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How to Decorate a Dinner Table Like a Professional

By Aimee Farrell

The table that Zoe Chan Eayrs and Merlin Eayrs, of the London-based design firm Chan and Eayrs, created for their daughter Max’s birthday party at their home in Hampstead.
 
Yuki Sugiura
The table that Zoe Chan Eayrs and Merlin Eayrs, of the London-based design firm Chan and Eayrs, created for their daughter Max’s birthday party at their home in Hampstead.

In our modern age, when meals are often shared not only with our immediate guests but with a whole cohort of friends on Instagram, dressing the dinner table has become a ritual that invites both artistic flourish and forensic precision. To simplify the process, T asked a host of creative types — from a husband-and-wife design duo to an artist and a team of florists — to share their tricks for creating a memorable table setting.

Yuki SugiuraLeft: Zoe Chan Eayrs and Merlin Eayrs invited kids and adults alike to write or sketch directly on the tabletop with crayons. Right: The couple decorated the room with objects collected from around their home.
Left: Zoe Chan Eayrs and Merlin Eayrs invited kids and adults alike to write or sketch directly on the tabletop with crayons. Right: The couple decorated the room with objects collected from around their home.

The married couple behind the design firm Chan and Eayrs treats each project with the punctiliousness of a thesis — and the dining table is no exception. In the garden of their home, a converted 18th-century stable in Hampstead, north London, Zoe Chan Eayrs and Merlin Eayrs host lunches that meld the rituals of an English picnic with the sharing mentality that defines mealtimes in the Chinese culture that Chan Eayrs was immersed in growing up. Turning the garden — or when it rains, the garden room at the end of the lawn — into a communal dining space, they’ll create a temporary table from two large sheets of plywood rested on shipping crates and daubed with chalk paint in tranquil shades of green or blue. “It forms this long architectural banquet table right in the middle of the garden. Dropping the table right down to floor level changes the mood and makes it feel much more unconventional,” explains Chan Eayrs, who decorates the area with antique Kantha quilts collected on trips to India. 

“Nowadays, when friends come over, everything is relaxed and child-friendly,” she says. “Our daughter, Max, helps to cook, pick flowers or lay the table.” Rather than fussing with tablecloths or place mats, the couple turns the table into a canvas for their daughter’s doodles. Children are given crayons and invited to write or sketch directly onto the tabletop to create personalized settings. “It doesn’t have to be neat,” Chan Eayrs says. “Children’s writing is always very charming.” Dispensing with table linens has the added ecological benefit of cutting down on laundry, too. “When you’ve got kids, it’s all going to get tomato ketchup on it anyway,” she says. Even for adults without much artistic flair, simply drawing simple shapes can create impact. “The more personal the table the better,” she says. 

Yuki SugiuraAn impromptu buffet at the couple’s home.
An impromptu buffet at the couple’s home.

To finish, they will scatter the table with objects from around their home, such as stones from the Cornish coast where they’re currently working on their next series of projects, or the heirloom silver cutlery that’s been passed on from Eayrs’s family. To quickly spruce up your own setting, Chan Eayrs suggests adding generous sprigs of English rosemary or mint to the table or Binchotan charcoal sticks in giant jugs of water (she likes Jochen Holz’s textural glassware). “A house is like a museum of you — the places you’ve been, the things you’ve collected or inherited — and the table is a microcosm of that,” she says. “It’s somewhere you can reflect your personality and your heritage.”

When Katie Fontana, the co-founder of the bespoke kitchen company Plain English — which draws on early Georgian and Shaker aesthetics — invites guests to her home on the Helford River in Cornwall, England, they inevitably find themselves down by the boathouse. Set right on the edge of the estuary that inspired Daphne Du Maurier’s 1941 novel, “Frenchman’s Creek,” the stilted structure was built by her husband, Greg, to house the boats he lovingly restores. In the summer, they’ll throw open its gabled doors and set up long tables made from old trestles and scaffolding planks under the giant English oak tree just outside. “They’re humble affairs,” she says of the dinners. “Informal and free-flowing.” 

This bucolic setting is a handy distraction since Fontana is not, she insists, a natural hostess. “I get quite stressed about the cooking,” she admits, and favours suppers cooked on the barbecue her husband has fashioned from the hub of an old tractor wheel. “Less is expected of you. You can prepare it all and then relax and enjoy your evening.” To elevate proceedings in her signature unpretentious style, Fontana covers the tables in reclaimed French flax or linen sheets, adding lots of Georgian and Victorian candlesticks — in brass and silver and filled with Price’s candles from the hardware store — as well as mismatched vintage Old Willow plates and Duralex Picardie tumblers. For the final flourish, Fontana takes inspiration from a recent sailing trip to Ischia, off Capri, and makes pesche al vino: she fills a secondhand glass jug with bottles of chilled white wine, then adds large chunks of sliced peach and allows the mixture to marinate for a few hours before serving. “It cheers up even cheap bottles of plonk,” she says. “Then you can eat the peach afterwards. Delicious.”

