9 Tips for Beautiful Tables

Our photo stylist Jan Gautro shares her secrets for creating memorable tables.

Table setting

Lee Harrelson

9 Tips for Beautiful Tables

We asked Cooking Light photo stylist Jan Gautro to pick out some of her favorite "tablescapes" from past photo shoots and share her best styling secrets. Whether you're planning an autumn retreat, a tapas party, or an elegant holiday buffet, you can use Jan's tips to create a memorable table setting that you and your guests will enjoy.

Rustic French country style can be surprisingly easy to recreate, says Jan.

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Check Your Colors

Rustic French country style can be surprisingly easy to recreate, Jan says. Her top three tips for a French feel:

•  Choose your colors wisely. Red, white and blue work very well with French décor, since these are the three colors of their national flag.

•  Use simple linens with clean lines. Creamy or white linens with a single stripe add a great French feel to your table.

•  Pick bright blooms. "Sunflowers just say France," Jan says.

Bright colors like orange, blue, and red bring an exotic feel to any table.

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Use Color and Candles

Bright colors like orange, blue, and red bring an exotic feel to any table. "There had to be orange," Jan says of this East Indian setting. Vibrant flowers will also do the trick. Jan searched for something that matched her color scheme instead of a specific kind of flower. Steer clear of large, ornate flower arrangements as centerpieces.

•  Avoid large arrangements. They can impede your ability to see people across the table.

•  Use candles to add height. When you have flat plates and low bowls, you need something to move your eye upward.

The fewer rules, the better, because then you can really get creative.

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Forget About Rules

"There are not a lot of rules with creating tablescapes," Jan says. "If you like it, use it. The fewer rules, the better, because then you can really get creative."

•  Keep it simple. Fresh spring flowers in a low vase or dish create a great centerpiece for spring, when colors begin to peak.

•  Go with a theme. Easter baskets can be a good focal point for your table too, Gautro says, since they're easy to see through.

•  Be whimsical. Try placing a rabbit or other Easter token in a low bowl for a playful touch.

Use a garland to bring green to the table, which is a great source of color, as well as a conversation starter.

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Improvise

While holiday meals tend to be fancy, don’t worry about buying the latest settings or silverware. "Think about the stories behind hand-me-downs," Jan says. "The more they've been used, the more character they have. It just shows how much they've been loved."

•  Consider color. Green and red are essential for a traditional Christmas table setting.

•  Highlight with white. White works as a natural accent. Plus, "it just makes food look good," Jan says.

•  Use fresh greenery. Garlands enliven a table with texture and color. You can usually find something pretty in your garden, and they make a great conversation starter.

Improvise by scavenging for other natural decorations, such as acorns, pumpkins, and bright autumn leaves.

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Look to Your Garden

Rich autumnal hues accentuate the season's warmth, while simple styling reflects a relaxed gathering. "Match your colors to your season, and make do with what you have," Gautro says.

•  Use seasonal cuttings. Snip grape leaves or other greenery for the center of the table.

•  Strive for simplicity. Place a single, hand-picked flower in a drinking glass―a quick and easy way to bring a splash of color to each place setting.

•  Improvise. Go scavenging in the yard for other natural decorations, such as acorns, pumpkins, and bright autumn leaves.

If your table top has a lot of watermarks, scratches, or other "flaws," consider runners.

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Show Off Your Table

Earthy tones create a cozy color scheme for a fall cabin retreat, and a simple wooden table can shine through with this palette. "It's nice to see some of the wood on your table," Gautro says. Tables, like hand-me down silver or special-occasion platters, have stories to tell, and imperfections only add to the richness of the table's character.

•  Use runners. If your table top has a lot of watermarks, scratches, or other "flaws," you'll make them less noticeable.

•  Layer. If you need more coverage than runners can offer, consider a tablecloth with a runner over it. Layering adds dimension.

Let the food be your focal point.

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Focus on Food

Buffets showcase a wide assortment of food, so tables need little adornment. Forget about linens and centerpieces―let the food be your focal point.

  Move chairs. Pulling them out of the way will reduce traffic jams around the buffet.

•  Place silverware at the end of the line. Wrap utensils in linens for ease and elegance. That way, guests won't have to juggle utensils as they're filling their plates.

Use classic dishes. Classic pewter serving dishes and simple trays with green trim bring a touch of elegance to this holiday table.

Use unique pieces. The bright red candle in the center of the table, encased in a curlicue iron holder is one of Gautro's favorite details of this Old-Madrid inspired tapas table.

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Use Unique Pieces

Since Spanish dinners typically take place in the late evening―restaurants don’t begin filling up until 10:30 or 11 p.m.―candles are a perfect accent for your tapas table. Bright red and mustard yellow give a nod to the Spanish flag.

Use unique pieces. The bright red candle in the center of the table encased in a curlicue iron holder is one of Jan's favorite details of this Old Madrid-inspired tapas table.

•  Stick to small plates. When serving tapas, smaller plates suit the portions, and make room for a greater amount of dishes without cluttering the table.

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