Table Etiquette and Decor

Elise de Wolfe
“With her shrill instruction that plates should be ‘hot, hot, hot’ and centerpieces ‘low, low, low,’ decorator Elise de Wolfe came off slightly tamer than her usual avant-garde self. Never fear. Unmentioned were the details of the practices she preached, like the radical table she set in 1934: Carved chunks of rock crystal on a silver lamé tablecloth. In the history of the American centerpiece, Elise's glamorous rocks and lamé landmark was halfway between the follies of the Victorians and the equally silly indulgences of the 1960s. Every decade in this century has had its own ephemeral centerpiece style, inspired by a sometimes unlikely grab bag of sources, from clothing to window displays, from current events to cartoons.

Sturdily conservative Victorians favored variations on the formula of epergne, candlesticks, vases, and garlands. These objects were symmetrically laid out over the entire table with the precision of a golf course. Fodder for the standard flower arrangement included ferns, irises, roses, carnations, tulips, violets, and daisies. Nothing too violently colored — or strong smelling — became a table decoration before 1914, apparently with good reason. ‘I shivered through a whole meal where blue plates swore at a raw-green vase holding purple asters,’ confessed one sensitive reader to Good Housekeeping in1909.
“She suggested one need not even have a matching set of dining-room chairs, so it stands to reason she'd have been open to mis-matched plates, silver and beverage ware, as long as they too, complemented one another.” 
In The House in Good Taste, Elise de Wolfe, argued for plainer, brighter, simpler, yet more refined homes. De Wolfe liked items in a room to complement one another, but did not believe every piece had to match. She suggested one need not even have a matching set of dining-room chairs, so it stands to reason she'd have been open to mis-matched plates, silver and beverage ware, as long as they too, complemented one another.

More adventurous was the school of the fantastical centerpiece, which flourished well into the early 1900s. Although they might appear to be derivative of a kiddie birthday party, these goofy prop-laden tableaux we're for adults only — paper lanterns, fans, parasols, birchbark canoes, baskets and toy bunnies ranked as decorations. Theme centerpieces recognized timely topics, such as the flight of a dirigeable or women's suffrage. Centerpieces also celebrated the hostess's skills with flowers, scissors, and ice pick, as many of the items were handmade.

Several examples described in The Table, a 1904 decorating guide, helped the hostess create a cooling atmosphere for a summer meal. One centerpiece was built around a big block of ice, hollowed out to hold a bowl of water and live goldfish. Evergreen sprigs might be strewn on the table and newspaper clippings about blizzards pasted on the place cards. Harper's Bazaar tried to stem this ornamental rambunctiousness in 1910, scolding, ‘There is such a thing as carrying originality beyond the limits of good taste, forgetting the beautiful and the appropriate in our desire for the unusual.’

By the early 1920s the magazine had its way. Fashionable hostesses abandoned arts and crafts projects for store-bought knickknacks, which reigned over tables for decades. China birds, cupids, Pierrots and nymphs were de rigueur. In the 1930s, surrealism and Walt Disney's new cartoons triggered a fresh round of a knickknack mania. Elegant, as well as silly objects (seashells, polar bear figurines) were ‘floated’ on mirror glass as comic conversation pieces.

While a timid bouquet and Georgian silver bowls still held a hallowed place on some tables, they were regarded as unutterably dull by the truly Chic 1930s hostess. Her mission was to conjure up a centerpiece that was shockingly original. Table setting contests across the country showcased this creativity. Women had to hustle (or hallucinate) to equal the tin pan extravaganza dreamed up by a Chicago clubwoman in 1930. On a cream satin tablecloth, she topped cookie sheets with angel food cake pans filled with cattails and kitchen molds heaped with pineapples, kumquats, and silver painted boxwood. In 1936, House & Garden met her effort more than halfway, with a centerpiece of bristly coral, prickly pears, pomegranates, pineapples, and seashells. Cecil Beaton used the same type of hilariously bizarre prop juxtapositions in his fashion photographs for Vogue.

