Setting a beautiful table with Liz Curtis | Home Front

Liz Curtis
Oct 19, 2017

Liz Curtis is the creator of Table + Teaspoon, the first rent the table service designed to make elegant entertaining easy for everyone. A former successful corporate litigator, Liz left the law to pursue her passion for entertaining and design, gaining hands-on experience in event decor, interior design and private catering. Ask her about holiday entertaining, linens, centerpieces, themes and how to mix china patterns.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Happy Thursday, I'm so excited to be here to answer all of your entertaining questions!

Liz Curtis is the creator of Table + Teaspoon, a party rentals service designed to make elegant entertaining easy for everyone. A former corporate litigator, Curtis left the law to pursue her passion for entertaining and design, gaining hands-on experience in event decor, interior design and private catering. Ask her about holiday entertaining, linens, centerpieces, themes and how to mix china patterns. Let's chat.

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How do you feel about plain white dinner plates? Seems like they are what everyone is using instead of the fancy china in their cupboards.

White dinner plates are a wonderful neutral. I highly recommend them as a foundation for your table. White allows you to play with your textiles - runners and napkins - so that you can create whatever mood you desire for your dinner party, holiday, or lazy Sunday brunch.

We just moved to a Condo with a huge living room/dining room and I'm wondering what to place on the dining room table. It would look a little silly to have dishes set for dinner etc. all the time. It's a big part of the decor in this part of our home and I want to be happy when I look at it. Right now it just looks needy.

I have this problem all the time! Around the holidays, I just go for it and leave the table fully set. I find that I have the most impromptu dinner parties during this season, and I never regret having the table ready to go. That said, if a fully set table doesn't fit your lifestyle, use l'objet d'art to fill the space. This can be anything you love - coffee table books topped with candles, vases filled with fresh greens and branches, candelabras, metallic spheres - whatever beautiful pieces you use to decorate your home can also go on your dining table.

What’s the best way to kick someone out of your party?

This is an excellent question and made me literally laugh out loud! If it's a weekend, I typically plan for everyone to have an after-dinner destination (karaoke is always a favorite). If it's a weeknight, or you're crowd isn't up for a post-party, start doing the dishes. Either you'll get help cleaning up or people will take the hint that the evening is over.

What advice do you have for someone who's never designed a table setting before?

No one comes out of the womb ready to host a dinner party (not even Martha Stewart). We all have to start somewhere! Look around your home and your closet for inspiration. Pick colors and textures that already play a role in your life. For example, if you lean toward preppy attire go with a navy and white nautical theme setting. If you're more of a black moto jacket and converse kind of girl, go with dark hues and unexpected fabrics like leather runners and jewel-toned water glasses.

How do you get inspired to design a new tablescape?

For both my own tablescapes and the ones I design for Table + Teaspoon, I like to channel the mood for the meal. I ask myself what kind of person will be using the setting, who will be eating the meal off of it, and what feeling do I want to convey? If it's a brunch, soft tones like dove gray and blush provide an elegant foundation to the meal. If it's a bachelorette party, lots of pinks and greens make the meal pop. For something more sophisticated, classic black and white prints and dishware are always on point. No matter what, I always start with the runner or tablecloth first. It's the biggest piece of your tablescape, so everything else plays off of that.

I am tired of ironing tablecloths for the holidays. Can you suggest some attractive and affordable alternatives please?

With all of the celebrations requiring party attire and tablescapes, ironing seems to be a never-ending task around the holidays. You can alleviate some of this by swapping out tablecloths with metallic netted placemats. There are several options out there, and the best part is that you quickly rinse them off after the meal rather than laundering. 

Hi Liz! Love your company's concept. Ingenious. I'm hoping you can help me with identifying what silverware I actually need on the table. I know this varies by occasion and formality, but I see all these amazing tables on Pinterest with more silverware than I know my guests will actually need or use. Do I put it all out for formality's sake or do you have a "bare bones" philosophy I can follow? Thank you!

