Elegant settings

With fruit, candles and a little whimsy, you can make tablescaping a tradition

  • Holiday tablescape by Sascha Wolhandler, with fruits, gourds and other elements of nature mixed in with eclectic tableware and crystal.
Holiday tablescape by Sascha Wolhandler, with fruits, gourds… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
November 13, 2010|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Tablescape. Is there a more perfect word to describe the collection of fruits, flowers and found objects that have taken the place of a conversation-stopping vase of posies in the middle of the holiday dining table?

What your mother called her "centerpiece" has been replaced by an eye-catching profusion that runs the length of the table, charming guests with sparkle or whimsy.

"I like to call it opulent simplicity," said Sascha Wolhandler of Sascha's 527 Cafe on Charles Street. One of four experts asked to put their best tablescape forward, she decorated a bountiful Thanksgiving table with foods her guests can nibble on.

"And you can never have too many candles. Everybody looks better in candlelight."

Whether you have bone china for 20 or pieces of grandma's old dishes and whether you are entertaining friends or the cast of "The Wiz," the holiday table is a chance to demonstrate the abundance of the season.

"Why do when you can over-do?" asked Andrew Zill of Feats Inc., an events planner who created a tablescape that showcased chef Jerry Edwards' two dishes for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve celebration.

And yes, those are antlers — painted red — among the greens in the chandelier and on the mantel, shed by maturing deer in Edwards' heavily wooded backyard.

Curt Decker isn't a pro — he just sets his table like one. The Washington lobbyist who owns a home on Baltimore's Read Street loves to entertain. He often hosts dinner parties for the cast of stage shows playing in town.

"I think they shouldn't leave Baltimore without seeing the inside of a Baltimore home," he said. "And who wants to be stuck in a hotel the whole time?"

Decker's holiday table sparkles like the gold in the pre-Columbian art on the walls around it.

"I like gold as a theme because it is a little more elegant than the traditional red and green," said Decker, attorney for the National Disability Rights Network. He used Mexican tin angels he found in a Santa Fe, N.M., flea market as the focal point of his Christmas tablescape.

"These are all things I have collected over the years. And I arrange them with things that aren't super-expensive, but they just come together in a special way."

And while his dinnerware and glassware have a spare elegance, the serving pieces that he picked up at antiques shops "are as gloppy with silver as they can be."

Blending the traditional with contemporary, and the formal with the whimsical, makes for a lively table that keeps guests engaged.

Just ask Anne Marie Berman, whose beautifully coordinated holiday table features leopard-patterned ribbon.

"I like traditional things," said the wedding planner, whose dinnerware was a gift from the grateful mother of a bride. "But I also like things that will catch the eye of my guests."

The dinnerware carries fond memories for Berman, as do the dishes Wolhandler uses to set her table. Most of the pieces came from mothers, grandmothers, aunts and great-aunts, and she thinks of each of those women when she sets her holiday table.

She says it doesn't matter that it's not a matching set, either. Creating a welcoming table is more about imagination and less about perfection.

"Nobody has a service for 12," said Wolhandler. "So don't worry about it. The most important thing at any dinner is the conversation and the warmth and the love and the generosity and the abundance."

"And anyway, holidays are about the past and memories," she said.

Gold chargers pull it all together on Wolhandler's table. "They used to be high-end," she said. "Now everybody has them, and you can get them at Target or Pier 1 for a few dollars."

Wolhandler cut branches for the twin vases that anchored her table from bushes in her Fells Point neighborhood. And she purchased a couple of dozen gourds for $2.

"You can't find art better than this," she said, holding one up for inspection.

While using fresh fruit is trendy and elegant, it also leaves more money to spend on other elements, like roses.

"It used to be that people would just buy a centerpiece and stick it in the middle of the table," said Berman, who had red roses and red mums stretching the length of her table, dotted with clementines and pomegranates.

"Now it is fashionable to have fruit. It lasts for a long time and adds color and texture."

There is no reason why the main dishes can't do double duty in the center of the table, and that's what Zill was going for when he placed Edwards' fish dishes on top of natural cork containers that look like tree bark.

"I always like to put the emphasis on the food," said Zill. "It is the most important part of the evening."

Even so, there are surprises in the tablescape to catch the eye of the guest.

"What I like is detail," said Edwards, owner of Chef's Expressions. "Everywhere you look, you see something, and that keeps you entertained all night."

It is a different kind of detail that will catch the eye of the attentive guest at Berman's holiday dinner.

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