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A decorative dinner table fit for Christmas feasting

Originally published on December 1, 2011.

Decorating the Christmas dinner table is one of my all-time favourite things. Right up there with mulled wine and the scent of pine boughs is my ritual of settling deep in a chair and thumbing through dog-eared copies of Elle Décor, Martha Stewart Living, and Canadian House & Home.

It's an indulgence, yes, but one that pays dividends. Deciding on a theme is the first step to making an ordinary table enchanting.

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Although a big-box retailer can be your friend (more on that in a second), don't wait until you're out shopping to look for inspiration. First, make a commitment to some creative brainstorming, running around, and risk-taking.

This year, one of my team members, designer Lindsay Guenter, was the walking embodiment of all three attributes and her talent was crucial to pulling off the Christmas "tablescape" we'd designed for an elegant dining room in West Vancouver.

The big idea

The clients had requested that we create an artful table setting with the grand atmosphere of an old-world dinner party but little of its formality and polish. The kind of relaxed air you'd experience, dining in, say, a New England country home.

The approach – call it rustic baroque – was inspired by its context. The dining room is wrapped in muslin wallpaper, trimmed with tall baseboards, and finished with crown mouldings. In the centre of the ceiling is a plaster medallion.

Our aim was to avoid diminishing the earthiness of the room, so we decided to forgo traditional metallic emerald and ruby tones. (They'd look garish against so muddy a background.) Instead, we put the focus on a muted palette – distressed wood, tarnished silver, polished silver, pewter, antique gold, and royal blue.

The twist

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We wanted a tablescape that nodded toward nostalgia but stopped short of soppy embrace. The dining table was a rough, country piece whose texture underpinned the rest of the room. But the scheme needed a balancing twist, and we hoped to find it in refined elements that would add sparkle and contrast.

Her sights set, Lindsay drove through a rainstorm and spent an entire day scouring the Lower Mainland's best thrift stores. (They're in Langley.) What she found brought our table to life: two silver tea services, a serving dish, six brass candle holders, and two large bags of pinecones someone had grown tired of.

She divided the silver pieces into two groups – those she'd painstakingly polish and those she'd preserve for their perfect blue and bronze patinas.

We then laid the centre of the table, playing with visual balance: polished pieces beside tarnished, brass candlesticks in between. Then we popped fresh hydrangeas and greens into vessels and dispersed among them tea lights in mercury glass and mounds of pinecones.

The big spend

We tried inexpensive dishware and a collection of thrift-store china, but nothing felt right on the table. The cheap plates looked ordinary, the fine china uptight. We wanted old-world feeling, but without all the finery. Something with a traditional style form, uncluttered by patterns or metallic details.

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After hours of hunting, we found what we wanted at Vancouver décor mainstay The Cross: eight sets of warm grey dishes and eight linen napkins embossed with a handwriting motif.

The scalloping of the plates related beautifully to the silver of the centrepiece, and the muted hue of the plates and the napkins kept the look quiet and understated. Getting it right cost us about $300, but was worth every penny.

The big save

The tablescape was taking shape, but we couldn't spend as freely on glassware as we had on plates. What I wanted was cut-crystal wine goblets, heavy and ornate. Pieces that would reflect candlelight and add crucial dimension to our colour scheme.

They're the kind of thing you might score at an estate sale or thrift store, but we had no luck. Until Lindsay came through again, that is. Poking around at Homesense, and found two Waterford Crystal glassware sets of four – for $40 each.

The special touches

When all the big pieces are taken care of, it's the small details you can't forget. My favourite small table items are customized place markers and gifts.

Store-bought place markers tend to be cheesy, but it's easy to create unique ones for your table. For ours we used golden tree ornaments – we simply tied the name card to the metal hook. True, the card looks a little wonky, but it adds to the table's imperfect charm.

Instead of Christmas crackers, I like individual presents. For ours we picked up chocolate boxes at a local craft store, put in them one fine truffle and wrapped the box in dark blue paper and ribbons. It's the only hit of colour on the table.


Wallpaper :

Dining table and chairs:

Dishes, antique silver cutlery, owl ornaments, cloth napkins, napkin rings, gold Christmas trees, deer, wire Ferris wheel :

Drapery : Custom Kelly Deck Design

Silver dish ware, brass candle sticks and pinecones : various thrift store finds

Lamps on buffet:

Buffet :

Trim and Ceiling paint: OC-17 "White Dove"

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