Thank you so much, that's very sweet of you to say! DO NOT feel compelled to put any dishware, flatware, or glassware on the table that you won't use. I say this for two reasons... First, once guests are seated they take up more space than you imagine looking at an empty table before your party. You want your guests to feel comfortable, not crowded. Second, spending hours doing dishes that you're not sure if anyone actually used will likely prevent you from hosting in the future - and nobody wants that! Rule of thumb is to only put out what people need.

Hi! We are thinking of hosting this year's family Thanksgiving dinner for 20-25 in an old bank barn in southeastern PA. Any thoughts or ideas for decorating? There is electricity. Thanks so much!!

This is a dreamy idea, I'm jealous! If you have access to chandeliers, that would be a gorgeous way to glam up the space quickly. Rent them from an events company, or find mismatched chandeliers from thrift stores. If chandeliers aren't your thing, market lights will also do the trick and make the space feel immediately more intimate for your holiday.

What is your favorite unexpected color scheme for a holiday tablesetting?

Great question! I am a major fan of the unexpected when it comes to decor. Skip the primary colors that are often associated with the holidays, and go with deep jewel tones instead. For example, aubergine and emerald rather than red and green. Another option is to go with an all white tablescape and tons of white taper candles (this provides a great contrast to the otherwise stark color).

Hello, if I don't have enough forks/knives/spoons per person at a dinner party, is it frowned upon to ask guests to keep them throughout the courses for the evening? Thanks!

Definitely not! I always say that the important part of a dinner party is that your guests feel loved, not that it's perfectly executed. Most people don't have 30 forks for a three-course ten-person dinner party, and won't think twice about holding on to their flatware throughout the meal.

How would you advise balancing a dining table that gets used as a desk/work from home surface as well? it's not a huge table, in a not huge space.

The majority of my friends who host dinner parties don't have huge dining tables. In fact, one of my favorite hostesses throws multiple-course dinners on her coffee table! To make the shift from office to dining table simple, keep an oversized basket nearby for all of your work items so that things don't get misplaced during the transition.

My in-laws used to say "Let's go to bed so these nice people can leave."

Love this!

I have been looking for someone in the DC area who can dye two chair slipcovers and cushion covers for me. I am desperate at this point -- any suggestions? I'd even be willing to drive a couple of hours for this... Thanks!!

Any ideas out there?

You're gonna want space heaters. Maybe you can borrow one of those pretend fireplaces that give off heat.

Thanks...

I got the impression the question was more how do I single out the obnoxious idiot and get them to leave without ending the party. You may have to enlist a friend to just grab them and go. If the are repeat offenders cross them off your list.

Lots of opinions on this - it's a difficult issue.

I enjoy looking at beautifully-set tables in magazines, but they seem impractical for real life. The center space is full of flowers and decorations, so there's no room for serving dishes. What's the solution for those of us who don't have footmen to hold the food?

When I first started hosting dinner parties, I often made the mistake of overfilling the table - which resulted in guests taking large floral arrangements off the table and putting them on the floor. My advice is to do a trial run by placing everything necessary for your meal on the table beforehand to determine what space (if any) is left. You don't need flowers to make a beautiful tablescape. Two tall taper candles or a few scattered votives can be perfect on their own.

Hi Liz. Do you have any advice for setting a table that is made from rustic, reclaimed wood? It's not a smooth surface, so tablecloths don't work well. Placemats tend to overlap with a table runner, so together they look odd - choose one or the other? Any other unique solutions for mostly casual entertaining that takes place around a rough-hewn surface?

I had a table exactly like this and was constantly fighting the urge to use table linens. In this case, the table is the star of your tablescape. Skip the runner and place mats all together and let the reclaimed wood shine. Find unique coasters for beverages - hammered copper would pair nicely with the rustic wood - and focus on the rest of your tablescape.

I know this isn't a parenting chat, but any ideas for how to get kiddos involved in fancy tablescapes? Setting the table is my preschooler's job and she is quite proud of her competence in that area (silverware in the right places, cloth napkins folded exactly)! She also loves making things look "fancy." Greens and battery candles maybe? Or place labels? I'd love some creative ways to include her in festive meal prep.

You are a fantastic parent! It sounds like your preschooler might be the next Emily Post. Children love chalk, and it's an easy element to incorporate into your tablescape. Chalkboard stickers that adhere to glassware in lieu of place cards, and chalkboard runners are a fun way for your toddler to safely express her creativity.

