The noble art of tablescaping

Clare Coulson explores the simple pleasure of a perfect table placement

Summerill & Bishop x Skye Gyngell limited-edition Rhubarb tablecloth
Summerill & Bishop x Skye Gyngell limited-edition Rhubarb tablecloth

When Assouline published Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table five years ago, filled with Valentino Garavani’s extravagant table settings, it seemed like an eccentric nod to one of fashion’s most notorious collectors and bon vivants. Here were the Italian couturier’s prized possessions – Meissen porcelain, faience tureens, 18th-century dinner services and embroidered linens, all choreographed on tables at his homes in Gstaad, Holland Park, Manhattan, Paris and Rome and on his yacht. It felt fabulously over the top.

Liberty Small Florette bowl by Zsuzsanna Nyul, £110
Liberty Small Florette bowl by Zsuzsanna Nyul, £110
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Since then the art of the table has exploded, with maximalist linens, sculptural installations of flowers and bespoke upholstery all illuminated by artful lighting schemes and captured, inevitably, on Instagram.

Fiona Leahy Design scallop plate, £110, cutlery, £60 for three, napkin, £20, and palm-tree plate from Dior
Fiona Leahy Design scallop plate, £110, cutlery, £60 for three, napkin, £20, and palm-tree plate from Dior | Image: Antonioni
Maison Margaux Portofino collection, for hire from £55 per setting
Maison Margaux Portofino collection, for hire from £55 per setting | Image: Tom Nicholson

From social spaces to private homes, there’s a soothing ritual to creating a beautiful table. “We are in a time of turmoil,” says event planner and queen of matchimalism Fiona Leahy. “When you retreat, you end up going back to the table – it’s about elevating the mundane.” Working for brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Estée Lauder, Leahy creates tablescapes notable for their mise-en-scène of mouth-watering colour and chic ambience. The trick, she says, are the “peaks and troughs” that catch the eye. “Taking joy and feeling gratitude for the small pleasures seems for a lot of us a helpful way to have some daily beauty in our lives.” During isolation, she even started the new “trayscape” trend of a beautifully laid meal for one. 

Christian Dior flatware service, sold at Christie’s for £6,000
Christian Dior flatware service, sold at Christie’s for £6,000
19th-century salt cellar and monogrammed napkin from Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table
19th-century salt cellar and monogrammed napkin from Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table | Image: Oberto Gili

Amanda Brooks opened her Stow-on-the-Wold lifestyle store Cutter Brooks in 2018, with a focus on the “tabletop” in all its handblock napkin and scalloped place-setting glory. “Sitting down at a beautiful table is a gracious thing,” she says. A former director of Barneys, Brooks had her obsession nurtured in childhood (her mother is interior designer Elizabeth Stewart), but it took off in earnest when she moved with her husband and children from New York to the English countryside. “Home became a way to express myself, as opposed to fashion.”

Summerill & Bishop x La Colombe d’Or Le Menu tablecloth, £355
Summerill & Bishop x La Colombe d’Or Le Menu tablecloth, £355
Scribble & Daub handpainted place setting, from £4.50, and menu card, from £6.50
Scribble & Daub handpainted place setting, from £4.50, and menu card, from £6.50

It was also a move to the countryside, to her Regency-style Cambridgeshire home, Stibbington, that inspired Alice Naylor-Leyland to make an art out of the fanciful tables that have been a hit on her Instagram feed @mrsalice. Last year she launched her eponymous business, which offers the Tablescapes service, delivering coordinated sets of ornaments, votives and vases, linens and seasonal china and cutlery. “We never saw people’s tables before social media,” she says. Now it’s hard to escape them.

