The Art of Setting the Table

We asked artists, designers, and makers about their entertaining philosophy

When entertaining, how you set the table is your first impression—it sets the tone of the meal and confesses the evening’s character to your guests. Do you use exotic linens and glassware from all around the world to reflect your worldly menu and general globetrotting sensibilities? Or do you use your grandmother’s plates to serve recipes you still keep in her recipe box? To get ideas for hosting summer dinners, we asked creative people from all over the world to tell us how they curate their own tables. While a Swedish industrial designer loves to dress up her place settings with exotic Japanese pieces, an Australian ceramicist lets nostalgia be her guide, using flea market finds for vases and glassware. A painter in Italy gave us one of our favorite tricks: use painted tiles as coasters or a cheese board. Take a peek into their cabinets and kitchens to find inspiration for your next dinner party.

Food stylist Caitlin Levin says entertaining is about striking the balance between creating something beautiful and letting the experience happen naturally. "I included these pieces because they have a relaxed feel to them: This is what I would use if I had close friends over to my house for a casual summer supper. These are beautiful but also durable and utilitarian. You can mix and match and then throw it all in the dishwasher at the end of the night." Except for the silverware, which is vintage and real silver. She remembers always having cutlery found at flea markets on the table growing up, and now finds that she loves to incorporate pieces with a kind of history. "I think of all the people who have used this object and enjoyed it."
"I adore the coral pink color and delicacy of these pieces," food and prop stylist Mariana Velasquez says of the dishware in the photo., which were from a retired German diplomat who had spent time in Japan. Velasquez was inspired by the petite silhouettes, and snapped a photo of her composition. "I found the dusty silk flower behind by the window sill, and I added it in." She often includes several small bowls like these on the table while entertaining at home, so guests can serve themselves extra sauce or sprinkle salt. "I like for people to interact at the table. I put several little bowls with dressings and seasonings around," she says, "the movement and interaction takes away the stiffness."
Antonello Radi, a painter who lives in Umbria, Italy, sets every table with a mix of new items, handcrafted pieces made artisans in Umbria, like terracotta plates, hand-blown glassware, wood or marble, and vintage objects he's collected. (He's also a partner at Il Buco Vita, a home furnishings store in Manhattan.) He says the patina of old pieces and handcrafted objects gives more energy to the table. "And objects like painted tiles can be used as a tray for a candle or a coaster for a wine bottle," he explains, "They can be used in a totally different way from their original function; they give a warm color and a rustic feel, while at the same time are sophisticated."
Susan Simioni is a ceramicist living on the coast of Australia. Her entertaining style (which can be as casual as Thai takeout with friends) is mirrored in the unfussy speckles and rough edges of her ceramics. Nostalgia plays a role in her style as well, as she often includes vintage jars, planters, or salt shakers into her decor. "I am down-to-earth and a bit nostalgic and so are my surroundings. My husband bought me vintage salt and pepper shakers 15 years ago [and it] sparked a love affair with kitsch pieces!" she says. Her throwback style works well with coastal cuisine, which she makes often: "Fresh seafood, salads, and summer fruits pair perfectly with 60's-style vintage pieces," she says.
Chole Lane, the artisan behind Bon Puf (bonpuf.com), says that running her own cotton candy business has taught her a lot about attention to detail. Taking time to make the details look beautiful, and it fits into a "put together" style, goes a long way. She pours this same philosophy into hosting friends. On this table, she included several special pieces that work together to create a fresh, coastal aesthetic: "In its past life, the tablecloth was a very loved and colorful Mexican beach blanket. Now it is worn out and faded, but perfect for setting the outdoor picnic table. I love it because it adds character. The delicate pink and blue cocktail glasses used to belong to my great grandmother. She was very glamorous and knew how to throw stellar parties. While my gatherings might be more laid back than hers, I am inspired by her love of bringing people together and entertaining."
Moe Takemura, a Japanese-born, Sweden-based industrial designer loves to set her table with simple, more monochromatic color schemes. For this place setting, she mixed pieces from Japan (plates, chopsticks) and some from Scandinavia (cutlery, glass and teak serving tray). She takes the same approach to his menus, combining Japanese and Scandinavian dishes. "I've made so many good friends by inviting them to dinner and tea, which often involves something Japanese or Japanese-inspired, as well as pastries from Sweden" she says. "Although I don't want to oversell the fact that I am Japanese, I believe inviting guests to something exotic or sharing some taste from home is a good excuse to get a friendship started."
Marie Flores' highly stylized still life photography certainly influences the way she entertains. This Parisian photographer loves to incorporate whimsy into her table. As a rule, she uses simple objects and soft materials when inviting guests over to dine, or even just share a snack. For this photograph, she aimed to create playfulness through the children's toy and the nostalgia of her grandmother's wooden table. She jokes that, like children, "we are never wise so long as we keep having a donut as an afternoon snack!"
Leslie Steinberg entertains on her roof as much as possible in the summer, and sets the table with outdoor-friendly decor. "Wild flowers do so much for a table," she says, "It keeps it simple and organic looking. I don't have many vases, so I will put flowers in anything: pitchers, mason jars, a carafe, or even old wine bottles." This granola-making guru also recommends that you let your guard down when entertaining. "The most important thing is being comfortable with yourself and your abilities. Your guests won't be as judgmental of your cooking as you are!"