Table Decorating for the Festive Season

Aesthetic Expressions, Table Decorating, Marin Magazine

Pewter stoneware charger, footed soup bowl, oval baking dish, brass and bronze candle holders, amber votives and ceramic cups all by Columbine Home (Corte Madera); earthenware dinner plates, Farmhouse Urban (Mill Valley); Paris flatware and quartz candle, Hudson Grace (Larkspur); linen napkins and flatware holders, Ambatalia (Mill Valley); flowers and napkin sprigs, Bloomingayles (Mill Valley) @bloomingayles_marin; flower bowl, Tazi Designs (Sausalito)


When it’s time to entertain, nothing makes a bigger impression than a carefully appointed table. Whether it’s an elegant dinner, a fireside feast or a festive open house, the dining table is the heartbeat of the party; it’s the place to gather, share food, imbibe and celebrate. To help you launch into this holiday season, we’ve taken inspiration from several table styles (rustic elegance, winter white, and open-house buffet) and embellished the arrangements with products and decor tips from local designers, makers, and purveyors to help you (and your table) sail through the party season in style.

Rustic Elegance

Fancy isn’t always black and white. As can be seen above, it can be rustic, moody and hygge: a Nordic term that implies intimacy, coziness, warmth, and gratitude. Elements such as fire, earthen colors, and natural woods and textiles are common themes. Decor accents such as candles, foraged finds, layered textures, and a blend of vintage and modern pieces help to set the mood.

Winter White

Less is more on a winterwhite table (below), where crisp white linens and dinnerware set the stage. Elements such as silver or gold accents, sparkling glass and crystal vessels add an uncluttered aesthetic and evoke a sophisticated, understated elegance. A simple garland or discreet floral arrangement reinforces the clean effect. Place cards or printed menus add a formal touch, while individual table gifts, such as frosty glass votives perched at each plate setting, are the icing on this white-on-white arrangement.

table decorating

Original dinner and salad plates and silver-plate salt and pepper, Hudson Grace (Larkspur); beaded salad plates, Belgian linen runner and frayed napkins, Farmhouse Urban; garland and flowers, Bloomingayles.

Guest Gifts

Entertaining is about creating a welcoming environment and a memorable experience for your guests. A tabletop gift will do double duty as a decorative touch and a memento for each guest to bring home. Moira Gibbons, event planner and owner of Parties Parties Parties in Mill Valley, suggests weaving a gift into the table decor that reflects the style and mood of the party. For an elegant white dinner party, she recommends “setting the table with a crisp white tablecloth, silver candlesticks in a row down the middle, with amaryllis blooms and votive candles woven throughout, and accessorize each place setting with a white-hued Glassybaby votive for each guest to bring home.” For a more rustic setting, she suggests providing each place setting with tiny stoneware vases, such as YNKS vases from Columbine Home or Heath Ceramics bud vases, adorned with a sprig of flowering sage. For a family-friendly open-house event, fill the pockets of natural linen utensil rolls with colorful reusable glass straws from Ambatalia in Mill Valley, which make a great eco-friendly guest gift to tote home.

table decorating

Using guest gifts as decorations and applying layers can add drama to any table setting.


Think of the tabletop as a blank canvas to express your personality. Adding layers to any place setting is a creative way to lend detail and character. This can be achieved with fabrics and by mixing modern, rustic and vintage pieces. Layering “creates a mood to encourage guests to linger at the table,” says Serena Armstrong, interior designer and owner of Farmhouse Urban in Mill Valley. “Use white linens or plates as a canvas and pair them with vintage finds or heirlooms and mixed textures. Layering linens such as tablecloths, table runners, placemats, and napkins adds an element of specialness to the meal.” She recommends keeping it simple with color: “A neutral palette lets the food and flowers come to life.” She loves tone-on-tone layering in whites and creams and suggests adding “some whimsy, with a pop of pattern or color in a plate, glassware or something as simple as tying a ribbon around napkins in a contrasting color.”

Open House Buffet

Open houses and buffets are meant to be lively and interactive. Choose plates that are pretty and classy, yet sturdy and durable. Stackable glasses and colorful melamine plates and platters (pictured from Coquelicot in Larkspur) resemble authentic French ceramics and crystal, with the welcome advantage that they will comfortably feed a crowd without scratching, chipping or breaking. Keep it simple when decorating the table, and let the food do the talking. Arrange the platters and trays at varying heights, on cake stands, inverted champagne buckets and stacked chargers, for example, to enhance the elevation and increase the sense of abundance. A vertical yet voluminous bouquet of neutral flowers will serve as a fresh and simple background to the array of food.

table decorating

Melamine dinner and salad plates, bowls, cake plate, serving platters, acrylic champagne flutes and stackable glasses, linen napkins, wooden serving fork and spoon all at Coquelicot (Larkspur) 415.924.0279; white ceramic cake plate, Farmhouse Urban (Mill Valley); dual champagne bucket and Paris flatware, Hudson Grace (Larkspur); flowers, Bloomingayles (Mill Valley) @bloomingayles_marin.

Botanical Inspiration

Flowers and botanicals are a natural complement to any festive table. They can be elaborate arrangements, farmers’ market bouquets, homemade garlands or foraged finds from your garden. Often, it’s the little and personal details that make a difference. Gayle Nicoletti, founder and owner of Bloomingayles in Mill Valley, suggests “putting a little bit of yourself into the table design, as if you are painting a picture and putting your soul into it. A tablescape should reveal emotion, balance, grace and inspiration from nature.” She recommends “incorporating mementos of a trip or a family heirloom, such as a vase, salt and pepper vessels, special wine glasses or a decanter, and to include candlelight for elegance and tranquility” in the arrangement. “Forage for branches, pods or foliage; or beachcomb for shells, driftwood or sea thistle,” she says. “For flowers, it’s important to keep it simple and natural. Arrange each bloom, pod or bit of foliage randomly, as if it were still in the garden.”

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline “Aesthetic Expressions“.


Lynda Balslev

Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food writer, editor and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She authors the nationally syndicated column and blog TasteFood, and co-authored the cookbook Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture (2015 Silver Medal Winner Independent Publisher Awards). She is the 2011 recipient of the Chronicle Books Award (Recipe Writing) to the Symposium for Professional Food Writers, and a 2018 Fellowship Award recipient to the Symposium for Wine Writers at Meadowood, Napa Valley. Lynda’s writing and photography have been recognized by the New York Times Diners Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and more.