Q&A: Sandy Chilewich on tablesetting tips

Sandy Chilewich
Nov 01, 2018

Sandy Chilewich is a New York-based designer whose iconic placemats made of woven textiles revolutionized table settings in homes and restaurants. Sandy, who is the founder and creative director of Chilewich/Sultan, is also known for her sleek floor mats. Sandy first became fascinated with textiles when she cofounded hoisery company Hue in 1978. The stylish Chilewich placemats are wipe-clean, making them more suited to modern living. Today, her Chilewich range continues to evolve into new products and several of her designs are in the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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I have loved Sandy Chilewich's designs for years - and I'm always amazed at how many restaurants use her placemats with so many different kinds of china. Their chic, modern look and easy care properties make them a staple of tablesetting today. Sandy is the founder and creative director of Chilewich and prior to launching her namesake company, she was a driving force at Hue, the hoisery firm she co-founded in 1978. She has always been creative with materials and textiles. There are always lots of new designs - a  new metallic range at Chilewich is perfect for the holidays.  Sandy's company also produces floor mats, rugs, coasters and many other items and the range continues to evolve. Several of her designs are in the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She knows her way around a table - let's chat about how to make our tables more festive for the holidays .

Hello from the Chilewich design studio in New York City. I'm excited to participate in this chat with Jura and Washington Post readers—just in time for celebration season.

Do you think cloth napkins are necessary for entertaining? Also would tablecloths be more appropriate for holiday meals if you are using your good china vs. a Chilewich table runner? Thank you.

This is an interesting question to start with. Tablecloths used to define "fine dining," and this is a concept that I thought was ripe for shaking up. I don't think they are necessary for entertaining.

Even at the White House (during the last administration), at the Nordic State Dinner for 350 guests, they ended up taking the tablecloths off and using the custom table runners I designed—the weave was called "Satin" and our new "Interlace" placemats are an interpretation of that. There's an elegance and a formality to both of those designs that is ideal for holiday entertaining.

As for cloth napkins, I like them and use them all the time, often with napkin rings. If you're using napkins made of a natural fabric such as linen, try not ironing them. (Who has the time to iron?) It creates a softer, relaxed look. And it's a gift and a comfort to your guests: a reminder that they're using a natural fiber.

With the holidays coming up, we desperately need new dining room chairs. Are there any good online sources for them? I haven't found anything I like locally (central Pennsylvania) and I don't have a lot of local shopping options. I'm looking for an antique/traditional look. Thanks much.

Have you tried Ballard Designs, West Elm, CB2 or Home Decorators?

What does the table setting in your home typically look like? Do you have a go-to set or do you mix and match regularly?

I much prefer setting the table to cooking. I look at the table as a canvas and a foundation for everything that goes on top, so the textiles that I use are very important, and I'm constantly changing them.

For me, it's about surprising people. Just as you want your food to make an impression, the table can, too. I don't just open up a cabinet in the kitchen to find things to enhance the environment or the food in my home, I look elsewhere—it could be anything from a collection of perfume bottles to containers around the house (something like a wooden container usually used to hold pencils, for example). Also, don't ever just use salt and pepper shakers. It's an opportunity to put condiments in unconventional receptacles. To me, any opportunity to mix textures and colors and materials is an opportunity to delight and surprise. 

Hi Sandy, This is Molly Mott. I love the mats but have a classic 1938 house with a dining room centered on "blues". Have you considered expanding the color range of your mats similar to the palette you had at HUE? I so admire everything you are doing.

Hi Molly. Thanks for your question. We're best known for our neutrals, but we've added many vibrant colors and continue to expand our palette with each new seasonal collection, so look again! And there are plenty of blues for you, including a shade we call Denim, and check out our Bamboo weave in Lapis.

Similar to HUE, there's a fashion element to everything we do at Chilewich. Neutrals are always the foundation. This season, we're interpreting holiday colors in a non-obvious way—they don't read "holiday," so you don't need to store them away once January comes. I'm especially excited about new shades such as Pomegranate, Plum, and Jade for the holidays.

I absolutely love the look of Chilewich's floor mats. But I have a puppy. What do I need to know about animals and your product before I make the investment?

Thank you, and congratulations on your puppy! I, too, once had a puppy. He's now 13 years old, and we've had the same rug for Skooter's entire life. I can tell you firsthand that this is the best, puppy-proof product out in the universe. Indoors or outdoors, quick to dry, easy to clean! It's so easy, you might decide you don't need to take him (or her) out!

Wanted to do a shout out for my story this week which is on John Derian's new line of decoupage White House china for the White House Historical Association. A fun collaboration with Derian and artist Katharine Barnwell, the plates come in two sizes and are available in six different presidential patterns.

Are Chilewich place mats well suited to glass table tops? I like the look of the dahlia and metal inspired place mats, but worry about scratching.

Fear not! All of our placemats are textiles. They're soft. There is nothing abrasive in any of our products, so they work beautifully on glass tabletops. No scratching.

I favor a modern aesthetic, and my only place settings are white square plates. How can I keep the modern look I love, but also I have a table that says Thanksgiving. My guests are not super traditional, but I want a table that is festive and inviting.

I am also a modernist at heart, but that title doesn't mean that you're not creative. A table setting still begs for design, and a square white plate is a perfect foundation for other objects on your table—be it in color or texture in your table covering, napkins, containers, or how you deal with your flower arrangements. A simple white square is a great starting point. 

