With warm weather coming comes an opportunity for outdoor entertaining too – a particularly appealing prospect this year as the pandemic drags on but it feels like we’ve been in isolation long enough.
Whether it’s in the garden, on a patio, or on a small balcony, your dinner party should be one that guests will remember. That means thinking beyond the basics and creating a dining area that is as thoughtfully decorated as any indoor dining space.
“When friends come over, you want to make them feel special and welcome,” says Cynthia Zamaria, Toronto-based home and garden stylist and author of House + Flower. “One way to do that is to create a beautiful table for them. You can still work on the potato salad, but the table is set and beautiful.”
With Mother Nature by your side, you might even be able to create a space that beats any indoor space. “Sometimes an outdoor space is the most beautiful dining room in the world,” said David Stark, a New York-based events designer.
We asked Ms. Zamaria, Mr. Stark and other designers for advice on how to create an outdoor dining area worthy of the coming summer.
Choose the location
If you have a relatively large terrace or garden, lunch and dinner do not have to be in the same place, at the same table where you eat your daily meals. Consider moving the table to another appealing location – under a tree canopy, near flowers in a garden, or next to a pool or water feature.
“Especially after the last two years, people are really looking for an experience,” said Becky Shea, a New York-based interior designer who designed a dinner party under a willow tree and another on a hill at her home in Catskill. “Just by changing the environment, people can immerse themselves in a different environment.”
Michael Devine, an Orange, Virginia-based textile designer and author of An Invitation to the Garden, routinely moves his dining table around the garden. “It depends on what’s blooming and looking good — then the table goes there,” he said. “We rotate through the garden all summer.”
It is not necessary to have a proper dining table with chairs. You could use lounge furniture if you stick to finger foods, said Chauncey Boothby, an interior designer from Rowayton, Connecticut.
Or you could spread out blankets and have a picnic almost anywhere, Mr. Stark said: “It’s the romantic ideal and perfect in a meadow, under a tree or on the beach.”
“The trick is when you don’t use disposable tableware,” he added, “but add a certain elegance” by using actual china and glassware.
Consider a concept
You don’t need a theme for a dinner party, but it can help — perhaps something as simple as celebrating a favorite color palette, specific types of flowers or vegetables, or a notable date.
“I start by asking what the reason for the conversation is,” said Kim Seybert, a tableware designer in New York. “Is it July 4th, Labor Day, a birthday party, or something else?”
For a Fourth of July celebration, Ms. Seybert said she might use a palette of red, white and blue, but for a birthday party she often wants to reflect the interests of the guest of honor. “A friend of mine is very involved with the Museum of Natural History where they have a butterfly section, so we did a butterfly theme,” she said. For another party, she designed the table around bird-inspired elements.
Mr. Stark has designed outdoor events centered on lawn games like badminton and croquet, as well as parties celebrating seasonal vegetables, including one recently where he set the table to evoke a market stall, mixing peppers into the flower arrangements and put out tomatoes in tiny baskets. “We threw ourselves on the fresh seasonal produce, the farmers’ markets and the farmer’s roadside stalls,” he said. “All sorts of visual delights come from this.”
Set the table
Since al fresco dining tends to be more casual than indoor dining, setting the table is an opportunity to have some fun. Start with a tablecloth, runner, or placemat for a fresh, clean surface and build from there.
“Having a good foundation through textiles is essential,” Ms. Shea said. “Belgian linen is a proven summer fabric alongside cotton and canvas.”
While she favors simple tablecloths and napkins in textured solids and stripes, other designers, such as Ms. Boothby and Mr. Devine, use patterned designs for an imaginative touch.
Whatever you choose, it doesn’t have to be expensive. “You can just go to the fabric store and buy lots of yards of beautiful fabric — it could be seersucker, floursack, or linen — and you just cut it and get the beautiful fringes on the ends,” said Ms. Zamaria, who has also used inexpensive tea towels Bought in bulk as cloth napkins.
For crockery, cutlery and glassware, you may want to choose matching sets, using pieces with rich colors and patterns or rustic textures. However, some of the designers we interviewed also suggested using mismatched items.
“A grouped table is a more interesting table,” said Ms. Zamaria. “That’s why I love using mismatched vintage china, my best tarnished silver, etched crystal mugs and cobbled together furniture. It looks effortless but is so sublime.”
Add a center piece
Finish the table with a decorative centerpiece. In summer it should be easy: flowers, twigs and tall grasses cut from the garden or forest or bought from a florist or delicatessen can create table magic.
The natural inclination is to stuff your cuttings in a tall vase set in the center of the table, which works well on a round table. But it’s often better to go long and low instead. If you’re setting a rectangular table, try using a row of smaller vases positioned along the length of the table.
“I usually like to make bud vases — smaller ones, across the table,” Ms. Seybert said, “so they don’t block anyone’s view.”
Much like the mismatched crockery, the small vases don’t have to be identical. Try mixing different sizes and heights to create an animated display. If you select parts that share a common color or material, they all work together.
If it’s an evening event, candles or portable lanterns should also be placed along the length of the table. Traditional stick candles can look dramatic, but they tend to be wobbly and are easily extinguished. If kids are involved or it’s a windy evening, votive candles might be a better choice, said Ms Zamaria, who prefers heavy, stemless drinking glasses for the same reason: They tend to stay in place.
Add something unexpected
A beautiful tablescape will invite guests to dine, but what will they find when they sit down?
“I definitely love a conversation starter,” Ms. Seybert said, which usually comes from adding something unexpected or whimsical. She has set tables with carved figurines and napkin rings resembling exotic birds, as well as striped and dotted taper candles that can be found on Etsy.
Ms. Zamaria has repurposed garden urns and coolers, using cuttings of tree trunks as rustic stools.
Mr. Stark, whose upcoming book with Jane Schulak, At the Artisan’s Table, focuses on handcrafted elements for the table, sometimes offers a little trompe-l’oeil. He has set tables with paper flower arrangements (in collaboration with artist Corrie Beth Hogg) and created place cards that resemble three-dimensional tomatoes.
But your table setting doesn’t have to be so elaborate: a sculptural vase, intentionally imperfect plates and glasses, or a one-of-a-kind pitcher or platter are enough to get most people talking. After all, guests are there to socialize and have fun.
When your outdoor area is finished, don’t forget one of the most important things: hosts should also feel comfortable.
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