Around the House, Setting the Holiday Table — Echoes of the Past

While looking for inspiration for my Holiday table settings, I turned up two vintage books in my library: My Favorite Things from 1964, by legendary socialite and hostess Dorothy Rodgers, and a 1953 edition of House and Garden’s Complete guide to Interior Decoration — two selections that effectively cover the mid-20th Century etiquette for decorating and party-giving from high end to the low.

1950’s Revisited

I was surprised at how contemporary the furnishings looked in the House & Garden Book; mid-century modern was the fresh new look of the 50’s and is now back in vogue. In the last 15 years, stores devoted to selling original mid-century pieces began popping up in design-conscious neighborhoods all over New York City (we have our own Belkind Bigi in Tarrytown) and now it’s so popular that pieces are available through catalogues such as Design within Reach which offers a lot of classic mid-century pieces still in production. The general design aesthetic has had a major resurgence — the "less is more" credo of the modernists is everywhere in evidence in streamlined geometric shapes, use of steel, wire, laminates, and a lack of ornament. Think "West Elm" and the monk-like designs of Calvin Klein Home.

As for setting the mid-century table, the most dramatic and effective setting in the House and Garden book was a rectangular black lacquer table set with canary yellow placemats and sporting a mix of yellow and black dinnerware. The centerpiece was a series of low square black lacquer trays alternately filled with yellow flower blossoms and black grapes. It still looks fresh and stylish today — the trick is in simplicity — a simple dramatic color scheme and repetition of square and rectangular shapes. A bold and limited color scheme goes a long way to creating drama in this kind of simple setting. Lucky for us that we can find inexpensive smart-looking tableware at Target and put something like this together quite easily!

High End Etiquette

Dorothy Rodgers, on the other hand, was chock full of entertaining advice and frankly, some of the advice may be difficult to pull off if you don’t happen to have a permanent kitchen and housekeeping staff. Apparently her cook required only three days notice to put on an elaborate dinner for twenty. However, even for those of us with only part-time non-professional help (including well-intentioned spouses and grudging teenagers) there are some good tips. For example, for a sizable crowd, rather than line everyone up in a long banquet style arrangement, she prefers a number of small tables to be set up to encourage more intimate conversations. I might add that although it’s nice if the tables can be in the same room, they can be set up wherever there is room.

Dorothy was a fan of buffet style serving at large parties; people don’t feel as if they are glued to their seat so they get up and mingle more readily. Even at Holiday gatherings that are mostly family and where manners are relaxed, it’s nice to have the possibility of sharing a moment with your cousin who’s in from Minneapolis on the way to get a helping of salad from the buffet.

Even when everyone knows everyone else, placecards are a nice touch. It demonstrates to your guests that you have put thought into their experience. If you have some school-age children maybe they can make them. At our home, one of my nieces was so talented at making quirky personalized placecards, they have become not only topics of hilarious conversation but collectors items within the family.


In our shrinking multi-cultural world, the holidays now come in all kinds of unexpected colors. Christmas is no longer just red and green. I was so tickled to see that my associate, Maryann Iannitti, had created a Holiday display in our shop using blue and white porcelain with peacock feathers, including a peacock feather wreath hung over a mirror! Along with the sparkle of antiqued silver votives and crystal candelabra it is a new and beautiful take on holiday decorations.

For myself, I love to use dusty pink table linens with silver candelabra and lots of crystal to make a supremely elegant holiday table. I keep to white or pink flowers and use candles liberally; everyone looks so happy and healthy in the reflected glow from the pink linens. Interestingly, both the Rodgers and the House and Garden book featured a formal pink table setting. Guess it’s a modern classic now.


Centerpieces are a great opportunity to show off your creativity. Search the cabinets for low containers — vegetable dishes can work superbly — line with plastic, and using florists clay, create your own arrangement. If you aren’t confident, take your chosen containers to your favorite florist and explain what you want. Another simple but very effective centerpiece: a low basket strikes an informal air and can hold a collection of small potted plants. For a more formal touch, use a silver tray with a gallery and display a group of orchids or cyclamens. Remember, arrangements aren’t limited to flowers — a luscious display of fruits can be a spectacular sight too.

On the buffet table the height of the centerpiece is not an issue, so go for broke. A big mass of various-sized poinsettias, while not especially original, has a way of creating a sense of glorious abundance like nothing else. For me, they never get boring and all the colors are wonderful. Nothing is quite as elegant as very tall arching white phaleanopsis orchids — they seem made to accompany fine porcelain and silver. The nice thing about potted plants is that they last and last. You may be enjoying your orchids for months.

I wish you a peaceful, beautiful and bountiful Holiday Season.

Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Recommended For You

About the Author: Barbara Sternau