August 16, 2020For fifth-generation Angeleno Stephanie Booth Shafran, author of the newly released You’re Invited: Classic Elegant Entertaining (Rizzoli), setting a beautiful table has always been a given. “I grew up in a family that would gather around a formal table every night,” she recalls. “Family dinners were something I always valued.” It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the recently shuttered online magazine TheSalonniere included her in its illustrious list of America’s 100 Best Party Hosts in 2019, along with Mercedes Bass, Carolyne Roehm, Oprah Winfrey and Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade. “I felt entertaining was a dying art, which is what inspired me to write this book,” Shafran says.
Little did the preeminent hostess know when she began the project that her book would take on a very different sort of resonance in this age of sheltering in place and social distancing. Shafran, her husband, Steve, and their large blended family have been waiting out the pandemic in their 1950s John Elgin Woolf–designed French Provincial residence in Bel-Air (they also have homes in New York and Sun Valley). “We’ve been having family dinners for several months,” she says, noting that an attractively set table is more important to them now than ever before. “I don’t entertain to impress. I entertain because it’s a passion and I’m giving part of myself to family and friends. It’s about opening up my heart and my home.”
With that, Shafran introduces her rule number one: “My motto is ‘Have fun with it.’ It’s yin and yang, high and low, Crate & Barrel with Christofle silver. I like to mix it up — sometimes in the dining room, sometimes on the kitchen banquette, sometimes in the loggia. It transports your guests and makes them feel more comfortable and relaxed.” Even if your guests are your spouse and children, an elegantly composed tablescape can elevate the experience, not to mention inject some surprise and variety into the monotony of forced isolation.
Gracious entertaining, of course, brings together an array of elements, from china and silverware to flowers and accessories. You’re Invited is filled with helpful suggestions you can use to make any meal a memorable one, whether it’s Wednesday night at your kitchen table or — when it’s possible again to socialize beyond videoconferencing platforms — a special-occasion dinner for 12. Below, Shafran offers tips, from her book and confided during an interview, on the different elements of a well-considered tablescape, from china and crystal to cutlery and accessories. She also gamely “shopped” 1stDibs for tablescape elements that will abet your every creative dining impulse.
China and Porcelain
China should reflect the setting. “If I’m hosting outside in the loggia, I select china and linens that coordinate with the garden,” Shafran writes in the book. “Over the years, I’ve purchased and inherited china — L’Objet, Ginori, Herend — that harmonizes with the hues of our décor.”
“Set is an interesting word,” she says, pondering her approach to dinnerware, “because for some of our china, I have full sets, for some I don’t. It doesn’t have to be a whole set. Buy just twelve dinner or salad plates and mix them into your collections.”
“One of my secrets is to use buffet plates as dinner plates,” she writes. “Because they’re larger and flatter than the norm, I think food looks prettier on them.” Standard dinner plates are about 10½ inches in diameter, while buffet plates can range from 11½ to 12½ inches. Shafran is especially happy when she finds plates that have colorful borders (but are blank in the middle “so it doesn’t distract from the food”), as they bring livelier visual interest to the table.
Wedgwood set of 12 porcelain dinner plates, ca. 1900, offered by Seidenberg Antiques
“These are my favorite plates on 1stDibs. I love the intaglios that look like they are moonstone. I love the simple gold border. For a more formal dinner, these plates would be the focus of the table, and I would complement them with an all-white floral scheme and a tablescape with gold and white accents.”
Set of 15 English blue-and-white porcelain dinner plates, 20th century, offered by Newel
“I can never get enough of blue-and-white porcelain. It is classic, timeless, and each scene is unique. These plates are so versatile, and I love to mix blue and white with pink flowers.”
Choisy-le-Roi rebus puzzle faience dessert plates, mid-19th century, offered by Black-Eyed Susan's
“I love black-and-white plates with strong accents of colors. Black and white complement deep red, raspberry and purple flowers so nicely.”