Cutter Brooks tablecloth, £175-£310, and napkin, £25, both by Zsuzsanna Nyul; Ivory Bistro cutlery, £60 for five-piece set; placemat, £25; 1920s Limoges-porcelain lunch service, similar services can be sourced; decoupage plate, £45; mouth-blown juice glass by Michael Ruh, £65; mouth-blown Syrian champagne flute, £15; and John Derian x Astier de Villatte Pelargonium saucer, £66
Cutter Brooks tablecloth, £175-£310, and napkin, £25, both by Zsuzsanna Nyul; Ivory Bistro cutlery, £60 for five-piece set; placemat, £25; 1920s Limoges-porcelain lunch service, similar services can be sourced; decoupage plate, £45; mouth-blown juice glass by Michael Ruh, £65; mouth-blown Syrian champagne flute, £15; and John Derian x Astier de Villatte Pelargonium saucer, £66
143-piece Royal copenhagen service, £251,460, 1stdibs.co.uk
143-piece Royal copenhagen service, £251,460, 1stdibs.co.uk

Shops serving this buoyant market particularly well include Summerill & Bishop, known for its bespoke, handpainted table linens, as well as collections designed in collaboration with La Colombe d’Or and chef Skye Gyngell. Once Milano’s beautiful hand-dyed table linens are similarly sought after. And you will find lusciously coordinated placemats, tablecloths, colourful French cutlery and handblown Italian glasses at South Kensington’s The Edition 94.

Preparing Pauline de Rothschild’s “landscape tables” at Château Mouton
Preparing Pauline de Rothschild’s “landscape tables” at Château Mouton | Image: Horst P Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images
Christie’s tablescape, styled by Petra Palumbo
Christie’s tablescape, styled by Petra Palumbo | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd, 2020

This month sees the launch of Maison Margaux – part shop, part showroom and (in time) part event space that will sell and rent everything for the table, as well as host tablescaping workshops. Co-founder Julian Vogel likens the concept to Rent the Runway – but for the table. Now more than ever, he adds, “We all need to cheer ourselves up and entertain our friends. Before, we shared images from restaurants. Now it’s the meals we have cooked ourselves at home and the tables we have created.”

Summerill & Bishop Zebra napkin, £25
Summerill & Bishop Zebra napkin, £25
Once Milano napkins, £60 for four, matchesfashion.com
Once Milano napkins, £60 for four, matchesfashion.com

Of course, few could hold a candle to Pauline de Rothschild, whose extraordinary tables were breathlessly recorded from the late ’50s to the early ’70s by her guests at Château Mouton, the legendary wine estate near Bordeaux. The writer, designer and epic dresser (the most extravagant Balenciaga gowns were de rigueur for dinner) would choose from 170 services of china and linens, while a florist would create “landscape tables” from mounds of moss and orchids taken from the château greenhouses to create verdant tableaux. One autumn offering featured a forest centrepiece of catkin-covered branches, oak leaves and dried ferns.

Alice Naylor-Leyland Cabbage starter plates, £30
Alice Naylor-Leyland Cabbage starter plates, £30
Liberty Bamboo pitcher by Bordallo Pinheiro, £45
Liberty Bamboo pitcher by Bordallo Pinheiro, £45

Earlier this year, Christie’s launched Dressing the Table: Contemporary Fine Dining – an online auction including 20th-century glass, flatware and china from designers such as Versace and Dior, as well as earlier porcelain pieces by Meissen and Royal Crown Derby. Ahead of the sale, the lots were styled by Petra Palumbo, of the eponymous Scottish sustainable tableware label.

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“The old idea that one should ‘save’ the good china for special occasions has fallen by the wayside,” says Anthony Barzilay Freund, editorial director of 1stdibs, where orders for serveware were up 27 per cent year on year in January and February. “There’s a growing belief that every day and every meal should be a celebration.”

Monogrammed bows, print-on-print maximalism and lavishly hand-painted menu cards take the tradition up a notch. Scribble & Daub’s Caroline Kent has recently launched a collection of customisable place settings and menus that are letterpressed, then hand-painted in vivid Dr Ph Martin’s inks – the preferred choice of Andy Warhol. “Making the effort to create a beautiful table can elevate the simplest meal to a memorable feast.”

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