Mastering the Art of the Tablescape

Mastering the Art of the Tablescape

When a room is nearly finished and all the major pieces of furniture are in place, there’s one thing you need to make the space feel complete: an artfully arranged tablescape, or grouping of objects on a console, coffee, side or center table.

“The poetry of a room is often found in these more intimate details,” said Dan Fink, an interior designer in New York. “Styling is about bringing a sense of personal beauty, and heart, to a room. The personality of the space, and the person who lives in it, can come through in personal objects.”

Empty tabletops, by comparison, often feel unfinished. “A room without accessories or styling is soulless,” said Sarah Bartholomew, an interior designer in Nashville. “Styling a table makes a room feel finished and lived in. It’s a way to personalize your home while adding depth and style.”

That’s harder than it sounds. The tablescapes that designers create for their clients may look effortless, but they require more than a little thought and effort. So how do you create a tablescape that looks artful, not awkward? We asked interior designers and home stagers to share their strategies.

A tabletop is an ideal place to express your personality and showcase your collections with a little decorative flair. A tablescape, Mr. Fink said, should be “a combination of all of the things that reflect one’s life and personal interests.”

In his case, that means tables scattered with nautical instruments; lion sculptures and prints (Leo is his astrological sign); objects that evoke his Austrian heritage; gifts from his husband, the interior designer Thomas O’Brien; and objects and books that recall Paris, a favorite city.

Or look to the key colors and materials in a room to inform the pieces you select to display on tables, suggested Steven Gambrel, an interior designer in New York, who collects curiosities while traveling and uses them as accessories in his projects.

“If you have a beautiful blue-glazed wall, and there’s a blue-glazed vessel on the table, it brings the wall closer to you,” he said. “It brings the big picture, which is the room, down to a smaller scale.”

When a tablescape isn’t working, he added, “it usually has to do with a missing color or material.”

Creating a tablescape is more art than science, and there are many ways to go about it. Few designers aim for complete symmetry, but most try to achieve a sense of balance or order across the composition.

“Look at the paintings of Morandi or other artists who were good at composition,” Mr. Gambrel said. “Sometimes the corner will be taller, and then it works its way down” to smaller objects toward the front and the other side of the table.

“You want to ensure there’s balance between the items,” Ms. Bartholomew said. “Sometimes I divide a square coffee table into four quadrants. Two kitty-corner quadrants might have stacks of books for balance, and then I’ll put a large vessel or bowl on the third quadrant and an interesting object, like a bone-inlay hurricane or something collected, in the fourth quadrant.”

Other approaches include placing the tallest pieces at the center of the table and working toward smaller objects at the edges, or creating two clusters of objects at either end of a rectangular table and leaving the center relatively open.

Most successful tablescapes have objects of varying heights, with the tallest item often setting the tone for the composition.

“I usually start with something tall at the center of the table, or off to one side, and then work from there,” said Meridith Baer, the founder of Meridith Baer Home, a home-staging company with offices across the country. “For height, I like to bring in a statue, a nice floral or a lamp. The higher the ceiling, the more height you can bring in on a table.”

After situating the tallest object, she said, “I lay out the still life in relation to that piece.”

The best tablescapes become more interesting the closer you get to them. One of the ways to create that kind of appeal is to include objects made with varying materials, textures and finishes.

“I like to combine things that are rough and fine, old and new, ancient and modern,” Mr. Fink said. “It’s about different juxtapositions. Perhaps it’s glass and crystal with pottery and ceramics, or stone with wood and metals.”

Most designers also like to include something natural, like plants or flowers. “I always love having something alive,” Ms. Bartholomew said. “Every vignette cannot always have flowers, but you can find ferns and plants that are low-maintenance. When you’re entertaining, it’s a moment for cut flowers from your garden.”

A few handsome coffee-table books on art, design, fashion or travel can be pleasing to look at while also communicating your interests. And small stacks of books can be used as mini-pedestals to elevate decorative objects.

Some designers use books in a way that shows off more than their spines and covers. Cheryl Eisen, the founder of the New York-based design and home-staging firm Interior Marketing Group, often places open books on tables to call attention to favorite pages.

“I love an interesting art book — like a giant book of Picasso photographs I have — and I’ll have it open on a bookstand,” she said. “It’s an interesting conversation piece, because it’s open to a specific page and invites a conversation. And I change it to different pages all the time.”

Or she’ll try to find a page that picks up on colors in the room: “We’ll open the book to a page that matches the color story we want to tell.”

Small groupings of objects within a larger tablescape can add visual interest.

“I like a small cluster of the same kind of object — maybe three or five things, with different heights,” Ms. Baer said. “A grouping of candlesticks, pieces of pottery from the same period or tiny carved statues from Indonesia. Right now, on my coffee table I have a few Chinese vases that are all in celadon colors, but in different shapes.”

To reinforce a grouping, the objects can be set on a tray, in a bowl or on top of a piece of stone.

“I’m keen on trays that have an inch-and-a-half- or two-inch edge to them,” Mr. Gambrel said. “It cleans up the composition. It frames the objects in the same way that a frame works with a painting.”

And “if you do two trays” on a single tabletop, he added, “the space you’ve created between the trays is also a great place for an object.”

“One trick, for sure, is to bring in an organic shape,” Mr. Gambrel said, as a foil to objects with geometric forms. “Perhaps a piece of driftwood in the country, or a bronze sculpture with an irregular shape in the city. Those curvy shapes pull all the other pieces together.”

At his house in the Hamptons, for example, he has “a particularly gnarly driftwood piece on my table outside, under a covered porch,” he said. “It scoops around a hurricane and another vessel, and ties the whole thing together.”

It’s the variation in shape, he said, that “helps to make a composition a little more sophisticated, and loosens things up.”

Once you have selected the accessories to display on a table, take a step back and consider the spaces around the table. The appearance of a console, in particular, will be affected by the objects mounted on the wall behind or placed underneath.

“You need to think through the entire vignette,” Ms. Bartholomew said. “Often I’ll put a basket underneath, or a potted fern. It’s something to finish it out, so there are no holes.”

Mr. Gambrel said he frequently hangs art above a console or corner table, with the specific objective of completing a tablescape. As a result, the art is not always centered over the table, and may be mounted lower on the wall than expected.

“It’s all put together like a collage,” he said. “You just play around with the pieces until it looks good.”

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