Wedgwood cabinet plates depicting historical homes of America, 1927, offered by Elise Abrams Antiques
“I like the unique octagon shape of these plates, and I am a fan of architecture, so I appreciate the different historical homes depicted on these plates. I would use them as dessert plates for a luncheon or dinner.”
L. Bernardaud butterfly-pattern porcelain canapé plates, 1940–62, offered by MrsPK&OZ Vintage 20th Century Modern
“Butterflies are a favorite of mine, and these plates are beautiful and whimsical. They are perfect for a ladies’ luncheon.”
Piero Fornasetti set of six Armature porcelain plates, 1960s, offered by Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, Inc.
“These plates are so classic and masculine, and I always like black and white. These are perfect for a men’s dinner or for a buffet.”
Vito Nesta set of 6 Roma porcelain dinner plates, New
“These plates tell a story, and I would use them for a more formal meal. They would be a great launching point for an Italian-themed dinner.”
Stemware and Glassware
“If someone’s thinking about exact rules, they’re not going to push themselves to be creative, and they won’t have a good time,” Shafran says. “I love to mix and match glasses. I use colored glasses for water and champagne.” Favoring tinted glassware for champagne, she admits, mainly stems from a beloved set of jewel-toned Saint-Louis flutes in her collection. For wine, however, she employs clear glasses, so the color of the liquid isn’t obscured.
“I use a variety of glassware for a variety of purposes,” she continues. “Oversize wine glasses make good water glasses. Sometimes I put fruit and sorbet in goblets.” For a housewarming party celebrating Jeffrey Bilhuber’s redecoration of her Los Angeles home, Shafran served crudité with beet hummus in colorful Moroccan tea glasses set on a silver tray. “I found them in Turkey, and they were not expensive,” she notes, yet they became what she describes in the book as “a transportive serving solution.” At a pool party for her daughter and friends, Shafran filled Italian tumblers with watermelon and orange ice and offered to top them with Aperol or Campari.
Shafran keeps a fully stocked bar for her guests and serves beverages in a wide variety of drinkware, including tumblers, highballs and double old-fashioned, martini and wine glasses.
“Near my bar, I always keep a little bowl of nuts — See’s Candies’ mixed salted nuts are the best in the world,” she declares in the book.
“Decanting wine before serving is a must,” she writes, so make sure to have a good wine decanter in your collection as well.
Baccarat cut-crystal stemware, 20th century, offered by Thomas Jolly Antiques
“Baccarat is always a favorite of mine. These red-and-white wine glasses have a unique shape, and they’re beautifully cut without being fussy. I would use them for a seated dinner.”
Set of 12 sterling-silver julep cups, 1930s, offered by Pullman Gallery
“I would use silver goblets with crystal glasses for a more formal table. I also think they accent the silver flatware.”
Baccarat crystal stemware for 14, mid-20th century, offered by La Maison Supreme
“Because green goes with everything, these would be beautiful with a mixture of flowers in various colors.”
Set of four handblown amethyst Murano glasses, 1980s, offered by Rearview Modern
“Amethyst is one of my favorite colors, and I like the size of these for water glasses. I would mix them with clear crystal for red and white wine.”
Moser set of six cut-crystal wine glasses, 1960s, offered by ZIMMERMANNMODERN
“I love the varied colors of these glasses, and I am a fan of the shape, which adds sparkle and dimension to the table.”
“Appropriate accoutrements — caviar spoons made of mother of pearl; oyster forks; fish forks and knives — keep the proceedings feeling flawless,” Shafran notes in the book. Their particularized functions make each course feel like a special interlude.
“I love the London Silver Vaults — a really fun place to find great accessories for the table,” she writes. But 1stDibs, she says, also abounds in flatware, from antique to modern, made by some very fine houses, such as Casa Bugatti, Christofle, Georg Jensen, Gorham, Lunt and Tiffany & Co.
Trays, particularly silver ones, can be used for more than carrying food to and from the table. A pretty silver salver makes a great setting for a grouping of poured cocktails. It can also be used to hold place cards, folded napkins or cutlery, if you’re serving buffet style, or for presenting cigars after dinner. It’s one of the most multifunctional pieces in any collection.
