Once upon a time, setting the table for a special occasion meant trotting out matching crystal, silver and china a few times a year, then carefully stowing it all away until next time. But just about any designer or style arbiter will tell you that nowadays it’s all about mixing high and low, new and old — and not just now and again. We wear Chanel with H&M and put West Elm next to Wegner, so why shouldn’t this idea carry over to the table?
While many are lucky to have a setting of wedding china here and grandma’s candlesticks there, inevitably there are gaps to be filled. And so, for advice on setting an elegant yet modern table that mixes contemporary and vintage, we turned to Tara Guérard, who founded her event- and wedding-planning company, Soirée, in 1997. Based in Charleston, South Carolina, with another office in New York, Guérard executes the kind of perfectly orchestrated fêtes (including the top-secret 2012 nuptials of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds) that regularly grace the pages of wedding magazines and blogs. Uniquely, she and her team attend to every detail, from printing the letterpress invitations and choosing flowers to, of course, designing the tabletop presentation. While rooted in Southern tradition, Guérard doesn’t hesitate to add unexpected touches to create an affair to remember. In person, she’s kind, funny and prone to saying whatever’s on her mind (albeit softened by a Southern lilt). “It’s not a good quality for a politician’s wife,” she says with a laugh, explaining that her husband, Russell Guérard, is running for a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives. “He’s worried I’ll swear in front of a reporter. And I might.”
Recently, 1stdibs got to see Guérard in action when we asked her to set the lunch table for a group of around 30 editors at the chic East Pole restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side, for which she also created thematic table settings (see slideshow below) for five different hypothetical events — a spring garden brunch, a black-tie dinner, an engagement party, a ladies lunch and an outdoor summer wedding — using items from 1stdibs dealers. In addition, she curated a group of 1stdibs tabletop pieces for House Beautiful’s June issue. The results? Distinctive, lovely and memorable.
Thankfully, even those of us not lucky enough to attend a Guérard-designed event can still benefit from her wisdom, applying her expertise when browsing 1stdibs or setting the table at home. Shop items from both the thematic settings at East Pole and the House Beautiful feature here.
1. Give us a primer on mixing vintage with new — do you have a ratio?
Fifty-fifty. I really love CB2 glasses, for instance. My guests can have a ball and if a glass breaks I won’t be depressed for the rest of the evening. Always use family or vintage silverware. Maybe mix the china — use a breathtaking old charger, but the first course can be served on a simple white plate. The dessert could be served on beautiful vintage plates, but not matching. The water glasses could be your grandmother’s (or look like what you wish your grandmother had had) and the wine glasses more modern and inexpensive. Always use pretty linens. And use vintage items in unexpected ways, like filling a silver cigarette box with candy (this is good for starting conversations). Adding something odd to the table makes it a bit more appetizing every time.
2. Say one is going to splurge on a few vintage pieces on 1stdibs. What are some “investment” pieces that will get used forever?
A perfect vase, one that you can’t live without. Sterling silver flatware — a must-have that you can use every single day, even to eat cereal. Personally, I want a sterling silver goblet set for 12 to 20; I would use them every time I had a dinner party. Ultimately, there are no criteria to buying vintage pieces: Buy what you love, and make it work.
3. When setting a table, what kind of role does color play? And lighting?
Mixing colors can be great, but keeping it monochromatic is always my personal favorite. There are times I am dying to use one specific vase or plate, and nothing looks good in the flower department, so I am best just pulling leaves from the garden because green matches everything. Or I just cover the table with 20-plus candlesticks and votives. Never leave out candlelight.
4. Wedding season is nearly upon us: What advice do you have about giving vintage tableware as gifts?
I love giving tableware! Brides want one of-a-kind pieces, and not everyone gets family hand-me-downs. Give glassware — one can never have too much variety. Anything sterling, even cute, little salt cellar spoons or a little tumbler, which could be used to hold stirrers, flowers or chocolate. I do think, unless you know the person intimately, simpler, understated pieces are the way to go. Beautiful china, glassware and silverware will never go out of style.
5. People often avoid incorporating antique or vintage pieces when laying a table for fear of breaking them. What is your advice for getting past this?
You only live once…what are you waiting for?!