Tablescaping - The trend that has withstood centuries.
Updated: Apr 21
25th November 2020
As specialists in table design and manufacture, we have a responsibility to ensure that our clients get the best out of their investment. With that in mind, this month’s Leonardo – Tables by Design blog post is devoted to sharing some ideas and tips for styling your table’s surfaces. You may think that the art of tablescaping is a relatively new phenomenon, but as you'll find out, this trend has roots that go way back.
Clean simple lines dressed perfectly to add interest without dominating the room.
(Image – theeverygirl.com)
Dressing the table with ornaments has a fascinating history that stretches back to the aristocracy of the1700s. In the first half of the century, meals were served buffet style (service à la française) with members of a household seated around large tables and helping themselves. This involved numerous platters, bowls and tureens that allowed little space for any table decoration. When social trends started to favour the served meal (service à la russe) in the latter half of the century, the sudden availability of table space was quickly filled with ornamentation that befitted one's status. Themed tablescapes provided an escape into a fantasy world for those in high standing, and a respite from the drudgeries that a life of privilege brings.
The trend peaked in the Victorian era (1837 – 1901). Along with the increasing variety of table and glassware that the Industrial Age heralded, table decoration became more elaborate. with combinations of large silver epergnes and long mirrored trays to reflect the enormous floral displays and light from the numerous ornate candelabras being quite normal. Often, early tablescaping bordered on what we would now consider the absurd, and as taxidermy was so popular at the time, favourite festive inclusions to the mix were game birds and peacocks that would look on as householders devoured their kin with relish!
Tablescaping was not destined to remain the preserve of the wealthy, and by the mid-1800s the trend had been adopted by the middle-classes. An arrangement of fresh flowers replaced the elaborate silverware, which was now only brought out for special occasions.
By the 1930s competitive table decorating (as it was known then) had become a country fair tradition and ladies gardening clubs, housewive’s guilds and women’s institutes regularly featured table decorating displays at their events and gatherings. Tablescaping was destined to escape the confines of the dining table and soon every available surface in the average home had some ornament, doily or bowl adorning it.
As both décor and media trends changed, so the man in the street was introduced to high-style thanks to the new wave of aspirational lifestyle and homemaker magazines and, of course, the movies. I remember hearing the term tablescaping in the mid-90s and it soon became the new decorator-speak buzzword. Of course, with the rise of social media the art of creating attractive vignettes (which is basically what tablescaping is) has reached new levels. This has become particularly true during this time of social distancing where home entertaining has become increasingly popular.
So how do you go about creating the perfect tablescape? Like most artworks, as long as you keep some basic principle in mind, there are no fixed rules and can be applied to any surface.
The first consideration that will determine what kind of objects to use is the finish of your table. Metal or glass-topped tables are more suited to vases for fresh flowers or bowls with floating candles, as wiping the inevitable water-ring away is simple and won’t leave marks. With wooden or porous surfaces you may want to place your water-bearing containers on a protective under-plate or runner. The same applies to candles where dripping wax can leave unsightly marks on some surfaces. Don't ruin your furniture in the name of style!
(The bold theme carried through the artwork and tablescape creates high impact.
The second rule is not to overdo it. Although a vignette of personal treasures lends a pleasant ambience to a room, clutter can be just one item too many in an arrangement. Remember that not every surface in a room needs to be dressed. The more visual interference there is, the less impact your creations will have. Another major consideration is that unless you are using the table surface as a dedicated display area, remember to leave enough space for the table to still be practical. After all, what’s the point of having a coffee table if you can’t find room to put a coffee cup on it?
A good place to start your tablescape project is to decide on a theme or style for your display. Whether you prefer a casual ‘unplanned’ look or something more formal, remember the rule of odd numbers. Groupings of 3 – 5 items tend to look a lot better than 2 or 4 in most cases. While the objects in tablescapes do not necessarily have to match perfectly, they should harmonise or complement each other to achieve a sense of balance.
(Leaving sufficient space to maintain functionality is key. Image theevereygirl.com)
For some people the art of creating a tablescape comes naturally, while others of us need to work at it. A sensible start is to take stock of décor items that you already have. Interesting collections or treasures that may have been relegated to a cupboard or dusty top shelf could provide the perfect piece to base your display around while saving you a lot of money.
Points to consider are also textures and heights. Placing objects of the same height together can be used in symmetrical themes but tends to diminish impact in a grouping. Varying heights allow the eye to be led through different levels making the overall visual effect far more interesting.
Just as you don’t want a dining table arrangement that blocks sightlines, the same principle applies to other surfaces. Consider where your arrangement will be placed. Is it a surface often used like a coffee or side table where low-key styling can be preferable, or a console or bookshelf where you can get away with a more elaborate masterpiece?
(A clever combination of heights, textures and shapes working perfectly together - Image hgtv.com)
Grouping different shaped objects in the same colour hue is always safe, but combining opposites like rough and smooth textures or shiny and dull finishes brings an added interest level to an arrangement. Bringing together old and new objects is a nice touch, as is combing organic and manmade items.