Meanwhile, the modern mode caused a centerpiece casualty — the bouquet lost its cachet. It was replaced by a lonely white orchid or gardenia floating in a glass bowl. An equally cold-blooded glass-and-glitter scenario was engineered by industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague in 1933: a mirrored bowl and crystal prisms deployed amid black plates on a mirrored table.

Faced with wartime privations in the forties, even decorators like Dorothy Draper, who enjoyed expensive larger-than-life effects suggested thrift shops as a source for frugal table ornaments. With a nod to the victory garden, the humble vegetable was put to work, occasionally teamed with fruit or flowers. Typical table ornaments: baby carrots on a bed of lava rocks and yellow pottery, candles mixed with cabbages and peppers, and calla lilies in a wooden chopping bowl. A charmless utilitarian item, the lazy Susan, was now dignified as a ‘centerpiece.’

Although edible decorations continued to play a starring role after the war, they lost their stagey exaggeration in the 1950s. That decade stands as the stylistic low point in the history of the centerpiece. Even House & Garden lost its courage, putting grocery-laden arrangements in the spotlight: a melon shell stuffed with berries, tiers of nuts and mints, a pedestrian bowl of salad or basket of bread.

The table was roused from its stupor in the sixties by a number of innovations. First, towering topiary-like arrangements: everything from shrimp to pea pods was toothpicked to florist's foam, which had just been introduced. Another standard was the faux naif style, resurrected in the eighties. Mushrooms and ferns were presented in a silver basket, turnips piled in a Wedgewood bowl, stalks of rhubarb found with velvet ribbon. By mid-decade personal collectibles made for self-conscious tables. The fashion designer, Arnold Scaasi philosophized that the dining table, ‘where we spend only an hour or two can better afford to be far-out-' than anything else we live with.’ True to his word, Scaasi dished up a visual feast of rare shells, ivory utensils, a bell jar of butterflies, and brass objects squeezed in with jade cups and flowered plates.

The casual lifestyle promoted by the counterculture made the dining room — as well as the table itself — passé. Guests were seated at multiple small tables or on floor cushions. Centerpieces shrank to fit — or disappeared altogether. Those that survived had a handmade, throwaway style. Society, and society's dropouts alike, created happening tables with painted plastic poppies, bread sculpture, peacock feathers, handicraft candles, and blinking lights. For those so inclined, drug paraphernalia and ashtrays were practical accoutrements.

After this flower child glory, entertaining took a conservative turn: by 1973 the stylish turned to Ultrasuede tablecloths. Despite the example of Halston — as well as minimalist art and nouvelle cuisine, - centerpieces never took on a spare elegance. Hostesses in the seventies remained enthralled with the sixties passion for clusters of esoteric objects. For its readers, Vogue showed showed tables loaded with ivory candlesticks, tortoise shell cigarette boxes, mother-of-pearl ashtrays, and lacquered Chinese boxes. The flip side was the au naturel look: flowering quince branches shoved into a copper milk can, dwarf spruce trees, and garden variety plants in terra-cotta pots spilling soil onto the table.

Persisting into the eighties was the passion for a table littered with small precious objects. However, Judith Price, owner of Avenue magazine, had a fresher take on the decade's outlook. For a power breakfast, Price plunked down three video monitors as a centerpiece. On a grander scale, were the table settings professional "events designers" concocted for lavish benefits and parties. The decorations at a masked ball for gossip columnist, Suzy, held at the Plaza Hotel in 1985, epitomized eighties excess. Each table sprouted a lamé tree trunk drooping with crystal palm fronds, silver grapevines, moss, and orchids.

While most ornaments rate only as period pieces, Coco Chanel can be credited with an innovation that transcended fashion. At a dinner party sometime in the thirties, she made an alarm clock the centerpiece to claim her fair share of talk time against another loquacious guest, Salvador Dali. Chanel's clock solved two of the hostess's perennial problems: decoration and conversation. A centerpiece has no higher mission.” –  –by Writer, Jody Shields


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