It seems that our generation is most decidedly caught in a love affair with the “casual modern” tabletop (Heath Ceramics, anyone?) But that doesn’t mean we at Team CS don’t still have a weak spot for more traditional china and flatware, too. (Some members of our team seem to have it worse than others…. What do you mean I don’t need this entire vintage set of Herend Chinese Bouquet on eBay?) But no matter the size of the collection, the holidays are often just the excuse we need to break out those extra special pieces. It could be a mix of collected china or a cherished set of heirloom silver, but these formal items seem to demand some protocol. And when it comes to setting a formal table, in this casual day and age it’s not uncommon for us to find ourselves questioning, wait — is this right? This year we decided to skip the guessing game and get some straight answers from someone in the know. Our expert Jacqueline Kotts is the owner of Mrs. John L. Strong, the historic paperie of choice for New York society women. When she’s not busy running the Madison Avenue shop known for it’s mix of wit and propriety, Jacqeuline is known for hosting elegant Manhattan dinner parties with effortless charm. We caught up with Jacqueline to talk about how to set a modern formal table and the best ways to incorporate paper products into a gorgeous place setting. Répondez, s’il vous plaît!
First off, we adore your paper products. They’re so whimsical and fun! And yet, this still feels like a classic brand with plenty of history… So, who is (or was) Mrs. John L. Strong?
Jacqueline: Mrs. John L. Strong’s husband was a banker in New York in the 1920’s, whose livelihood was impacted as a result of the Great Depression. To help support her family, Mrs. John L. Strong (her first name was Flora, but she always used the more formal “Mrs. John L. Strong”) began selling hand-engraved stationery to the society brides and ladies who would visit her sisters trousseau shop on Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Strong understood the balance between formality and expressing your own unique personality, which resulted in a lot of her designs having a more playful aesthetic. Over time, Mrs. Strong cultivated a formidable client list of very wealthy families and celebrities who favored her designs. We still remain committed to maintaining this same sense of balance today.
How do paper products play into a great place setting?
Jacqueline: I believe that seated dinners with 8 or more guests really require pre-assigned seating and place cards. I especially love using our “You are seated next to” place cards, which almost makes figuring out everyone’s place at the table more of a fun game than a formal affair. It definitely helps to break the ice. Plus, I take the somewhat traditional opinion that the table should be set boy-girl-boy-girl and that couples should always be broken up. This tends to intermingle the table better and makes for more interesting conversation. I also think that menu cards can really elevate a dinner party and play into the overall theme and atmosphere. It is nice to know what you are being served, especially in situations where the meal includes multiple courses or food and wine pairings that guests may be interested in noting for their reference.
Is there a right or wrong way to set a table these days?
Jacqueline: In general, I think the most important part of setting a table, aside from making sure that there is a proper plates, glasses and utensils for all of the dishes you will be serving, is to keep the feel of the table in line with the feel of the gathering. For example, if you’re inviting people over for a more formal dinner, break out the more formal china and silver and take the extra time to create some lovely centerpieces for the table. The table setting really helps to create a mood and gets all the guests extra excited for the meal to come.
Design wise, what makes for a great tablescape?
Jacqueline: First of all, flowers are a must! For flowers, go down to your local shop and pick out something seasonal, there’s no need to go anywhere particularly fancy. I personally always buy several prearranged bouquets because I am horrible at arranging flowers and they never come out the way I envisioned! Other than flowers, I always include unscented candles in my tablescape. I love using various types and sizes of crystal or glass candle lanterns for this — turn down the lights to create an intimate atmosphere.
From there I like to add some other small trinkets to make my tablescape unique. For example, I pull out these sterling pheasants that my mother always used growing up and passed down to me. If you don’t have anything like that, I recommend going down to the local flea market. In New York, I favor the East 67th Street Market as it is near our offices but if you’re on the West side, Greenflea is equally appealing. If you’re feeling more daring, the Hell’s Kitchen market is amazing but very busy and crazed.
Do you like to mix and match china, or keep it more classic?
Jacqueline: I like to thoughtfully mix and match my china. My favorite pairings are ones that work together seamlessly so that it isn’t obvious to the average partygoer that the pieces were from different patterns. I also like incorporating crystal in complementary colors to the place setting. For example, my china pattern has pink and blue accent colors in the designs and I love the way it looks when it’s paired with a blue wine glass to help bring out the blue in the pattern.
Favorite utensil to use (and why):
Jacqueline: I love a good ice cream fork. They’re really fun and unusual and a sure conversation starter.
What makes the perfect hostess gift?
Jacqueline: A hostess gift is a token of your appreciation for your host. Something that reminds you of them or the gathering is always appreciated. A lovely candle or one of our desk calendars always make a great host/hostess gift.
What’s the most important etiquette rule for a dinner guest to follow?
Jacqueline: Don’t show up really late! If the hostess has a dinner planned and timed, and a guest shows up especially late, it throws everything off. If for some reason you can no longer make it, let the hostess know with as much advance notice as possible.
Thank you, Jacqueline, for sharing your expertise. We will happily take these tips with us into the holiday season! Oh, and you can expect us to be on time.
photographed by molly winters