How to design and set a beautiful table for the holidays or any special occasion

Make an occasion even more special with a dressed-up dining room that wows your guests.

This welcoming breakfast-room table in Dana Markos’s Ipswich, Massachusetts, home sets a warm tone for brunch and invites guests to make themselves comfortable.

In my home, setting the table is a task I often delegate to my daughters. I admit: It’s not something I pay much attention to, unless it’s a special occasion, when I debate whether to bring out the good china.   

Turns out I may be missing something.

Despite more casual entertaining trends, a properly set table still jump-starts an event. Tablescapes—a fundraiser for Arts in Reach (AIR), a Portsmouth-based nonprofit that provides mentoring and arts programs for at-risk teen girls—celebrates the art with over-the-top place settings by area. From artfully arranged flowers in crystal vases to fanciful centerpieces featuring sculpture, seashells and other found objects, there’s unlimited creativity to be found on the table.

“A well-set table shows your guests you’re willing to go the extra mile and make them comfortable,” says Michael Englehardt, visual merchandiser for Ethan Allen in Portsmouth.

Pick a theme

A nicely set table is not only welcoming, it’s also a way to start conversation. One way to enable conversation—and creativity—is by establishing a theme for your gathering. Whether it’s a family holiday dinner, an intimate evening with friends or a rollicking party, a theme pulls everything together, sets a tone and lets your guests know what to expect. “A lot of entertaining is just anticipating what guests need and what makes them comfortable,” Englehardt says.

Last year’s winner of Tablscapes Best in Show was designer Dana Markos of Dana Markos Events in Ipswich, Massachusetts; he considers table setting an art. “Setting a good table helps create the ambiance for the meal you’re serving,” he says.

Start from the ground up

Remember that the size and shape of your table lends itself to the conviviality of your event. Round tables allow for easy conversation; rectangular tables give the feeling of a family-style gathering. “The trend today is to mix table sizes and styles,” says Dana Markos, principal of Dana Markos Events in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and Boston. “This combines formal and casual elegance, and adds to the aesthetics of an event.”

Guests don’t have to gather at the traditional dining room table, either. For smaller, intimate gatherings, Valerie Jorgensen, of V. Jorgensen Design in Wells, Maine, likes using nontraditional spaces, such as the living room or a cozy nook in the den. “Sometimes there are spaces better suited to a small group that carry your event out of the expected,” she says.

To ensure guest comfort, spacing and seating are important. Markos’s rule of thumb is that an eight-foot-long or sixty-inch-round table seats eight people comfortably; a seventy-two-inch-round table gives ten people ample room. If a gathering requires additional seating, don’t be afraid to intersperse different types of chairs with your regular seating (as long as they’re at table height). Nontraditional seating—think Queen Anne-style chairs or even benches—add personality and comfort.

Table linens also set the tone, providing a foundation for the rest of your place settings and an opportunity to get creative. Think beyond the traditional tablecloth. Anna Hardy Evans, owner of In-Home in Exeter, has used scarves, decorative throws, even brown paper marked with chalk to adorn a table. “Let your imagination go,” she says, “but don’t get fussy. Less can be more.”

Bring out the good dishes

Proper place settings—forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right—are still important for most occasions. Just don’t confuse or intimidate your guests. If you’re serving multiple courses, make sure you have the right pieces. Separate cutlery still has specific purposes (“I like having different cutlery for different courses,” Evans says).

Now’s the time to enjoy your good dishes, no matter what the color or type. Don’t worry about everything matching. “Mixing and matching vintage cutlery and glassware is more visually interesting,” Englehardt says. Using glassware and dishes that have been passed down through generations is one way to share family traditions. Even if you have white dishes, you can add color by adding chargers, placemats, a tablecloth or something unexpected underneath.


The shape of your table helps dictate the type of centerpiece: round tables are more centerpiece-focused, longer tables allow for groupings of items. Cut flowers are always appropriate, but you can also experiment with succulents and other items that catch your fancy. Jorgensen enjoys creating centerpieces from personal collections, whether it’s stamps in containers, postcards in place-setting holders, rocks, shells or even jewelry—anything that helps share your personality. Whatever you choose shouldn’t obstruct guest views of each other.

Most importantly, relax. “Don’t be intimidated,” Jorgensen says. “You’ll know instinctively what works or doesn’t. Give yourself permission to have fun.”

Left: Dana Markos designed this elegant floral centerpiece so it doesn’t block guests’ views of one another. Flowers in the birch container include peach David Austin roses, white dahlias, white ranunculus, green cymbidium orchids and autumn berries. Smaller bouquets of ranunculus and Gerbera daisies at each place setting add a personal touch.
Right: Dana Markos purchased his Indian cotton table runner in Woodstock, Vermont; its golden yellow tones harmonize perfectly with the rich color of the raspberry jam.

Tips for Setting a Beautiful Table

1. Play with your table settings. Set the table early in the day—or even the night before—so you can switch pieces in and out when inspiration strikes.

2. Make room. Ensure your guests are comfortable and have plenty of elbow room.

3. Let the meal dictate what flatware and dishes you use. Make sure the proper serving pieces, flatware and glassware are on the table—and sparkling clean!

4. Think about your table from the ground up. Pick an appropriate linen or table covering that sets the tone for your event.

5. Don’t go overboard with centerpieces. Design centerpieces that don’t block guests’ views of one another and are proportional to the size table you have. Tall vases should begin at twenty-eight-inches high from the table surface.

6. Use multiples. For centerpieces on long tables, have more than one of the same item.

7. Don’t make your table too busy. You don’t want to detract from the meal and your guests’ enjoyment.

This year’s Tablescapes, a weekend-long fundraiser benefitting Arts in Reach, features uniquely decorated tables by designers from New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts. Shown from left to right, front row: Valerie Jorgensen, Betsy Scott, Rebecca Burke, Jayne Ballard, Astrid Ortiz and Jeffrey Hart. Middle row: Cynthia Clark, Elizabeth Abernathy, Susan Riffert, Leander Matos, Jeanne Hayes, Aimee Maher, Anna Hardy and Ellen Foord. Back row: Susan Labrie, Olivia Korpi, Erin Gardner, Chad Callihan, master of ceremonies Bill Humphreys, Anne Cowenhoven, Michael Englehardt, Laura Malloy and Amy Dutton.
Categories: Architecture and Interiors