The countdown has begun: Only a precious few days remain before the holiday entertaining season begins. For some of you, the impending deadline means sprucing up your neglected dining room, scrambling to find enough seating and silverware, sculpting your centerpiece and, of course, planning your menu. Well, don't panic. The only thing more fun than decorating and entertaining is the intersection of the two — what you could call decor-taining.
To decor-tain successfully, start with the basics: a table, chairs and lighting. I chose an unfussy modern table of white lacquer. It always looks as clean and crisp as a white linen tablecloth, but all you have to do is wipe it down — no staining and no ironing required. My table seats a maximum of 10 guests, which, to me, is an optimal size because you can have three conversations going or just one. (If you have more than 10 guests, consider some temporary furniture.) You also don't want your dining table to take over the room. A good rule of thumb is that the footprint of your dining table should be no more than a third of the floor's total space — you want room for people and chairs.
As for your chairs, they need to be not only comfortable, but also interesting. For me, that means chairs that do not match the table. Instead, mix things up with contrasting colors and materials. Dark wood chairs? Pair them with a marble-topped table. Antique mahogany table? Add a set of modern white-frame chairs.
For my dining room, I paired 1920s French red leather upholstered chairs with my modern table. If you want a chic dining room, you have to blend styles and finishes: old with new, light with dark, slick with aged.
Whatever you do, never underestimate the importance of lighting. You should take your cue from your favorite restaurant and keep the lights low. If you have several light sources, keep each at a flicker (which might require installing dimmers). There should be enough illumination to help you get around and to see your food, but not so much that the light is harsh and unflattering. I always include candles in the lighting mix — tapers, votives or pillars — to add a little ambiance.
Once these three basic elements are in place, then it's time to accessorize with plates, glassware, silver, centerpieces, napkins and more. But just like putting together an outfit, there is such a thing as too much.
Here are my top 10 decor-taining tips to keep your table in check:
1. Set your table one to two nights early. This also means getting out all of the serving pieces you need. I like to put sticky notes on each platter and bowl so I know what goes where.
2. Have an extra folding table and some folding chairs on hand in case your guest list grows. I ordered the Folding Party Table ($159) and tablecloth (I like the simple burlap one because it goes with everything and works for every season: $90) and the Louis Folding Chairs ($99 each) from Ballard Designs (ballarddesigns.com). They are comfortable and stylish — it's hard to believe they are folding chairs.
3. Take the time to arrange your seating plan beforehand to avoid confusion or awkward seating arrangements.
4. Keep your centerpiece low enough so that when you sit at the table you can see the person across from you. Centerpieces don't have to be million-dollar bouquets. Keep them inexpensive, simple and long-lasting. Ideas: Fill a bowl or glass compote with clementines (available at this time of year at just about any grocery store). Not only will the citrus fruit last more than a week, but they also can become part of the meal. Group several similar-colored vases and vessels in different shapes and sizes to make a sculptural centerpiece. Cut any single variety of flowers or leaves and mass them together in a vase. My preference is to stick to one variety and color of flower and always buy three times more than you think you need. Two of my favorites: carnations and magnolia leaves.
5. Invest in cloth napkins. You do laundry often anyway, so what's a few more cloth squares to throw in the wash? Just make sure you spray them with stain remover once you clear the table — then you don't have to worry about washing them right away.
6. Mix and match china. Gone are the days of the five-piece place setting. It's so much more interesting to layer your grandmother's china with your everyday pieces (not to mention more practical). I use dishwasher-safe plates for dinner and fancier antique plates for dessert, mostly because the latter are easier to hand wash. Also, think about varying patterns, textures and materials. Wood, china and glass plates, when mixed together, give a table visual interest. This means varying glassware, too. I often set the table with fanciful stemmed Juliska wine glasses alongside my Diod tumblers from Ikea — the mix is unexpected and fresh.
7. Odd-numbered groupings usually look better than even. For example, three centerpieces on a long table look better than four, and seven votives look better than six.
8. If you are serving a buffet, vary the height and shape of your serving dishes. Nothing makes a buffet look more unattractive than putting all of the food at the same height and in the same size bowl or platter. If you don't have a footed cake stand or footed compote, you can always elevate a plate by putting it on top of a glass cylinder vase.
9. Add whimsy. I like to put a little party favor at each place setting. I have used such treats as a frosted cookie from Eleni's New York, chic paperbacks from Penguin Classics and picture frames with a photo of the guest.
10. Relax and have fun. Decor-taining is about having things look good. But more important, it's about spending time with friends and family. Every table will look beautiful when it's surrounded by smiling faces.
Mayhew, a "Today" show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of "Flip! for Decorating."