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The ritual of table setting is something of a long lost art. So many of us, myself included, are ignorant to the nuances of cooking and plating, forgoing it for the convenience of food delivery. Even so, I’ve found myself noting that nothing satisfies like a well-plated, well-cooked meal—ideally, one I’ve made myself. To offset my food ordering ways, I’ve decided to research all that goes into the ideal tablescape. You read that right, tablescape.
In researching all the elements associated with table setting trends, I’ve uncovered different iterations of the perfect tablescape to figure out my own preferences. Though cheap cutlery certainly has its charm (especially when you’re on a budget), few things compare to a gracefully designed set, each piece of which sits ergonomically between your thumb and forefinger. And when you’ve finally cleared whatever home-cooked delicacies have awaited you, you’re greeted with another pleasant surprise: some beautifully crafted dishes, bone white or awash in playful motifs. Though the food has been great, the old adage “you eat with your eyes” seems to have proven itself, as the table settings have tied together another meal.
With a season full of dining, entertaining, and spending time with loved ones approaching quickly, I thought it was the perfect time to write a guide on table setting trends through the years.
The dining room in this renovated house on Kiawah Island in South Carolina, featured in the February 1997 issue of Architectural Digest, showcases a marble and wrought iron Neoclassical console table with a tole oil lamp on it and a large portrait above, a round dining table, and a palm in the corner.
In the 1920s, as you might imagine, “setting table” was quite the to-do. Dinner parties, or soirees, were held in magnificent mansions that were, in retrospect, harbingers for the coming economic downturn. No worries, though. Properly placed dishware would ensure the night went off without a hitch. And to be properly placed, in the 1920s, the dinner table had to be laid out in a very specific manner. Each guest’s eighteen-inch designated area was referred to as a cover. According to a 1929 article on table etiquette from the San Pedro News Pilot, each cover had a service plate in the middle, flanked by forks to the left and a knife and soup spoon to the right. In its proper placement, each piece of silverware would be exactly one inch from the edge of the table.
Transferware dishes brought provincial French toilé-style imagery to the American masses with ease. Though often seen in the classic blue-and-white colorway, many popular dishes at the time also had pastoral scenes in maroon red or dark golden brown. Coordinating silverware sets would be complete with beautiful floral scrollwork, another callback to the simpler times before America began its process of industrialization. Or maybe I’m looking too far into it.
The dining room in a Mario Buatta-designed apartment in New York City featuring a pair of silver pheasants and roosters as the centerpiece with silver candelabras and a silver urn rest.
The next decade loosened its tie a bit, as place settings became less formal and more welcoming and inviting. What seemed like an oxymoron before, “casual dinner party,” was now becoming a frequent occurrence for plenty of Americans. Even as the Great Depression set in, many people pooled together and had potlucks, where gathering around a communal table was a source of comfort and enjoyment rather than another stiff social event.
Instead of the somewhat stuffy and arguably pretentious toilés from 10 years prior, 1930s dishware allowed itself to be playful and graphic. The once ornate and elaborate flower motif was repurposed in primary colors and simple shapes. Imagery from the French countryside was out of style, and popular American dishes were decorated in scenes from contemporary domesticity—strawberries, sunshine-y skies, and potted plants, all in the confident hues from the Art Deco era.
With the growing popularity of Bakelite, many household objects—from jewelry to drawer pulls to flatware—were fashioned out of the cutting-edge plastic, instead of the bulky silverware from years before. Overall, the formality of American dinner tables had come into question as people had less money, time, and energy to spend on frivolous things.
From the April 1996 issue of AD, this dining room in the Los Angeles, California home of Hollywood producer Alan Ladd, Jr. features a mid-19th century pine hutch and overstuffed chairs with floral chintz upholstery around the dining table.
The ’40s and ’50s brought the nuclear family back into play. I mean, back then, what was better proof of success than a spouse, a couple kids, a picket fence, and a dog? So of course, after the war, when women were back in their roles as housekeepers, supper returned in a big way. Doilies, powdery pinks and blues, and grandmotherly silver contribute to a sense of delicate beauty that pervaded the late ’40s and early ’50s. It’s in this era that Samantha Picard, a London-based supper club host and tablescape aficionado, finds the most inspiration.
“I am loving reinventing the quintessential 1940s dining table in a more livened up, contemporary way,” Samantha says. “My grandmother gifted me some tabletop silver from 1940s and 1950s glassware when she recently downsized, and they’ve been a huge inspiration in my push to playing around with mixing old and new.”
Midcentury could be used as a catchall to describe this era of table setting. Arguably one of the most iconic dishware sets of the movement was the space-age inspired Starburst pattern by Franciscan China. But closer down to earth, the tablescapes of this era found their inspiration in handmade textiles and balmy pastel colors.
