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Expert Advice: How to Set a Table the French Way

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Expert Advice: How to Set a Table the French Way

March 18, 2019

A table, like a bed, is one of those things it’s easy to over-style, smoothing linens to perfection and setting flatware just so. But in long, languid summer evenings in particular, we much prefer the undone look mastered by the French, with perfectly imperfect tablecloths; unkempt, not-too-arranged flowers; and plenty of candles.

But even tables that look unfussy follow a few guiding principles. For help, we consulted French florist Laetitia Mayor of @flóresie and ceramist Sarah Van Raden of Portland, Oregon–based Notary Ceramics (a Remodelista favorite); the two women recently collaborated on a flower-arranging and table-setting retreat in a rambling 19th-century stone house in France’s Champagne countryside. For their advice on undone flowers, see How to Arrange Flowers Like a Frenchwoman: 8 Chic Techniques on Gardenista. For their simple tips for a very French dinner that will carry on well into the evening, read on.

Photography by Chikae Howland, courtesy of Laetitia Mayor and Notary Ceramics.

1. Go monochrome (or almost).

glassware and notary ceramics wares, ready for arranging on a table in the ston 9
Above: Glassware and Notary Ceramics wares, ready for arranging on a table in the stone house.

“Choose a color palette and stick with it,” advises Van Raden. “I like to limit this to two to three colors max. And I prefer calming shades of gray, pale pink, browns, and tans. A French countryside is made up of these colors.”

2. Put away the iron.

van raden&#8\2\17;s simple ceramics, lined up on a stone trough. 10
Above: Van Raden’s simple ceramics, lined up on a stone trough.

Above: Mix-and-match linens, no ironing needed.

“Choose a tablecloth that is informal but elegant,” Van Raden says. “Washed linen adds just the right relaxed and rumpled elegance to a dinner party table. Throw on a linen tablecloth and some complementary, but not matching, linen napkins in a shade or texture that differs from your table spread.”

3. Mix muted with wild.

setting the table in the garden, for a long, slow meal, french style. 13
Above: Setting the table in the garden, for a long, slow meal, French style.

“Keep your colors muted and flowers wild. Think more weeds and vines in your vessels than floral shop stems,” Van Raden says.

4. Create a “floral journey.”

mayor&#8\2\17;s arrangements add a wildness to the table. the tiniest bloom 14
Above: Mayor’s arrangements add a wildness to the table. The tiniest blooms even make an appearance in the evening’s cocktail.

“When doing flowers for a table, I love to play with dimensions and have several floral arrangements spread along the table with different heights and sizes,” Mayor says. “You can mix very low arrangements with higher ones, and even some vegetal elements—fruits, leaves, berries—installed directly on the tablecloth, therefore linking the florals and the table and thus guiding the eyes up and down in a little floral journey. And of course, make sure to choose a color and texture palette that will best combine with the other elements on the table.”

don&#8\2\17;t overlook &#8\2\20;vegetal elements,&#8\2\2\1; like th 15
Above: Don’t overlook “vegetal elements,” like these pink-tinged white asparagus that look poetic all on their own.

5. Encourage eye contact.

the table, set. 16
Above: The table, set.

“Keep your flowers below the eye-line of your guests,” Van Raden says. “This way your guests will be able to talk and interact without having to crane their necks over or around your floral arrangements.”

6. Light candles.

notary ceramics candlesticks, embellished with a fallen bloom. 17
Above: Notary Ceramics candlesticks, embellished with a fallen bloom.
“Lastly, I think a few candles on the table always add a bit of elegance and romance,” notes Van Raden. “Either pared-down taper holders or small, low bowls with tea lights are our favorites. The end result should look elegant but not stuffy, like your guests can really sit down and relax and stay for a long evening of wine, good food, and even better company.”

Expert Advice How to Set a Table the French Way portrait 4 18
Above: Unfussy-chic.

N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published on July 13, 2018.

More advice from the French:

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