Aside from their practical uses, silver and gold cutlery and serveware achieve other valuable objectives at a dinner table, adding weight and texture and, by reflecting candlelight, enhancing the sense of magic.
International Silver Angelique sterling-silver 14-piece flatware set, 1950–59, offered by Antique Cupboard
“This is the pattern that I inherited from my grandmother, so I will always have an affinity for it. I love to combine it with my more contemporary silver.”
Christofle Albi silver-plated 132-piece flatware set, 20th century, offered by Antique Cupboard
“Albi is my favorite flatware. It is simple, classic, and the quality is beautiful.”
Christofle Port Royal silver-plated 114-piece flatware set, 20th century, offered by Antique Cupboard
“This flatware is unique and a bit more masculine.”
“Flowers are among the most important elements in a tablescape,” Shafran states. “I’m not into mixed, fussy arrangements. I think it’s cleaner and more sophisticated to use simple bouquets of single blossoms. I want it to look like it came from the garden.” As for the containers that hold those flowers, “mix up shapes but not kinds of vases,” she recommends. “I like cohesiveness. There’s an orderliness to it.”
Vases and other traditional flower receptacles, such as tulipières and small jardinieres, are just the beginning. Experiment with antique terrines, all manner of export porcelain, mercury glass, mint julep cups — the possibilities are endless.
“It’s nice to have one accessory that makes an impact,” says Shafran. Case in point: For a garden party she threw, she topped each plate with a boxwood topiary ball on which she propped Baccarat crystal butterflies.
Place-card holders, candlesticks, salt and pepper shakers, figurines and many other objects can also embellish your table. But be careful not to overdo it. “You want it to be beautiful and approachable. When there’s too much going on, it can be confusing. Bring out everything, and try it on the table. You’ll see if you have too much.” The key is balance, she says. “Consider textures that complement rather than compete with each other. If I have heavy carved candlesticks, I mix them with simpler vessels for flowers.”
Returning to her rule about having fun, Shafran concludes: “Encourage yourself and others to just pause and enjoy the moment. That’s what it’s all about.”
Set of 10 Bohemian cranberry-and-white tumblers, 1920s, offered by Elise Abrams Antiques
“These hand-painted tumblers have so much color and character without being too dressy.”
Mona Morales Schildt for Orrefors crystal vase, 1960s, offered by Vermillion 20th Century Furnishings
“Orrefors makes some of my favorite crystal. It is detailed without being too elaborate. This is more modern in feel and perfect for flowers.”
St. Louis crystal vase with teal overlay, 1920s, offered by Elise Abrams Antiques
“This vase would be the wow factor when setting a table for an intimate dinner.”
Baccarat Harcourt crystal goblet, 21st century, offered by DD DIMORE
“The octagonal base of this goblet is strong and unique. I like to balance the femininity of flowers with stronger accents.”
Puthod Cristalli set of five crystal perfume bottles with silver-plated stoppers, 1980s, offered by Van den Andern
“This set of perfume bottles is simple and a wonderful accent to any dining table or side table. My mom had a set of antique perfume bottles that she always had displayed on the coffee table in the living room. I would put these on a side table in the master bedroom or in my dressing room.”
Sterling-silver salt and pepper shakers, 1946, offered by Raymond Sasson Silver
“I can never have enough of sterling salt and pepper shakers. These are a classic shape and similar to ones I inherited from my parents and grandparents.”
Sterling-silver column candlesticks, 1803, offered by AC Silver
“These silver column candlesticks are as pretty as they get! I would display them on my dining room table always, as I would love to look at them daily.”
Pair of rock crystal candlesticks, 21st century, offered by The World of Design
“These are more modern and casual. The taupe color works for all seasons, and it would coordinate with a lot of different china patterns. You could use them for a neutral tabletop.”
Sterling-silver candlesticks, 1906, offered by AC Silver
“These candlesticks are delicate and detailed and won’t overpower a tablescape. Again, I love the octagonal bases.”