This dining table featured in a spread from the October 2005 issue of AD is set with a majolica tea service. The artwork is 19th-century Russian. Displayed on the sideboard is “part of a new collection of birch-bark objects from Siberia purchased on eBay.”
I’ve talked about it before and I’ll continue to talk about it: flower power. The 1960s and 1970s were an explosion of neon colors, trippy visuals, and, of course, botanical patterns. But what if I were to present another aesthetic movement that ran concurrently with flower power? What if I were to dub it the mushroom boom? Okay, I’m open to suggestions.
But among the acid green florals of the ’60s and ’70s, there were humble fungi, toadstools plopped on the floor of a friendly forest. Mushroom-festooned dishware was huge. In a nod to the 1930s, plastic flatware was back, and it had the sleek, space-age ’70s aesthetic of a Kubrick film. As the ’shroom boom fell into households all over the country, so too did its signature color scheme, the warm, earthy classics: burnt sienna, harvest gold, and avocado green.
Inside this New York City triplex apartment decorated by Mario Buatta from the December 1985 issue of AD, the formal dining room features two round tables set with Waterford crystal, silver platters and candles in silver holders.
The trend of finding that warmth in interiors, from colors to textures, continued into the following years. The ’80s and ’90s kept a stronghold on sepias—think terracotta, beige, mahogany—and paired them with textiles like quilted fabric placemats and pops of salmon pink and ivory white. Though patterns in the ’80s tended on the smaller side, large-scale prints of botany and fruits dominated kitchen landscapes in the ’90s. It was around this time that we started to see tablescapes shift even further from the staid, boxiness of the ’20s.
Supper hosts accessorized their dining tables with jewelry-like accouterments like napkin rings and crystal tumblers. “The giant haute cuisine restaurants of 1980s New York were a prime 20th-century example of the Baroque opulence and decadence I can’t help but appreciate in a tablescape,” says Tara McCauley, a New York–based interior designer.
The focus of colors from the ’80s to the ’90s shifted from an emphasis on rich jewel tones to more muted, pastel-adjacent tones. The bold shades of 1980s Fiestaware softened as the years passed. Silverware became more heavy and sculpted, with priority towards the hand feel of the instrument as much as its appearance.
This tablescape from Elissa Cullman's dining room, featured in the September 2006 issue of AD, is set off by antiques.
Once again, we didn’t seem to fully extricate ourselves from the earthy overtones of the American tablescape. The 2000s and 2010s decided to turn away from the folky leanings of the ’70s or the playfulness of the midcentury. Instead, this era was characterized by its sleek minimalism, a dovetailing of organic materials, plants, and imagery, all with a modern, refined sensibility. Supper was served on cream-colored, smoothly glazed dishes, cups were dimple-blown glass, and flatware was streamlined in design, intuitively designed with very few aesthetic embellishments.
The dining room of Anjelica Huston's California ranch home features a table set with a Blue Willow china collection passed down from her mother, a mirror gifted from model Jerry Hall, and a mural painted by the production designer Jeremy Railton.
Today’s table settings are a pastiche of previous years combined with present-day trends. Full dish sets are seemingly impossible to find in this day and age, which has left many of us cobbling together mismatched but well-loved arrays of plates and bowls for our guests. Anchor Hocking glasses, a mainstay on American tables for decades, line the insides of my cupboards, from sunshine and sailboat patterns to hearts and stripes. Beneath a well-coiffed bouquet of flowers, the present-day tablescape is expressive and moody, drawing inspiration from the 20th century and beyond.
“When I was 16, I took a painting class during which the teacher would exclaim ‘Pay attention to the chiaroscuro!’ on a near daily basis, and that little reminder always pops into my mind when thinking of how the lighting in a dark setting will play against the servingware and fabrics I choose for a table setting,” Tara recalls. “I’m particularly inspired by Italian Baroque and Dutch golden age paintings. I love recreating the romantic glow and organic imperfection of, say, a Caravaggio interior scene or a Vermeer still life by setting the table with clusters of ivory taper candles interspersed with real fruits or smaller floral arrangements which coordinate with the centerpiece.”
These days we’re hearkening yesteryear’s trends and choosing not to overlook table settings. Once seemingly obsolete objects, such as egg cups and gravy boats, have found their way into the hearts of 2022’s tablescape enthusiasts. With a wealth of resources at our disposal, today’s table setters have approaches that are simultaneously modern and traditional. The play of light in a supper setting has more significance than it did in the past—dripping, warm candle light is much more on-trend today than it was one hundred years ago. And with our cameras (both phone and film) at the ready, prepared to snap a picture for the ’gram, we’ve made sure to return to our roots of beautiful presentation. After all, when we’ve finished eating with our mouths, our eyes will still be hungry.