Another consideration to keep in mind is the size of your objects. Using too many small items together can look messy. Always make sure to include some larger pieces to anchor the grouping and bring focus. Basketry is also a clever choice when wanting to display collections of attractive stones or shells. A pretty basket can be the perfect solution to the common problem of keeping your various remote controls in one place.
(Using a basket or pot to corral the stray remotes.
Coffee table books are called that for a reason, and although we don’t recommend turning your surfaces into a resemblance of library reading room, a small stack of interesting books always adds interest to an arrangement and can also double as a pedestal for smaller objects like old spectacles, antique magnifying glass, or a decorative paperweight. All these items relate to each other and therefore create an effective theme.
(Using a stack of books to form a pedestal for a stylish cameo. Image thepinkdream.com)
If just wanting to use a single object, make sure that it is scaled correctly for the surface and area. You will need to take stability into account. Wide based objects are always preferable over tall skinny items. The last thing you want is for your arrangement to topple over with the slightest bump.
Using a lamp in a side table arrangement is practical, but ensure that the style of base and shade are suitable. A shaded lamp is more relaxing to sit next to than its clear glass equivalent where the concentration of the light is at eye-level. A shaded lamp will also cast illumination and shadow interest on the objects grouped beneath it. When considering a bedside lamp it should be 25 - 30cm high to be practical.
(A dramatic use of a table lamp played down with simple tablescaping. Image Casa de Valentina)
You may be an avid collector of small items and decide to devote your entire table surface to display your treasures. Bowls (pottery, wood, basketry) are ideal for small loose items. Dependent on the age of your household members you may want to use this idea in areas of less traffic.
(A simple basket of shells making a big impact.
Image DigDig, com)
One of the cardinal rules of tablescaping is to make sure your arrangement works visually from all angles. Don’t expect to get it right on your first attempt, and unless you are sure of your skill, walk around it a few times to give some final tweaks. Tablescapes tend to be seasonal so you’ll have plenty of time to hone your techniques over the year.
Decorative trays are also a practical option, especially on large coffee tables. By creating your arrangement on the tray itself not only provides the perfect border to frame your masterpiece but should you then need to use the full table surface the tray can be easily removed and placed out of the way without disturbing a thing. This trick can be adapted to smaller seldom-used occasional tables that can remain dressed until needed.
(Clever use of tray, houseplant, books and a theme of artefacts that can be easily removed when needing to use the table. Image: LBCdesign.com)
Groupings of different heights of round tables are a great alternative to the traditional single coffee table. This allows you to dress one of the surfaces while leaving the others clear to be moved and used where and as they are needed. Leonardo - Tables by Design have the perfect ranges to suit this idea
(Ideal for grouping in various sizes, The Bakamo coffee and side table range from
Leonardo – Tables by Design)
Fresh flower arrangements have remained a favourite choice over the centuries that tablescaping has been with us. Whether you favour formal arrangements of the casual approach, remember that all fresh flower arrangements involve water and possibly the changing or topping up water levels. This in turn brings the danger of watermarks on your surfaces. Also, make sure that your floral arrangements are kept looking fresh by cleaning away fallen petals and removing wilted blooms.
A houseplant is also a popular inclusion to a setting. If you are not green-fingered or live a lock-up-and-go lifestyle you can always choose an attractive easy-to-maintain succulent that doesn’t object if you forget to water it for a week or two.
(Ikebana arrangement in pale hues, the perfect floral tribute to spring. Image Andrea Boucul)
Faux flowers have regained popularity and fortunately, these days, they tend to look a lot better than their earlier counterparts. If you take this route, you may want to change your arrangement every few weeks to renew the freshness. Real flowers need changing regularly, so apply the same rule to faux blooms. Remember, nothing says faux flowers like a layer of dust on the petals, so make sure you clean them regularly.
Changing your tablescape themes and objects to suit the season is a simple way of adding a fresh spark of energy into your living space. Interesting vegetables like artichokes or odd-shaped gourds can add a quirky touch and talking point to a seasonal display. Regularly changing, adding or subtracting a piece or two gives you a chance to showcase a few choice pieces at a time as opposed to turning your home into a museum of nick-nacks and ornaments. It also makes cleaning far easier!
(The dramatic use of grey hued vases offset the yellow of the tulips in this seasonal arrangement. Image Leonardo – Tables by Design featuring the Tokai dining table)
In conclusion, putting thought behind how we dress the surfaces in our homes is sometimes as important as the choice of furnishings themselves. After all, with the correct accent and vignette, you can make the most ordinary of items into something special while telling a personal story in the process. I’ve kept the biggest secret to tablescaping success for last, and that is to have fun!
With the holiday season just around the corner, it is the perfect time of year to create some memorable and Instagram-worthy tablescapes.
Wishing you a stylish month - The Leonardo - Tables by Design team