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6 Tips on Styling Your Festive Table Using Antiques

Stylist Laura Sawyer shares her tips for styling a festive table this holiday season, and asks the experts how best to mix antiques with modern pieces for a look that’s sure to get conversation flowing

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor,” said Charles Dickens. It’s worth keeping these wise words in mind when designing your festive table—this party season, why not take your cherished antiques out of their display cabinets and bring them to the table in an opulent and playful way. While they might sometimes be seen as too serious to be used every day or considered as investment pieces that should be for display only, if used in unexpected combinations the end result can be wonderful.

1. First, Encourage A Relaxed Vibe Around the Dinner Table

Table setting by Pinto Interior Design
Pinto Interior Design suggests mixing patterns with plain decorative items when it comes to styling your festive table.

The first thing to consider when planning your festive look is the mood you want to create around your dinner table. A meal with elements plated and served from the kitchen will give a formal feel, so why not try presenting all of the dishes on the table. It is the epitome of the festive season; delightfully traditional, informal, and full of festive cheer.

Another reason to serve a banquet of food on the table for everyone to dig into is because it gives more styling opportunities. With this approach you will need a tureen for soup, a serving dish for the vegetables, and an eye-catching carafe for the wine. Taryn Tavella, associate editor of lifestyle and interiors at WGSN, tells us: “This party season we’re seeing a trend for informal entertaining and casual dining habits with styling direction that encourages a relaxed setting.”

2. Mix and Match Styles for A Modern Look

Flower-themed table setting by Pinto Interior Design
If you’re starting with a plain background, pair bright flowers with bold colors and intricately designed china for clashing look that’s utterly contemporary.

When planning a look, start by pulling out any pieces that you already own and want to incorporate. Mixing and matching tableware that references a range of eras is a key trend for table dressing, so make use of any heirlooms and other pieces you already have in your collection. “This taps into the growing trend for nostalgic aesthetics, which has historical references infused throughout,” says Tavella.

Steve Wolf from Bardith in New York City is a leading dealer in 18th- and 19th-century porcelain and pottery. He recommends mixing contrasting periods. “The sleek lines of Mid-century Modern and contemporary art work well with highly gilded English Imari designs,” he says. Do remember, however, to imagine the food on the plate, as some styles are attractive with food on them, while others would be better suited to being displayed in a cabinet.”

3. Set the Tone with Your Tableware

Gold basin in Christie's sale
A bold choice of centerpiece can really establish your dinner-party style. This antique basin is part of the Christie’s The Exceptional Sale, which takes place in Paris on November 27, 2019.

If you already have dinner services to choose from, do as famed host David Rockefeller used to do. Each night before a dinner party he would plan the meal with his staff and then go to his basement where he stored his incredible collection of dinner services. He would handpick the tableware to suite the personalities of the guests attending that evening, hoping to encourage discussion. Bliss Summers, Vice President of Decorative Arts at Christie’s New York, describes some of the folklore surrounding the legendary party giver. “He was known to say that ‘If the conversation suddenly dried up, you could always revert to the dinner service.’” Summers adds that buying tableware at auction is a great way to gain insight into the personality that put together the collection, as well as feeling as if you can inherit some of their hosting prowess just by owning their pieces.

4. Work to A Color Palette

Gold and green-themed table setting by Pinto Interior Design
Red and green might be the obvious choice for festive table styling, but Pinto Interior Design advises playing around with greens, blues, and golds to make a more contemporary statement.

Having chosen the mood of your gathering and selected the pieces from your collection, you now want to start planning how to pull a look together. Start with the color palette. A theme may be evolving naturally through the items you’ve selected for your table, but if not, you can always draw on the traditional seasonal colors of red and green that work well together. Alternatively, try something slightly different and incorporate some rich blues—a key color for the 2019 festive season. Try using a variety of shades such as deep midnight, aquamarine, and cerulean. Start with dark tones as a base and add lighter shades to lift the overall look, as this will give it that rich and opulent feel.

5. Think About Texture and Light

Antique candlesticks for auction at Christie's
This pair of candlesticks are made from chiseled and gilt bronze and Meissen porcelain of the 18th century. On sale at Christie’s Paris on November 28, 2019.

You’ll now want to think about textures and light. Mixing textures will add to that feeling of opulence. Candles are a must for an evening meal, and you can source playful candelabras at Christie’s with conversational details such as animals or figures. Glassware and crystal will of course catch the light of the candles beautifully, adding to that festive twinkle, and planning a special meal gives you a great reason to have your silverware polished.

Your tablecloth and napkins will not only add important texture, but you can use them to incorporate the key colors from your pallet as well as patterns to complement your plates and serveware. A great way to add opulence and color is by using velvet ribbons tied beautifully around napkins, or if you’re going for antique linens, why not use a bespoke monogramming company to embroider your guest’s initials as a keepsake. Linda Pinto, head of Cabinet Pinto Interior Design, also offers some good advice: “If the plates are very colorful or busy, use a simple tablecloth, and vice versa.”

6. Don’t Forget the Detail

Festive table setting by Pinto Interior Design
Bold choices pay off when it comes to decorating a festive table, and bring joy to all those who gather round it.

Lastly let’s add those all-important finishing touches to really bring your table to life. Think abundance; this is the season for it. Try hand-selecting an antique favor for each of your guests to use as a place card holder. Source a collection of beautiful antique vases and fill them with flowers and foliage. “I like to take objects from the house, like small statues and use them as centerpieces,” says Pinto. “This always makes a very joyful table.”

As Wolf says, “the important thing is to trust your instincts.” When decorating your festive table with antiques this year, go with your heart; be playful with your choice of color, and be bold by layering not only textures, patterns, and designs, but also sound, smell, touch, and taste. Most of all, give the gift of good humor and laughter.

There are still sales to take advantage of this year as you plan your festive table. The David Little Collection of Early English Silver, December 3, 2019; Un Hôtel Particulier Genéve: Architecture et Décor par François-Joseph Graf, November 27, 2019; The Exceptional Sale, Paris, November 27, 2019; and The Collector: Le Goût Français, November 28, 2019.