Earlier this year, I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Elisa Marshall, the founder of the incredible NYC cafe Maman (you know it from those insanely Instagrammable blue and white cups – gorgeous!). Not only is she a female founder and entrepreneur, but she is a creative visionary who provided endless inspiration for how we too can create stunning tablescapes in our own homes while entertaining. Check out my article, reproduced in full below from Bashed.
Elisa Marshall of Maman Explains: How To Create a Stunning Tablescape
Whether our friends will be sitting at our kitchen table, a proper dining room table, or a foldable table that we hide in the closet of our studio apartment, we’ve been doing some thinking lately about the idea of tablescapes. Over the holidays, we were lucky to witness some pretty spectacular tablescapes that, quite literally, rocked our world. Suddenly, that bouquet of peonies that we picked up in the flower district the morning of our dinner party felt, well, a little lackluster. If we are going to all of the effort to have our friends over and craft a beautiful meal for them (whether that’s souffles or Shake Shack), we wanted to put some more thought into how we were setting the table, and beyond.
And that’s where our friend and tablescape master Elisa Marshall comes in. As the founding partner and creative visionary behind Maman, one of our favorite NYC cafes, Elisa is responsible for crafting a beautiful, welcoming haven to eat, drink, and gather in amidst all the things we love and those we love. Not only are we continually impressed by their food (you must try the nutty chocolate chip cookie) and their lattes (try the matcha!), but the decor and ambiance are truly unparalleled, and Elisa is a consummate hostess in her own home as well.
We immediately thought of her as we were contemplating how we could up our tablescape game for 2019 and beyond. Read on for the best tips, tricks, and hacks for making your dinner party tablescape shine in the year ahead.
So, why should we be thinking beyond a central bouquet of flowers for our next dinner party table? What makes a tablescape special?
I think there are so many fun and creative table options apart from those traditional fresh-cut flower bouquets. To me, tablescaping isn’t about just setting the table nicely. It’s about thinking outside of the box and designing a mood and theme on a flat surface. People can get so caught up in the meal itself when entertaining and the table becomes an afterthought, but to me it is equally as important and memorable. I love having my guests not only enjoy a beautiful meal, but a setting and fun theme that will be remembered long after the meal is over.
Tell us a little bit about the art of creating a tablescape – what are your first steps for coming up with the concept?
My first step is coming up with the theme for the table or the food I want to serve that evening, depending on my mood, the season, and who I am hosting. Often times, I know the food I want to cook and will create a themed menu first and my tablescape around that. For example, we had friends recently who are getting married in Spain, so I wanted to cook a traditional Spanish meal for dinner. That was my initial inspiration, and I worked around that theme of their Spanish wedding for my tablescape. Other times, I like to select themes first and create a menu from there. Country BBQ was one of my favorite and most memorable themes, where we created a beautiful yet casual country BBQ-style table with paper bag menus, gingham, and mason jars.
Ok, we have nailed down our brilliant theme for the evening. How do we execute?
Next you, want to think about the size of the table and the number of guests, plus your service style for the meal. All of these elements will play into your tablescape! I always ask myself the following questions:
- Will all food be plated from the kitchen?
- Will food be served family style on the table? How many courses?
- Will you only set the table with one plate, or stack your salad plate on top of your dinner plate?
- Will you change the cutlery between clearing courses?
- Will you start the evening with drinks in another room or space? Will they bring the drinks to the table? Will you be serving different wines with dinner?
- Will you have 10+ guests?
Asking yourself these questions will help you better prepare to design your table. For example, if the food will be plated in the kitchen, you won’t want to have your plates set on the table in advance.
If you are opting for a family style meal (which I always recommend, as it’s easier and allows you to better create a tablescape using plates), consider how many courses you will serve. Then you’ll be able to figure out how much space you need for the food and where to place it. A full runner style and cascading greens can be tempting, but when you need to place a salad, two sides, and a platter of chicken on the table that may not end up being realistic. Make sure that you plan for ‘negative’ space for the food placement so the table isn’t overly crowded. It is often tempting to get carried away with beautiful tablescaping and decor, but we can’t forget it also needs to be practical.
If you are doing a cocktail hour in the living room, make sure you have a double set of glassware – one set to have on the table and one that is pre-prepped in the kitchen or bar area for drinks on arrival. If you only have one set, opt to leave these glasses out of your table setting to avoid guests having to go to the table and grab a glass to use prior to the meal.
If you have a group that’s larger than 10 and are serving family style, consider breaking the table into two sections for food. So instead of having one big bowl of salad, but out two small bowls of salad on either side of the table. Not only is it easier to pass around, but guests are able and more inclined to easily help themselves to seconds and enjoy the dish if it is directly within reach.
What are the best places to get items for our tablescapes?
I love starting by shopping my home first, as it is not only super easy, but very friendly on the budget! Once I have my theme, I shop every room for ‘props’ and decor that work within my tablescape’s color palette and theme. I hosted a romantic themed baby shower and used a beautiful beaded lace scarf from my closet as a table runner. At a tea party, I recycle my grandma’s vintage tea pot with a broken lid as a vase. Most recently, I adorned my NYE centerpiece with vintage clocks ‘stolen’ from my night stand along with Christmas tree lights. You’ll surprised by how much you have at home with a little digging and creativity!
After I have shop my home, I love shopping at stores like Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, and Target for themed decor, as they usually have a lot to offer in terms of assortment.
How can we get the biggest bang for our buck when creating a tablescape, besides shopping our own homes?
I love beautiful themed tables, but I also am consciously trying to not spend a ton of money on themed table decor that I will use only once. I also don’t like to repeat themes and always like to try something new and different, so I’m constantly looking for new ways to get scrappy with my tablescapes.
I invest in some staples and versatile items that I can use over and over again, with a few fun touches. One of my staples is a set of vintage white dinner plates with gold rims. Simple, elegant, and versatile, with a touch of character! I picked up a 12-piece set of these at a market in London, and have used them for probably 80% of last year’s dinner parties. They are a great base to layer and add fun themed salad plates on top, but are simple enough to work with any theme – from a Gatsby gold and glitter 1920’s party to a safari-themed birthday party! Invest in timeless basics that you love, and have fun with seasonal themed decor that can be peppered in.
Please share any other hacks and tidbits that we can use when we create our next tablescape!
Although that pumpkin spice and holiday scents are hard to resist, let the food ignite the senses! Save aromatic candles for the washroom and keep the candles on your table unscented.
I love working with height, and adding some additional elements of visual interest on a flat surface. Serving food on tiered stands, various height florals, and candles along with adding risers for your decor or food can elevate the eye and the overall decor. A few ideas for risers are wine boxes or an upside down salad bowl work. I even threw a cookbook launch party where we used the cookbooks themselves for food displays and table risers!
And don’t forget that, at the end of the day, you can throw out the ‘rules’ for table decor and place settings (unless you are hosting the royal family!). Be creative and have fun with it. Currently on my table, I have a cluster of beautiful vintage bottles that I’ve collected on a silver tray, which I like to intersperse with candlelight. It adds statement and charm, is versatile with any colour scheme or place setting, but most importantly, I just love looking at it during my day to day meals. Craft a tablescape that makes you happy. Your friends are more likely to admire these exquisite and personal details than they are to judge you if your water glass is 90 degrees above the knife.