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Designer shares ideas for festive table settings

By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Kim Carroll describes a steampunk-style tablescape appropriate for a Sherlock Holmes party, which she created at the Ohio Design Centre in Beachwood. Carroll scattered the table with items appropriate to a detective story and industrial elements such as old gears and machine parts. The silver-colored candle holder from D.K. Living, borrowed from the design center's Bello Design showroom, has removable and interchangeable parts. (Amber Gallihar photo)

Great cooks dazzle their dinner guests with their culinary skills.

The rest of us need to rely on a little fancy footwork.

For us, it’s the table setting that elevates the meal to a celebration. Wow your guests with your presentation, and they won’t even notice the entree is takeout Chinese.

Well, maybe not.

Regardless of whether your cooking skills approximate Julia Child’s or the average child’s, you can pull off a memorable party with these table-decorating pointers from Kim Carroll, an interior designer from Cleveland Heights. Carroll recently created eight tablescapes for a program at the Ohio Design Centre in Beachwood, and she shared her tips and ideas for designing singular table settings in your own home.

Consider color

You have two choices when it comes to setting a color scheme, Carroll said: You can take cues from the colors in your home, or you can ignore them altogether and choose colors that play out your theme or represent the holiday you’re celebrating. She thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to set a Thanksgiving table in traditional fall colors, even if they clash with your dining room walls.

Nevertheless, she said it’s often possible to have it both ways. Start with a color that works with your decor, and then build a scheme using colors that are complementary and appropriate but not necessarily expected.

Often the design in your dishes is a good place to start. Study the pattern, and notice all the colors it incorporates. Some might be barely noticeable, but one of those hues might make a fine starting point for a color scheme.

An autumn tablescape Carroll created at the design center offered a perfect example of a non-traditional palette. She built the design around some vintage china with an amethyst design, accenting it with amethyst glassware, gold napkins and a floral arrangement that incorporated both those colors as well as other fall hues. It was all set on a gleaming mahogany and satinwood veneer table, so the wood tones added richness and warmth.

It wasn’t the usual orange-gold-brown combination, but it was still elegantly autumnal.

Use what you have

Just because your china is old doesn’t mean it’s outdated. Carroll thinks vintage pieces — particularly family heirlooms — are far more interesting than new plates and can offer plenty of inspiration for table decorating.

Her mother’s Old Vine Wedgwood china, used for the autumn tablescape, was a case in point. Carroll freshened the vintage set by sandwiching amethyst-color glass plates between the bread plate and dinner plate at each place setting. Amethyst drinking glasses and beaded napkins further updated the look.

Set a theme

Not every entertaining occasion has an obvious theme. Holidays are no-brainers, but what about a cocktail party in January or dinner on the deck in June?

Often the menu will dictate a theme. Carroll created an Asian tablescape for a Japanese dinner, complete with square plates, tea cups from an Asian market and a low rectangular trench filled with moss to serve as a simple centerpiece. It was all set on a piece of fabric in a Japanese print, positioned at an angle atop the table.

Sometimes the setting inspires a theme. Carroll’s Mad Men cocktail party setup, for example, was ideal for the sleek modern showroom where she set it up. She mixed vintage barware and turquoise serving pieces with newer accessories that had a ’50s feel, and included items appropriate to the era — silver dishes of cheese straws and mixed nuts, and just for show, a cigarette cup filled with unfiltered Camels and a matching lighter.

“Put on some Ella Fitzgerald and some Frank Sinatra, and you’re all set,” she said.

Your possessions can be the starting point, too. Carroll was inspired by a set of Tunisian plates to create a global village theme for one table setting. She carried out the theme using mostly inexpensive finds from import stores that had a handmade feel — chunky wooden candle holders, woven place mats and serving tray, and even wooden flatware imported from India.

Use fabric

Carroll often uses fabric yardage or interesting textiles as a basis for her tablescapes instead of full-size tablecloths. For her global village table, for example, she used a silk throw she’d brought back from a trip to Thailand as a table runner, overlapping it with circular woven place mats. Another table setting, an elegant silver and white arrangement, was underlaid with a 54-inch width of designer fabric, the raw edges simply turned under and machine hemmed.

The fabric hung down only a few inches from the table top, but Carroll wasn’t troubled by that. Traditional tablecloths can be unwieldy, she said, and shorter fabric creates a neat appearance even when the diners are seated.

No rules dictate the fabric has to cover the table precisely. Laying the fabric at an angle so some of the table top shows, layering two different kinds of fabric or scrunching the material a bit adds interest and texture, she said.

Think creatively

You don’t have to spend a bundle to create an elegant table. Carroll made glimmering place mats for a fairy party from squares of silvery wallpaper. Granted, she had a ready source: The paper came from a showroom at the design center that sells wallcoverings. But you could just as easily use leftover wallpaper scraps or sheets from a sample book.

Neither do you have to stick to elements that are traditionally associated with table settings. Carroll put her imaginative abilities to work in creating a tablescape in a steampunk theme for a Sherlock Holmes party.

The steampunk look celebrates 19th-century technology, so Carroll scattered the table with such unexpected items as gears, a trio of beakers and old machine parts. She covered the table in a brown cotton-polyester fabric that looked like satin, so the silky surface was juxtaposed with the rough industrial elements.

Keep it simple

Not every tablescape has to be over the top. Sometimes elegant pieces can speak for themselves.

Carroll set one table with simple sophistication — white plates with silver bands set on silver chargers, silver napkin rings, etched stemware and white roses in a mercury glass vase.

A golden glow came from tapers in silver candlesticks and votive candles in mercury glass holders.

It worked because Carroll set the table on a piece of grayish-beige fabric with a tone-on-tone design — just enough of a print to make the whole composition polished.

Change it up

Holiday decorations often need to last longer than a day. A Christmas tablescape, for example, might be in place for weeks, serving as a backdrop for both casual family breakfasts and elegant holiday dinners.

That doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with the same look. Carroll changed her holiday table from formal to relaxed just by swapping the traditional candlesticks for patio lanterns, changing the napkins from crisp linen to an everyday gold fabric and swapping the formal brass napkin rings for a more informal style.

Your morning cornflakes will never look so good.

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or You can also become a fan on Facebook at, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at