stress. Round out your collection with complementary, but intentionally distinct, pieces. Though white plates set on crisp linens have timeless appeal, modern table-setters often prefer bold color palettes and punchy patterns, layering multiple plates or adding bright napkins and colored glasses.
Browse thrift shops and flea markets for “Alice in Wonderland“-style vintage tea sets, embroidered linens and sterling silverware that inject a worn-in flair to your dining table. “At the moment, old beautiful white and cream linens hand-stitched with floral patterns are all the rage mixed with clean white dishes,” explains Liz Belton, a British stylist who worked on “Table Style: 101 Creative Ideas for Elegant and Affordable Entertaining” ($25, Ryland Peters & Small). “It’s easy to create a new look rather than buying a new set of china.”
Drona-Hidalgo punctuates her table with a mishmash of etched crystal glasses scored at flea markets or used treasure troves such as Ruff & Ready Furnishings (1908 14th St. NW; 202-667-7833). Then she sprinkles her dining room with an air of bespoke charm, from handmade place cards to vintage saucers piled with gourmet salts and tiny spoons.
For many millennial homesteaders, a pared-down tabletop is a breezy antidote to the extravagant tableaus of yesteryear. Think trendy and tailored but also sleek and streamlined. “People feel like in order to dress the top of the table, it has to be some over-the-top event,” Myles says. “Always consider the sight line — you don’t want things so high and fabulous that guests can’t look across the table.”
Instead of show-stopping centerpieces, she says, go for simple accessories that won’t distract from the meal. She recommends trading a clunky bouquet for a series of small vases, water glasses or food jars (with the labels peeled off), with a single flower stem snipped short and placed in each. Tsang likes to bedeck her dinner table with potted herbs, which guests are encouraged to take home as party favors.
Others rely on the chow itself to dish up visual stimuli. Try placing nibbles on a pedestal via elevated cake stands — a decadent look that exudes a Marie-Antoinette-at-the-banquet aesthetic, says Myles.
Drona-Hidalgo showcases succulents and blocks of sprouting wheatgrass as natural table decorations. And she recycles scrubbed-down wine bottles as bistro-inspired water carafes, with hand-scrawled tags labeled still or sparkling. “The personal touch that goes into entertaining at home transports you in a way that a restaurant can’t,” Drona-Hidalgo says.
Once a formal parlor that stayed boarded up between black-tie dinner fetes, the dining room has evolved into the anything-goes hub of many homes. Designers suggest taking a cue from the room’s inherent liveliness, which means setting up the space to be multipurpose and considering comfort a priority.
» “Splurge on great chairs with cushions for hours around a table crammed with great food and great company — or for late-night card games,” suggests Belton.
» Up the style wattage by illuminating the dinner table with a light fixture worthy of the spotlight, then install a dimmer switch. “Lighting can really help set the tone of a dining area,” says Tsang.
» In small spaces, dining tables are sometimes barely big enough to contain your plates and glasses, to say nothing of squeezing on flower vases or other garnishes. Simplify your table but pile a credenza with spring branches, bunches of peonies or other flourishes, suggests Drona-Hidalgo. “I like attention-grabbing sideboards, which keeps the dinner table free for food and drinks,” she says.
» Finally, try some hotter hues, advises designer Myles. “Take a leap on warm colors like yellows, oranges and reds — any color that’s exciting to the appetite,” she says.
Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Lawrence Luk for Express