Jude Loxley, Houzz Contributor
For ages we have been coming together around a table to eat, drink and be merry. As our culture has evolved, so has the art of setting the table for entertaining. In the medieval times, where someone sat indicated social standing, and people brought their own spoons and knives to dinner. There were no plates or forks, and it wasn't until the 17th century that the fork arrived at the dinner table. With the fork came a more refined choice of table linens. Manners improved, and a more elaborate table setting was born.
Nowadays we opt for table settings that suit us and the occasion. We can serve dishes on big wooden boards in the middle of the table or serve each course individually in succession. We can barbecue or serve food at designated stations. So pull out the silver and linens and experiment with what works for you. Here are some ideas to get you started.
We can thank 19th-century Russia for the use of place cards and place settings. Service à la russe -- in which the host lays out all the plates, cutlery and glassware each guest will need during the meal -- has stayed with us through the centuries. Courses are brought out in succession, and guests proceed from their top plate down and, for their cutlery, outside in.
Women and men in alternate seats around the dinner table still is common at formal events.
The Traditional Table Setting
The knife. Before the 18th century, guests used knives to stab into their food and hold it up for eating. The implement was kept to the left of the guest -- it wasn't until the fork emerged that it found its way to the right, and it's remained this way ever since (unless you're left handed). Knives are always placed with the blade toward the plate.
In formal dining situations, separate salad and dinner knives may be laid out, but it's common for just one knife to be used for all the courses. The knife, however, should be removed before dessert is served.
The fork. In a formal setting, always follow the rule of working from the outside in. You should place the fork needed for each course starting at the outer left and work toward the plate. We tend to use two or three forks in a formal sit-down meal, but in the early 19th century, each guest got more than four.
For dessert the fork is placed on the left, and the spoon (or dessert knife) is placed on the right. You can choose to lay the pieces out at the beginning or bring them out with the dessert course.
The spoon. Spoons traditionally are always to the right of the place setting and to the right of the knife. If soup is being served first, the spoon will be the outermost implement. If a tea and coffee spoon or dessert spoon is needed, place it to the left of the soup spoon and to the right of the knife.
Nowadays, for aesthetic reasons, we tend to lay out our cutlery out according to size, as in the place setting here. There's no hard and fast rule, but for a traditional setting, placement is always based on the outside in for the courses served.
Today's Table Settings
Shine the silver. A formal dinner can be a wonderful time to bring out the family silver. You can also get creative and place all the vintage pieces together to create an individual set for your guests.
Use placemats. For wooden tables especially, placemats not only add to the design of your place setting, but also protect your table surface. Use the mat as a designated area for plates and cutlery, and have fun with mixing patterns with colors. Creative placemat mixing can liven up the table; not every place setting has to be the same. Try buying two sets and alternating them for each place.
Let the cutlery take center stage. Presenting the plates and cutlery in the center of the dining table instantly creates a warm, family-style atmosphere. People can chat as they pass the plates around and help serve those around them, which adds warmth to the dining experience. Table decorations can be minimal, with the focus kept on the tableware and the food being served, like a pot roast for dinner or Mom's minestrone for lunch.
Get creative with cutlery. For a more relaxed approach, bundle each guest's cutlery and napkins and place the set on each plate.
By keeping the color palette neutral, you can create a classic and chic aesthetic. Consider using textured pieces, such as raffia or burlap, to tie together your cutlery and napkins. By limiting the cutlery and the number of plates, you can make the affair more casual.
Celebrate with little gifts or favors. It can be a nice gesture to place little gifts or favors on each of your guests' place settings. These can be very small items, such as homemade jam, a vintage teaspoon, a bag of homemade biscotti or a potted succulent cutting from the garden.
It's a beautiful way to decorate the table, and your guests will feel welcomed into your home.
Enjoy tray service. A fun alternate way to dress up place settings is to play on the tray service idea. Each individual place setting can be designed on a tray, which can be left at the table for your guests or brought to your guests as they take a seat. Cutlery can be placed within the tray to create a set, or on the outside, making the tray more like a placemat. It makes for fun conversation and easy cleanup.
Accommodate a drinks menu. Glasses for drinks being served during the meal are typically placed to the top right of the dinner plate, above the knife and spoons. It's traditional to have a water glass and other glasses -- wine or champagne glasses, or a highball glass for iced tea -- depending on what you're serving.