The Art of Table Setting (circa 1968)
Updated: Aug 4
The greatest gift ever has entered my life. Friends, let me introduce you to the most intelligently written and thought-provoking book I have ever had the good fortune to hold between my hands: New Trends in Table Settings... and Period Designs, Too by the one-and-only Mrs. Lucy Staley.
Tony, my dear friend and colleague (and co-collaborator on a soon-to-be YouTube runaway hit - we haven't started this yet. Details are forthcoming), gave me this book after he spotted it in his local library's "no one is checking this book out, we might as well sell it for 50 cents" pile. He said he immediately thought of me, which I can only take as a giant compliment. I would like to share with you some of the inspired - and inspiring - table settings that Mrs. Staley has dreamed up specifically for this book, and I would like to share with you some of the turns of phrase that I found particularly touching.
"When little Jane arranges her miniature dishes on a low table, pours out make-believe tea, and coaxes her dolls to, 'have another delicious jam sandwich,' she is responding to the instinctive feminine urge to play hostess, a role she will re-enact endlessly in later years.... As hostess, she is practicing a custom ageless in inception and limitless in opportunity for self expression."
Yes. Yes yes. This book is pure gold. Let us move on to the colored photos of Mrs. Lucy Staley's tablescaping.
This is a table setting for a midnight supper. I will definitely be borrowing this idea. I have many questions about the format, however. Do you invite your guests to arrive at 11PM and treat the whole affair as a normal dinner at a funny time? Or do you invite them at 7PM as usual and just do your best to stall for five hours? Perhaps you don't start cooking until the arrive because you spent the entire day creating custom centerpieces for the midnight dinner table setting?
Indeed, Lucy Staley invites her hostesses-in-training to design and create all of the centerpieces they need to compliment the overall feel of the table setting. She even gives you tips on how to work with resin in the book. She encourages her readers with the following: "The finest and most costly appointments are not in themselves a guarantee of a beautiful table," and "If the table is a jumble of unrelated objects vying with each other for attention rather than a unified whole, it each says, 'Look at me and how fine I am,' the overall effect is physically disturbing."
Simple color, she reminds us, is a powerful design element. Color, and intricate resin centerpieces that you sculpted yourself in your centerpiece studio.
I am confused by the presence of what appears to be a Christmas tree on this Easter dessert table, but as the arts of table setting allows for unbridled creativity, I suppose there is no reason why the ambitious hostess should stick to the rigid rules of holiday symbolism. The emboldened table setter bursts through the bonds of the traditional decorating language.
Mrs. Staley presents us with a brilliant idea in her July Fourth table setting: do you have decorative items hanging on your walls? Why not take them off the wall and put them on the table where your guests can appreciate their beauty as they block off any additional space you might have had for silverware and elbows? The lesson here, darlings, is that function always follows well behind form - a philosophy Queer Martha has been promoting for ages/months. Imagine my delight to see my philosophy printed in a book with a color photograph to demonstrate the concept!
The above spread is one I find particularly intriguing, and not solely because Mrs. Staley's vision of a Hawaiian Luau is very far from my own. Are there ceramic pineapple punch bowls at a typical luau? I am unsure. No, what I find particularly intriguing is that Mrs. Staley doesn't use the beautifully painted pineapple punch bowl centerpiece as an inspiration for using thrift stores and flea markets as resources when planning your table; she uses them as inspiration for breaking out those long-repressed ceramic glazing skills you didn't know you had in you:
"...the ceramic pineapple punch bowl which, with matching cups, is reasonable inexpensive when purchased as greenware, then hand-painted and glazed."
She does not, however, give an indicated as to where you can find greenware pineapple punch bowls. This, I suppose, is because this book is timeless, and telling you where to find these items would certainly undermine its timelessness.
The above spread really shows off how Mrs. Staley is completely comfortable throwing traditional table setting theory to the wind. You may think that the photo to the right is set for a wonderful and intimate Thanksgiving meal. Perhaps, even, "Harvest Celebration." You would be wrong. This is an Easter table! Whoa! That came out of left field! You see - if you don't want a pastel table covered in bunnies for your Easter dinner, then you don't have to have one! The art of table setting is limitless in its opportunity for self-expression!
"Approach the design of your home as a composer does the making of a symphony, in which a theme appears in various movements with contrasts in rhythm and mood but unified through sentiment, style, and tonality. Your theme may derive from furnishings you already have, from basic pieces you buy for their strong appeal, or from interest in a particular period or style. Around these you build your composition, using the... elements and principles of design to work the variations on your theme."
Notice how the centerpieces in this spread are at the back of the table. This is called modern tablescaping, my friends, and you can, too.
"Webster's definition of hospitality is 'the kind and generous reception and entertainment of strangers and friends.' Kindness is shown in the warmth of reception, generosity is in wholeheartedness, not lavish display. It is the flavor of the food, not its exotic nature, the comfort of the guests, not their bedazzlement, that makes a party a success."
The table setting above is for a dinner themed "Everyone loves paisley." While I can assure you this is not true - I, for one, hate paisley - that is the greatest dinner theme ever thought up.
I hope that you found this overview of New Trends in Table Settings... and Period Designs, Too to be informative and inspiring. Perhaps you want your own copy. Afterall, the back flap of the book does state that, "if you entertain... if you like your table settings to be unique and personal... if you want to know how to make quick but impressive table appointments - here's a book that has enough ideas to last for a lifetime!"