I'm a candle beginner, what do you recommend for approaching putting candles on the table in a way that looks professional?

Confession: I'm a candle addict. So you've asked the right person! The best way to use candles on your dining table is to play with height. Three levels of candle holders or candles (12-inch tapers, 10-inch tapers, and tea lights) bring both visual stimulation and energy to your table from the flickering light. It's hard to go wrong here, so just make sure you have at least two on your table and not so many that you're creating a potential fire hazard.

I'm hosting a NYE party for my closest friends, how do you approach curating a guest list when perhaps not everyone knows each other? What ice breaker games do you recommend?

Ice breakers are a fantastic method to employ whether your guests know each other or not. It prevents people from being clicky or only talking to the person sitting next to them. My favorite ice breaker is "Two Truths, One Lie" where each guest lists two things about themselves that are true and one thing that isn't - then the rest of the guests guess which one is the lie. This can be as innocent or playful as you want it to be depending on the type of party and crowd.

I love using Costco size amounts of lemons or oranges to create a centerpiece. The vibrant colors are wonderful. And for a bonus, you can then you can cook with them.

Yes. I often buy bags of lemons or limes for a few dollars at Costco or Trader Joes and put them in bowls on a table or sideboard or kitchen counter. They look fresh and colorful. Thanks for your idea.

I like to have table runner on the table at all times, combined with something in the center, like a row of candle holders, a bowl of something seasonal (e.g., small pumpkins or antique Christmas ornaments), or a small, coordinated collection of something (e.g., pottery pieces, silver vessels). I find that the table runner sort of "engages" the entire table and keeps it from looking too empty.

Nice.

My daughter loves making "fancy" drinks. That might be as simple as filling a (small, stable) pitcher with water and cut citrus, or as fancy as combining OJ with sparkling water and adding a cherry in individual glasses. Arranging flowers, just cut whatever you have outside, is another idea. Get some small vases that are not likely to topple.

This is lovely.

I always protest but end up hosting holiday dinners at the last minute. How do you recommend putting together a tablescape if there's no time to prepare?

Holidays are usually overwhelming for everyone involved, so don't put too much pressure on yourself by striving for perfection. For last-minute table setting, pick one element to focus on. Pick up pomegranates or apples to place at each setting with each guest's name written directly on them to serve as place cards. Or buy a bunch of greens and place them down the center of the table. Remember, it's the thought that counts - so skip the stress and have a great time with the people you love!

Should I light a candle to set the mood for my dinner party? Do you have any go to scents?

Never skip candles! Even if that means using scentless versions. That said, if you're looking to set the tone of the evening when guests arrive, warm scents like cinnamon or smokey colognes work well.

I inherited a beautiful early American wood table. It is my desk, dinner table etc. Best thing I did was get a piece of glass cut for it - the original finish is still good and I didn't want to worry about it. The guy at the hardware store was dubious about the measurement - it's very long and narrow!

Love glass tops.

How do you prepare for a dinner party? Do I need to set aside a lot of time before my guests arrive?

The more time you set aside to prepare, the better you'll feel going into the dinner party. Set the table the night before, and do as much food prep as possible before people arrive. And don't be afraid to ask for help in the kitchen once your guests are there - most people love to contribute to the evening!

What have you found is the best approach on what and how to serve alcohol? I always worry about things getting too out of control or people not drinking because they want to leave early! ha!

I like to ask guests to bring their favorite wine or alcohol to share. This way, people can bring as much or as little as they like depending on their personal limits (or lack thereof). Just be sure to have plenty of water on the table throughout the evening - and coffee ready to go for any drivers!

Very inspirational chat to get us ready for the holidays and all the dinners and family gatherings. Thanks to Liz Curtis for doing the chat today. Next week: join me and artist and blogger Justina Blakeney of The Jungalow to talk about her latest book and her design movement that is full of color, movement, pattern and fabulous plants.

Thank you so much for all of your wonderful and thoughtful questions! I had a great time sharing my answers with you this morning. Happy entertaining! 

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Liz Curtis
Liz Curtis is an entertaining expert and creator of Table + Teaspoon.
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