I recently sat down with Karen Morava, the adorable and energetic owner of Careful Peach Boutique in Oak Park, to talk about the art and science of setting a beautiful table. I confessed to her that even though I feel confident in my abilities as a decorator, setting a formal table for guests can sometimes leave me feeling a bit, well, overwhelmed.

“Don’t be overwhelmed,” says Karen. “You, like most people, already have the necessary elements around your home to set a great table. “  She says that setting a table is much like designing a room. “First, pick a color.” For example, choose a simple black and white theme for a dinner with girlfriends. Or if the dinner is for a special occasion such as Thanksgiving or an anniversary, use a silver theme. The event will set the tone for the dinner and help you select a color. The trick is to keep the color theme simple: that is what helps keep the table elegant.

So where does one actually begin setting the table? “Start with the linens, “ says Karen. Does that mean placemats and a runner, or should one use a tablecloth? “It depends on the condition of your table” she says. “If you have a beautiful wood table in excellent condition, don’t cover it up. Use a runner instead.“ She adds ” Placemats with a runner can be just as formal as a tablecloth; it all depends on the fabric.”

It can also be more cost effective to use a runner. For example, Karen sells a Deauville table runner that is made from 100% Belgium linen. It is just as elegant as the divine Le Jacquard Francais tablecloths that she sells but it is a fraction of the cost.

Let’s get back to that girlfriends dinner. Karen says that having girlfriends over should be all about fun conversation, so it is important not to overload the table or impede dialogue with big centerpieces. Flower arrangements should never so tall that your guests cannot see the people sitting across from them. If you do have a tall floral arrangement, Karen says have it on the table when the guests arrive but then move it to a sideboard once everyone sits down to dinner. The arrangement still gets enjoyed without it being in the way.

Karen says the same rule applies to candles: either use votives or else make sure that the candleholders are tall enough so that the flames from the candles are above eye level. If the flames are directly at eye level, guests will need to strain around them to see.

Regardless whether you use votives or candlesticks, have the candles lit when guests arrive, says Karen. It sets an elegant tone for the party and makes guests feel special the moment they arrive. And, as with the case of the large flower arrangement, if your candlesticks are too tall once guests sit down, blow out the candles and move them to a sideboard.

Here Karen pauses to emphasize an important point: unless you’re having a buffet, have the table set before guests arrive. “The beauty of the table and the effort that you made to have everything ready prior to guests arriving really makes people feel appreciated and welcome, “she says.

Next we come to napkins. I confess to Karen that I am napkin folding challenged. Karen, in her energetic manner, immediately begins to think about offering a napkin folding class. I tell her I would be the first to sign up.

“The easiest thing to do is to use beautiful napkin rings for a finished look: there’s no need to fold the napkin, and the rings give a polished presence to the table, “ she says.

Karen is full of wonderful, easy ideas like this. Another one is “If you don’t have napkin rings, or you just want try something new and fun, use twine. Just tie a little twine around a rolled napkin. Roll it around about three times, and then before you tie it, take some card stock, write your guest’s name on it, hole punch it, and tie into the twine.” Simple yet elegant.

Another of her great napkin ideas is to simply fold the napkin and place it vertically under the plate with its edges peeking out on either side.  Again, it’s a simple thing yet adds a glamorous touch.

While we’re on the subject of napkins, I have to ask Karen: does she ever use paper?

“Cloth. Always use cloth.” But what about the argument that using cloth  – and by washing them one wastes water and puts chemicals into the environment – is worse than using paper napkins? Not true, she says. “I learned this one from Oprah: washing your napkins is better for the environment than wasting paper, every time.”

She also adds a great tip: if it’s just her and her family, they will reuse the cloth napkins. Most dinner napkins are large enough that you really only use one side, so fold over the used side and use the clean side for the next meal. She adds however, do not do this with guests! Guests should always have a freshly laundered napkin.

Now we move on to the subject of china. Most of us have white china. So what can we do to dress them up? Karen says to place small plants like miniature violets or ferns in clay pots on each plate. “You can pick them up inexpensively from any gardening center. Guests then have a small gift to take home after the meal. “  She adds that you can take the same twine mentioned earlier and use with a placard to wrap around the pot base.

Most of us inherit at least a few pieces of china from our mothers or grandmothers. They can look a bit dated and old fashioned when used in a more contemporary home setting. To solve this problem, Karen encourages people to mix and match newer pieces with the inherited ones for an updated look. Like the current decorating trend to use mismatched dining room chairs or use different fabrics for chair seats and backings, she says one can mix contemporary pieces with more traditional ones for a polished look. Karen suggests that people come in and pick up a few pieces from the Juliska line that she carries. Adding just a few key pieces can freshen the look of a stuffy china set and help you to really make it your own. Side note: Karen will be hosting a Juliska event in November where you can purchase different pieces from the line. I will also attend this event: I wanted one of everything in the beautiful Juliska line!

So what else is a trend in table setting? “People are moving to a more European, casual style of eating,” says Karen. “The table is still set beautifully, but the elements of the table are more casual.  Linens have become more contemporary. “ Some of the table linen lines that she carries are asymmetrical in design, making them better suited for the contemporary designs that a lot of homes have today.

Finally we come to flatware. I ask Karen what is the proper way to set up flatware around the plate. She says you start from the outside and work your way in. So starting to the left of the plate, the appetizer fork is farthest from the plate. Next to that and closest to the plate comes the dinner fork. To the right and closest to the plate is the knife, with the blade facing toward the plate. Next to the knife comes the spoon. The dessert spoon should be placed at the top of the plate, horizontally.

Karen’s final words of advice? “Less is more is the way to set your table. Rather than using a lot of clutter, be creative. Magazines are a great resource for table setting ideas.”  Karen also adds “If you buy the very best you can afford you will be able to enjoy it forever.” So invest a bit in your linens, your plates, and your dinnerware. She says this philosophy is the sole reason she opened CarefulPeach.

Lastly I ask Karen: is there anything that should not go on the table? “Anything in a bottle!” she says emphatically. “Take all your condiments and put them in little bowls. No ketchup bottles on the table please!” 

If you don’t have any condiment bowls, no worries. Get yourselves to Careful Peach. Karen sells lots of beautiful ones!

CarefulPeach Boutique: 1024 North Boulevard, Oak Park IL 60301 (708) 383-3066. www.carefulpeach.com

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Lexi Nielsen

Lexi is an interior decorator living in Oak Park. Her projects range from simple color consultations to gut rehabs. She fully appreciates that not everyone salivates at the thought of shopping for home...

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