featured image by kristen kilpatrick

phtography by molly winters

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. 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.

What’s the one rule you never break when it comes to setting the table?
Jacqueline: I always use linen napkins. And I always set place cards for dinners of 8 or more people. 

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.

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Comments (13)
  1. 1
    Rap Hardy November 25, 2015 at 10:46 am

    Loved the article, but I will have to break the rule of having all China pieces that work seamlessly together. Maybe next year!

  2. 2
    Kelly November 25, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Really useful for those who didn’t know how to set the table the royal way. I can speak for myself, had no idea there are so many types of fork. Amazing.

  3. 3
    Aria | Purrfectly Inspired November 27, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Love love love the article! It’s amazing there are so many different types of utensils…we have a set of silver has them all!

  4. 4
    Wardie Sanders November 28, 2015 at 9:33 am

    Love this article too! You might also enjoy reading the article in the New York Times, “The Art of the Thanksgiving Table” by Kim Severson.

    • Sarah K January 19, 2016 at 7:00 am

      Fabulous, Wardie! I’m originally from Johnsonville and carry on same in my son’s smaller gatherings here on Florida’s Space Coast. -Sarah K

  5. 5
    grammajenni February 21, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    Oh my goodness! I love this post! Thank you for sharing this! Beautiful!

  6. 6
    Sue Erbek March 16, 2016 at 5:02 am

    It’s a very useful article, thank you ! Could you please inform us about the brands of china and silver which is used in the photos?

  7. 7
    Kathy June 23, 2016 at 7:53 am

    Thank you. The table setting is beautiful. There are more serving pieces that I would like to know about. I pick up silver and silver plate at estate sales but not sure what they were used for.

    • Jennifer Rose Smith June 23, 2016 at 9:09 am

      That’s great, Kathy! There are so many treasures to be found at estate sales… While it’s fun and handy to know what different silver pieces were originally intended for, I’m also a total believer in using them however they work best for you today. You can get creative!

  8. 8
    Ellen Greer August 30, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    I set with all the family silver..And china….monogrammed table cloths and napkins..

  9. 9
    jeanne illenye September 21, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    YES, OF COURSE!!! In the formal dining room, the more elaborate the better with antique Victorian sterling flatware all mismatched as they were collected individually over decades, Bavarian hand painted china, etched crystal and colored glassware, antique damask or lace napkins and tablecloths, my favorite being an elaborately decorated lace cloth depicting angels, as well as silver figural napkin rings and porcelain placecard holders with placecards designed from my classical oil paintings, candlelight in silver candlesticks surrounded by sconces of classical etched glass, a floral centerpiece with statues of birds or other ornaments on the tablescape as well as ribbons entwined through the crystal chandelier and bouquets of flowers tied with long ribbons on the back of each chair. For everyday it’s all about rustic colonial with antique transferware or game plates with pewter chargers in the kitchen on a rustic pine table with black painted Windsor chairs and Hitchcock chairs.

  10. 10
    Barbara Warner August 31, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    I do like to use my french white dinnerware to show off the food. I love adding color to my dinners – asparagus spears w/lemon zest, glazed carrots, beets, etc. with a turkey/dressing/mashed potato entree. I can use floral table cloths or holiday table cloths with my white dishes. I love silver, so I use my best and add flowers as a centerpiece in a silver pitcher.