The Land GardenersLeft: A table set by Bridget Elworthy and Henrietta Courtauld of the garden design and floristry duo The Land Gardeners. Right: Elworthy prefers using small, low vases so as not to obstruct dinner guests’ views — and conversations.
Left: A table set by Bridget Elworthy and Henrietta Courtauld of the garden design and floristry duo The Land Gardeners. Right: Elworthy prefers using small, low vases so as not to obstruct dinner guests’ views — and conversations.

“The aim is to create a table display that’s earthy and elegant and looks real,” says Bridget Elworthy, one half of the garden design and floristry duo The Land Gardeners with Henrietta Courtauld. For the past five years, the pair have been growing organic cut flowers from the Victorian walled garden at Elworthy’s 15th-century home, Wardington Manor, in Oxfordshire, serving London florists such as Flora Starkey, and delivering bucket loads of blooms to customers’ doorsteps (their book “The Land Gardeners: Cut Flowers” is out this month). Whether preparing a lunch for six or 60 guests, Elworthy says, the pair’s aesthetic mirrors that of the walled gardens they specialize in designing — nothing is too fussy or contrived.

Gathering any vessels they can find — old silver cups, soup terrines, cream jugs, serving bowls, Dundee Marmalade stoneware jars and classic Constance Spry boat vases — they’ll fill them with peonies and roses in a mixed palette of pale pinks and bright oranges, then loosely arrange them along the center of the table. “We never use anything too high,” says Elworthy. “There’s nothing worse than not being able to see the person in front of you.” At a dinner where platters and serving dishes need to be accommodated, it can be useful to stick to single-stem vases that can easily be shifted around.

The Land GardenersElworthy favours organically grown flowers for the table, like these dahlias from the walled garden of her 15th-century home in Oxfordshire, England.
Elworthy favours organically grown flowers for the table, like these dahlias from the walled garden of her 15th-century home in Oxfordshire, England.

Rather than discard overblown flowers that have passed peak flourish, the florists give them pride of place. “We particularly love tea roses,” says Courtauld. “They have these very voluptuous petals. As they die, they hold on for a lot longer, and their petals get soft and skinlike and slightly wrinkled. They’re not perfect — but that’s what we love about them, they have so much character.” Those without access to a garden should find a local grower, the pair advises. “Floristry flowers are pumped full of unregulated chemicals,” says Elworthy. “For us, when you’re putting flowers on the table it’s imperative that they’re organically grown.”

Pierre MoutonA table created by Cordelia De Castellane for Dior’s masquerade ball at the Palazzo Labia in Venice last May.
A table created by Cordelia De Castellane for Dior’s masquerade ball at the Palazzo Labia in Venice last May.

“It’s about bringing beauty to the table,” says Cordelia De Castellane of her role as artistic director of Dior Maison, the homeware division at Christian Dior. For the past three years, De Castellane has been creating decorative tableware that both aligns with Mr. Dior’s classical, 18th-century aesthetic and quietly rebels against it. “I respect the DNA of the house,” she says. “But I like to bring my own freshness and craziness, too.” When it comes to composing a supper, De Castellane’s starting point is the setting. “I’m always inspired by the place. I’ll see what I can find in the garden, or what’s around and in season, and build my scheme around that.” Sticking to natural materials, such as wicker and rattan, she’ll turn her attention to the plates, napkins and tablecloths, building layers of pattern and print, or contrasting dark shades with bright block colours — for instance, Indian pinks on a navy base. “I don’t like to take things too seriously,” she says of the mix.

Perhaps her most memorable table to date was the one she created for Dior’s masquerade ball in Venice last May. Inside the baroque interior of Palazzo Labia, against a backdrop of frescoes by the 18th-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, De Castellane staged a series of 11 extravagant dining scenes. A homage to the global inspirations of Dior’s original 1951 Le Bal Oriental, the legendarily lavish costume ball thrown by the Mexican mining heir Carlos de Beistegui, each scheme had its own custom-made plates, menus and Rubelli and Fortuny textiles. In the Murano room, flowers and citrus fruits played off lavish gilt and yellow Murano glass candelabras. The table was covered with lemons, some loose, some tumbling from bowls and some hanging from verdant citrus trees. For De Castellane, bringing fruits to the table — be they lemons, oranges or green apples — adds a wonderfully fresh feel. Though there’s no room for half-measures: “It’s not simply about adding a couple of lemons,” she says. “You have to do it boldly. Going halfway just won’t work.”

Nurla ValA dinner in a 19th-century crypt in London’s Kings Cross district hosted by the jewellery designer Rosh Mahtani earlier this year.
A dinner in a 19th-century crypt in London’s Kings Cross district hosted by the jewellery designer Rosh Mahtani earlier this year.
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