For example, if you like the geometry of your plates, you can counter that and bring out the beauty of that square by putting it with small round or rectangular containers. Play off the shape you're using. Don't let it constrain you—think of ways to enhance and complement it. 

Are the days of having everything be matched exactly over? How does one think about mixing and matching without everything looking too messy or cluttered, while still 'interesting'?

I would say the days of everything matching are over. For me, they've been over for a long time! There's a great way to be cohesive without being matchy-matchy. You can be cohesive with tonal color combinations. Shades of blue, for example. You can be cohesive in bringing out the color of your plates by adding a vase with flowers in that same color somewhere on your table. 

Setting your table is an opportunity to be creative and experimental. It's nice to have that opportunity, whether at a daily meal or a celebration, and to not get caught up in worrying about what's the right or wrong thing to do. Don't be afraid to loosen up! Dressing your table is similar, and maybe easier, than dressing yourself. There are some people that are matchy-matchy in the way that they dress, but most people today are much more experimental. I think we need to treat things on the table more like you would an accessory (such as a scarf or a necklace) when you're getting dressed. Think of it as a personal choice, rather than worrying about "rules" to follow. Experiment!

I'd like to make a custom piece of furniture using benches from my alma mater's football stadium. My plan is to create sort of a consul table from them. Any ideas where I could start my search for a local woodworker or furniture designer?

Where do you live?


I am considering supplementing my dining table with a (plastic!) folding table to accommodate extra guests at Thanksgiving -- in a smaller apartment, we don't really have space for a big formal table year-round! Any tips for dressing up and pulling together the tables visually? Prioritizing family-style togetherness rather than formality.

I'm assuming that the folding table is not as nice as your regular table. In a case like that, where there's a big visual difference between the two surfaces, what I think would be really smart—and in general, I'm not a great fan of tablecloths—would be using tablecloths to make the foundation more uniform. The base should be somewhat harmonious—so for example, a traditional white tablecloth on both surfaces, and then on top of that, you could be experimental, layering placemats and table runners for example.

I have a small-ish apartment and a small-ish round table (seats 4). Am I stuck with round placemats or is there a creative way to do rectangular placemats?

Have you tried oval or square placemats? I think that these, although with round placemats, are the ideal choices for a round table. 

By the way, here's an article about Sandy Chilewich and her designs and tips that I did a couple of years ago. Read it here.

What are the basic components of a properly set table?

One component I'd suggest you rethink is the typical floral arrangement positioned at the center of the table. Fruits or nuts or flowers can work as the purely decorative part of your table setting. It's much more beautiful and a lot less expensive to break up your flowers and put them in small vessels around your table. During the holidays, a beautiful container with a composition of fruit (whether fresh or dried) and nuts can easily take the place of flowers. 

My dining room is pretty neutral with primarily shades of beige and grey. Can I liven the space up with a tablesetting?

Of course. Neutrals are always a great foundation, whether for your home or your wardrobe. They are truly the best starting point for color and texture. If you have a neutral base, you don't have to do much. Neutrals bring out the best in brights, or any color. Pick your favorite!

Chilewich has so many designs and colors. I want to use different placemats on my table, but I'm not sure how I could combine them. Do you have a general rule of thumb how to do placemat combinations that still look harmonious?

Tonal combinations are always a good way to go. Or neutrals combined with any color always work, as long as the neutral is predominant. 

I also love creating dimension on your table. Try overlapping different sizes and shapes, or placemats and runners. I think playing with your table—trying something on top of something else—will inform you as to what works. It's like trying on accessories with your clothes! It's the same principles.

What was the last tablescape that truly wowed you? Where was it and what made it special?

Nothing specific comes to mind immediately. It's more the little moments from different places. I remember going to someone's home and seeing confetti placed all down the center of the table. It cost nothing, but it was so beautiful.

What wows me is when I see something unconventional, when I see experimentation—a new way of looking at something. You see that mostly at events, but often those are very disappointing and predictable. I like it when I see something new. What you can do with a table is truly limitless!

I love creating seasonal centerpieces. My current one is a pewter tray that belonged to my grandparents and has a map of Canada on it, with small pumpkins and gourds, and a rectangular vase filled with milkweed pods and milkweed.

Very nice!

Oops! That would be helpful for you to know, right? I'm in DC:)

You could try American Hardwoods in Silver Spring. Any other ideas out there?

So are tired of people telling you to declutter? Love collecting? Well next week's guest Mary Randolph Carter is your hero. Her latest book "The Joy of Junk" for Rizzoli says it all. She loves stuff and homes full of interesting pieces collected from flea markets, thrift shops and yard sales. Carter is the long-time creative director of Ralph Lauren and has written eight books, mostly on how much she loves collecting. Send in your questions now. See you next week.

What is the most memorable or your favorite table setting you have designed?

I set a table for my husband's 60th birthday party—it was in the private room of a restaurant, so there were real limitations. All I had to work with was one giant table with tons of white tablecloths layer over it.

So I brought things in from home, including a couple of candelabras and our Dahlia placemats (these are lace-like, and the open surface looks great on a white tablecloth). I also put flowers around the table in tiny vessels. (I always go to places where I can pick individual stems and make my own strangely pretty combinations—you end up spending so much less money, and you have something that's truly unique.) I put more flowers on decorative plates, with just a touch of water, and placed them around the table. It was a very special night.

Thanks for a great chat and best wishes for your holiday table-setting adventures!

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 and organizing.

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