The beginner’s guide to tablescaping

Zoe Gunn

11 August 2021

Event planner Alice Wilkes reveals how to create Instagram-worthy table settings at home

11 August 2021 | Zoe Gunn

We’ve all been there. When you sent out the invites a dinner party seemed like a hugely sophisticated, fun event. Now it’s next week and the dining room table you’ve been using as a desk for 18 months suddenly seems tired, drab and, frankly, boring. The good news is, you needn’t rush out and invest in a whole new dining room set. A few well-chosen accessories, some fresh linens and a beautiful floral arrangement or two are all you need to turn your table into a thing of Instagram dreams.

The technical term for this is tablescaping i.e. landscaping for your table – and once you’ve nailed the art your parties, picnics and afternoon teas will turn you into an entertaining legend. But where to begin? We’ve called on luxury wedding and events planner – and tablescaper extraordinaire – Alice Wilkes for some expert advice.

Choose a starting point – and stick to it

The key to creating a cohesive design is to choose an initial colour, print or style and select your accessories, flowers and linens from there, says Wilkes, but avoid being too matchy-matchy. “When I’m designing my tables I like to create a mood but I am not sure how much I like the word ’theme’,” explains Wilkes. “Once you start to pair items with one another a story starts to develop and a design direction via cutlery, crockery, florals, chairs… The list could go on!” 

Cabana Magazine glasses, £405, matchesfashion.com
Soup and dinner plate sets, £320 for four, ladoublej.com

“I start every tablescape with a pattern, colour or mood. It could be an amazing print that I have seen, or an atmosphere I want to create – the last tablescape I created was shell-inspired and reminiscent of relaxed dining when you're travelling.” Investing in mix-and-match glassware, crockery and accessories is an easy way to make sure, whatever your starting point, you always have pieces to match.

Be practical

A table heaving with candles, petals and trinkets may look good in pictures but any good host puts their guests first, and if your table is too complicated to be enjoyed then you’ve made a misstep. “One rule I always like to abide by is, however grand and dramatic the florals, are I ensure guests can see each other from across the table. An event should be fun, celebratory and always allow guests to socialise!” 

LSA International Canopy vase trio, £32, heals.com
Sophie Lou Jacobsen blue wave pitcher, £285, ssense.com

If you have your heart set on tall blooms, use them sparingly. Alternatively go for quantity and volume, placing several wide arrangements in smaller vases that can be complemented by eye-catching water jugs, charger plates and candle holders. This is especially true if you’re working with a smaller interior space, “Cosy and intimate is the best atmosphere - embrace the space for a cosy dinner party which could be held via candlelight,” advises Wilkes.

Consider your menu

The type of food you plan to serve will have a huge impact on the type of table that will work for your party. Planning to serve up dozens of small plates tapas style? You’re going to need to leave room for them – and make sure people are able to pass them around. A plated meal leaves you with the most flexibility but, says Wilkes, the food can easily be incorporated into your design if you want to attempt something more ambitious.

Jasper Conran Chinoiserie serving plate, £160, wedgwood.com
Dinosaur Designs marbled-resin salad servers, £100, matchesfashion.com

“Whether it be a long sharing board down the centre of the table or a plated ten-course meal, all of these things need to be considered when designing a table. Catering always helps to determine a design direction from the get-go!” Whatever menu you decide on, make sure you have the crockery to do it justice. Show your style nous by choosing colourful pieces which go together without being a matching set and, ideally, are influenced by the cuisine you’re cooking.

Plan ahead

If you’re really looking to impress – and don’t mind splashing out – Wilkes highly recommends going bespoke when it comes to your linens and tablewear. “One of my favourite things to do is to create bespoke pieces around a design for my tablescapes. I start with an illustration and get this created in the form of a linen. The same with plates. I recently silk printed bespoke designs onto crockery to create a harmonious design throughout the whole table – matching tablecloth, napkins, menus and placements.”

Jonathan Adler Pick Your Poison votive set, £68, harrods.com
Heather Taylor Home Canyon stripe cotton tablecloth, £300, libertylondon.com

This kind of tablescape clearly requires some forward thinking but the end result will be some gorgeous pieces you can use time and again. Opt to have your design made in a neutral hue and it will also be perfect for blending with brighter pieces (there are many services offering linens and tablewear for hire) and an array of seasonal floral arrangements, so no two tablescapes need ever look the same.

Read more: How to style an urban outdoor space