Last-Minute Scramble: Dinner Party Decorating

Sarah Van Arsdale - We’ve all been there: a dinner party is imminent, and yet the house looks like hell. The table is still piled with books, dishes, mail, and maybe the stray hockey stick. The portable CD player is still on the floor, where you put it only as a temporary measure six months ago when you lent the side table to your sister.

And then the phone rings, with the news that two out-of-town guests have made it after all, and the guest list has suddenly expanded from six to eight. You don’t even want to think about the mess that is your linen drawer, because you know you don’t have eight matching anything in there. Panic is setting in. How can you create a fabulous design under these conditions?

Plus, you’re up to your elbows in hummus, with a group of artists, writers, and scientists arriving in mere hours.

This was the situation on an April evening in the seaside split-level owned by a culinary whiz. The homeowner, Estelle Pecou, recently completed a course of culinary study, and is eager to show off her newly-acquired talents - and her friends are more than eager to test them out. But decorating her place is about the last thing on her mind, as she’s preoccupied with roasting chickens, sautéing mushrooms, and generally creating a showering fireworks display of a meal. 

Estelle called  two of the guests, both decorators, and asked them to come early and transform the place into something with more charm than clutter.

The layout was this: a large dining area that opened, through sliding doors, onto the back sun porch overlooking the yard, which was just beginning to bloom with the colors of spring.

The first step was to clear the table, moving the heaps of plastic catering containers and other assorted things into a nearby room and firmly closing the door. The CD player was moved to a small table on the porch, and the coats were put onto the guest bed. After giving the table a quick wipe, the decorators turned to the linen cabinet and found a tablecloth with a nice country-farm fresh look to it, predominantly in blues and yellows.

But then, the first of the number problems presented itself: six matching chairs, eight guests. The decorators found two wooden chairs, one blue, one unpainted wood. And this is where the decorators’ eye comes in: they placed the oddball chairs  opposite one another, which created a sense of balance even though they obviously didn’t match.

Next up: plates, plain white (if you’re shopping for plates, bear this in mind: plain white works with everything). Silverware, placed in horizontal lines above the plates, to continue the flavor of intentional unpredictability.

And then, the second of the numbers problems: matching napkins, but four of one color, four of another, six of another. There were four in a blue-and-white pattern, four in a yellow-and-blue pattern, and voila - by alternating them, they harmonized with the tablecloth to create a unified look. The handmade booklet of poems just happened to be printed on bold yellow paper, so they were placed one at each setting to further pull the colors together.

Another bit of luck was with us: the tall spray of forsythia the chef/homeowner had already cut and put in a vase, and the yellow daffodils that were in the garden. It only took cutting a few of them, placing them in vases on the table, to add to the spring-time fresh theme.

The decorating duo decided to serve drinks on the porch before the meal, and fixed up that room as well. A large, laminated map of the area - again, predominantly yellow and blue - served as a placemat for the drinks table.

The beauty of having a color scheme that comes together is that once it’s done, you can add splashes of other colors - and anything that deviates from the scheme will really pop, as was the case with the colorful dips served with the drinks.

One of the most common mistakes made in dining décor is to have lighting that is too bright. In this case, all the lights were on dimmers, and small candles were rounded up to add a little more light as well as atmosphere as the daylight faded and the meal itself began.

In the end, the dining area and porch were pulled together primarily with color and with the theme of springtime. And of course, in the end, what really mattered were the camaraderie and conversation, the incredible meal, and the laughter. But it was enhanced, we like to think, by the décor.


This article has been reprinted with the permission of the Sheffield SchoolNew York, NY. Sheffield began as an Interior Design school in 1985, and then expanded its course offerings to train people in other design-related fields, including Feng ShuiWedding and Event Planningand Jewelry DesignWith thousands of active students and more than 50,000 graduates, Sheffield has trained more design professionals than any school in the world.