Table Styling Tips from Jenn Elliott Blake
Photo by Michael Newsted
One of the things I love most about my job is collaborating with amazingly creative people: photographers, stylists, chefs, and bloggers who wake up inspired to do what they love. They are driven by an inner passion to create, to bring beauty into the world, and to do what they do with excellence. One very special person I had the privilege of meeting this year (and working with on the Nashville Dinner Party shoot for Anthology) is Jenn Elliott Blake. Jenn is a Seattle-based event designer and prop stylist and blogger (check out her gorgeous blog Scout!). Not only is she insanely talented, but she's a total ray of sunshine. She's a joy to be around – as you can tell from the picture above.
Jenn and I met in Raleigh, where she was collaborating with my good friends Megan and Mike Gilger on one their A Simple Evening dinners. Jenn did the styling for the night and I was blown away by her use of color and texture on the table, and her creativity in using unique touches like potted herbs in lieu of flowers (the dinner was launching a gardening brand). We started chatting that evening, clicked immediately, and I told her she should come to Nashville to style a dinner party I was putting together for Anthology. One month later, we met up in Nashville and she used her creative talents to create an absolutely magical ambiance for the dinner party, held in artist Emily Leonard's studio. (Read more about the evening here.) I loved all of her thoughtful styling touches that tied together the artistic theme of the evening: the splattered paintbrush name cards, the hand-colored menus, the pottery jars of brushes and art pencils placed on the table along with the flowers.
I asked Jenn to share her some of her styling tips with you all - both from this particular event as well as for the basic dinner party. Thanks, Jenn for sharing!
When you are creating a "tablescape" for a dinner party, what are the basic elements that play into your design?
When considering elements for the table I'm immediately drawn to considering both color and texture first. While styling, it's important to create a degree of dimension with your design (you want it to be eye-catching), and color and textured elements help in making this happen. I'm definitely a sucker for that perfect mix of vintage and modern props and decor, and love focusing on a living element as well - florals, herbs, fresh fruit...etc. Linens are also an important element, as they can usually help ground the entire design against the tabletop and busier design elements.
What's your process like when you come up with dinner party decor...do you start with a color scheme? A theme? Build around props you like?
I typically start by getting an idea of the purpose of the event or dinner. Who's my client or guest? What makes them unique? Why is this dinner party being thrown? Is there something that sets this particular party or dinner apart from all others? After solidifying the bottom line of the party and exposing potential unique themes, I'll get going with a mood-board which helps solidify themes, colors and prop elements.
I then figure out how to go about sourcing these items - are they store bought or is the dinner heavy on vintage elements which will take longer to source?? Knowing my time frame always helps to reign in those lofty ideas that might not be able to be executed in time. I usually tend to start by dreaming REALLY big (custom design elements, elements used in unique and one of a kind ways) and then condense those ideas into something that is manageable and realistic with time and budget.
For this Nashville party, how would you describe the table and atmosphere you created? Any favorite elements?
I really wanted this tablescape to capture the essence of the unique creative community in Nashville, as well as the artistic talents of Emily and Lisa. I'm all about focusing on what makes this particular gathering unique and special, while also focusing on personal touches. I think one of my favorite elements of the table design was the flowers. They were sourced from Emily's mother's beautiful garden in Nashville the day of the dinner. It felt so special to add a personal family touch to Emily's exciting relaunch.
Tell us about the very cool menus you created!! I loved those. I also loved the paintbrush namecards - how did you make those?
Oh my gosh...the menus. I usually get at least one crazy hair-brained idea with each dinner party I design and that idea literally came to me at 2am one random morning while sound asleep. I really wanted each element on the table to signify something "art" related and the colored pencils and drawing paper for menus seemed like a simple, clean, unique and cost-effective element... But what would make it different than a basic menu?? That's when the idea to create an embossing effect came to mind.
I initially couldn't figure out how to make it happen and then an old school label maker find at Home Depot became the instant solution. Using a sturdy piece of cardboard I created what looked like a ransom note with bits of label to list out the entire menu. Then after hours of sourcing at a local art shop I found the perfect drawing paper that allowed the letters to come through legibly with colored pencils brushed against the overlaid paper.
The paintbrush name cards were also meant to be that "ode to art" and Emily's amazing painting talent and were created by lining them on a table on top of parchment paper and splatter painting them by hand with bright colored paint in the garage.
How do you choose flowers for a dinner party? Why did you decide on this green and white theme for this party?
When I first started designing events and parties I didn't think that flowers were that important. Boy, was I wrong. I truly believe now that some kind of "living" element can help elevate a basic dinner party to a fabulous one. For this particular dinner party I really wanted the floral element to create texture (chose flowers with lots of vines and leaves) but also create a mood of "simple beauty". I didn't want the floral colors to be flashy but rather understated and organic in feeling to enhance, NOT detract from Emily's beautiful artwork outlining the dinner. There was also a lot of color being introduced by the paint brushes and menus that white crisp flowers seemed like the perfect juxtaposition.
What advice would you give someone that wants to create a pretty table for a dinner party, but doesn't have a ton of time or a big budget? Any table-decorating tips?
*Prioritize. Pick 1-3 things that are MOST important to you and focus on those elements. Do you love flowers? Invest in some seasonal picks at a local farmers market. Do you have a linen pattern that you have had your eye on? Buy the fabric a few days before the party and DIY your own napkins vs. buying pricier options at a local big box store. Is the food the most important part?
*Keep the decor really simple (best way to do this is by keeping a neutral color palette) and invest in quality ingredients. You could even list out where you sourced each of your menu items on a fun menu displayed uniquely at the table.
*Make your own name cards. I think the simplest and fastest way to make a dinner party "special" – and to make each guest feel welcome – are name cards. They don't have to be fancy, but should match your color scheme or theme and standout amongst the other table elements.
*Don't forget to look around your environment. Do you have an amazing garden? Cut a few stems from your yard and use those to add a pop of color on top of each guests' plate vs. buying a plethora of flowers from a local shop which can be pricey. Look around the house. Can you pull some pretty decor elements from your bedroom or kitchen and create an eclectic and unique centerpiece? Or mix and match linen patterns on the table using what you have lying around the house, keeping a similar color scheme.
*Check out second hand stores. I can't tell you how many AMAZING decor elements or plate sets I've found at the local Goodwill. I once bought a gorgeous stoneware set of 6 dinner plates for a party (cost me less than $10!) and I was able to donate the plates back once I was done with the party - win, win!
What was your favorite part of styling this particular dinner/photo shoot?
My favorite part of styling this particular dinner/shoot was the location (Emily's atelier was STUNNING!) and the people whom I had the chance to work with. This was such a unique and beautiful collaboration and one I felt SO blessed to be a part of!
What do you love most about your job as a stylist?
The opportunity to create. I love that I'm able to draw from each unique personality of my clients and create something that is unique and inspiring to others.
Opening photo of Jenn by Michael Newsted.
All other photos by Amy Dickerson.