All words: Stephanie Breijo
All photos: Jeff Martin
Ah, the holidays, a time for friends, family and food to meet in a perfect evening of discussion and feasting that could (and typically does) last for hours on end. But how do you really impress your friends? Is it the menu? Is it the guest list? How do you create a space that’s both ambitious yet comfortable? When bringing together loved ones at the holidays, one of the most important–and most overlooked–ingredients in a perfect night is the ambiance you create. It’s where you laugh, where you tell secrets, where you reconcile and where you feel most at home with the ones you hold dearest.
To help you craft the perfect holiday dinner, we spoke to some of our favorite lifestyle mavens around town and found some incredible and inspiring looks you can try at home this season. Pull up a chair. We’ve been expecting you.
Lifestyle and Dining Editor of Washington Post Express
“I wanted to create layers and mix materials so it didn’t feel too formal because dinner is all about talking with friends and letting your guard down,” editor Holley Simmons tells me. “I wanted to create a place setting that would reflect hopefully how the night would go.”
We are standing in Simmons’s Mt. Pleasant apartment–a space so mixed and matched to perfection that it’s no surprise her ideal holiday place setting is, much like her home, something I could contentedly stare at all day and night. From the ground up, so to speak, we begin with her wooden table; atop it is a neutral linen placemat, which is in turn topped by a large block of wood, then a tea towel emblazoned with a recipe for Irish soda bread which Georgia O’Keeffe made every day of her life.
From there we have a vintage plate with festive gold rim, a vintage alphabet stencil with hole punctured through the top because A.) this piece serves not only as a seat designator but also an ornament for guests to take home after the party and B.) Holley Simmons thinks of everything. Pair all of this with antique silverware, vintage cocktail glasses (to hold your champagne cocktails), some mismatched condiment containers and voila–you have a perfect holiday seat for your guests at the table.
“I tried to keep it neutral so that it could be used for any season,” Simmons says. “I was hoping it could be kind of a conversation starter so people could sit down an immediately be like ‘what is this?'”
Not only does the setting serve as a conversation starter; it’s just at utilitarian in dining as it is in conversation. The large wooden block beneath the plate serves as part of the layering, yes, but more importantly, Simmons doesn’t like sweets. If she were to host a party, she tells me, it would double as a cheese cutting board. “My house, my dessert.”
So what are the Simmons Rules of Design? “Mix and match so your table doesn’t come off too formal because you want people to enjoy themselves,” she says. “Don’t overdo it. Everything has to have a purpose … you have to pare it down as much as possible.”
vintage silverware from miss pixies ($2 each), vintage water glass from The Hour (varies), vintage punch pitcher from The Hour (varies), salt shaker purchased at a yard sale (0.50 cents), pepper shaker from miss pixies ($5), vintage plate from a religious Christian thrift store ($1), linen napkin from Red Barn Mercantile (on sale for $15), soda bread napkins from Red Barn Mercantile ($22.50)
Morgan Hungerford West
Founder and director of A Creative DC
While we’re all about food and big parties at the holidays, we live for those quiet, intimate get-togethers with friends and family that just feel warm. Morgan Hungerford West, one of our favorite hosts in all of D.C., gave us a taste of her own ideal party set-up complete with vintage games, champagne, tinsel and fur.
“I went with a sort of New-Year’s-Eve-spent-at-home game night set-up for two or four friends,” she says of her setting. “This is sort of representative of later in the night after you’ve already eaten dinner and you want to play cards and hang out.”
She began with a reclaimed wood table, which was then sprinkled with tinsel, ribbon, chandelier crystals and an assortment of vintage card games and poker chips from her prop closet–all of these, she tells me, add the right amount of traditional New Year’s Eve sparkle for an inexpensive cost. (The ribbon and tinsel, in fact, were purchased at a thrift store.)
“I think the key is just using stuff you have in your home anyway so it doesn’t look too out of place,” she says. “It’s the little details like that that get noticed. It’s just these tiny details that make such a difference when you’re entertaining.”
West’s thrifty vibe is offset by strategic accent pieces–a sheepskin throw here, a soapstone wine chiller there–which she truly believes is the key to pulling off any look; every once in a while, invest in a piece you’ll be proud to show off.
Though it’s tough to piece together a vintage look without knowing exact product, West advises keeping a keen eye throughout the year when thrift and antique shopping. (Dig through the small stuff, especially.) Don’t break the bank on candles (try this pictured variety from Safeway for roughly $1.50 each) and instead save up for that nice soapstone chiller. Your guests will thank you.
“I think it’s all about having a balance of materials so on the wood, the metal sheen looks really nice,” she tells me. “They sort of play against each other nicely. I think it’s also really nice to have depth and the garland really helps with that. It’s New Year’s Eve. Just have fun with it.”
Owner of Salt & Sundry
Take one step into Amanda McClements’s shop and you’ll understand why her store became one of Union Market’s fastest growing and most beloved operations in no time at all; her carefully curated collection of home goods leaves you with an urge to redecorate and re-style your life, and her seasonal decor options are the perfect place to start.
Straying from any type of holiday theme, McClements instead lifted inspiration from winter itself. Cool charcoals and slate lay the foundation for a perfect dinner party, accented by sprigs of thistle and small pops of white like snow–think tea candles, artisanal salts, embossed cocktail glasses and name tags (these just so happen to be emblazoned with the beautiful calligraphy of local outfit Meant to Be).
When adding food to your setting, McClements thinks seasonal as well: fresh figs and olives to match your aubergine tones, gourmet charcuterie and a classic cocktail or two. Don’t be afraid to break up the space with mixed materials and when using a theme of one unifying color, be sure to looks for those little accents–a charcoal stripe through your tea towel placemat, for instance.
Mix and match patterns on plates with textures on votives, as well as varying heights of your glasses, vases, and pitchers. Most importantly, have fun; with all this in mind, you’ll be throwing the most coveted winter parties in no time.
slate cheese board ($38), charcoal linen napkins ($11 each), glass salt cellar with spoon ($14), Khadi linen runner ($68), black and white Moroccan plates ($14 each), vintage flatware ($7 each), Mercury tea light votives ($8-$12 each), garland champagne flute ($14 each), garland wine glass ($14 each), black bud vase ($15), cocktail stir spoon ($6 each), vintage silver stripe pitcher ($38), crystal coasters ($16 each)
If you’re in need of some cocktail direction, you can always consult Graeber’s new book, “An Illustrated Guide to Cocktails,” which you can find via Amazon, her web site, select Barnes and Noble book stores, and Anthropologie.
M. Gert Barkovic
Founder of MUTINY
While you might not be able to escape to a log cabin this winter, menswear and lifestyle boutique MUTINY is thrilled to bring the mountains to you. On a dark, cold night settle into a place setting fit for an adventurer, complete with black coffee, whiskey, fresh figs, linen, peppercorn and rustic bread.
“I think the place setting is as important as the meal and I think the way you set your table sets the tone for conversation,” founder M. Gert Barkovic tells me in the shop’s new workspace. “For me this is the type of gift giving that I like to do, kind of the textiles. It’s the gift they give later that you can share with your friends that’s really special.”
As the founder of a company that prides itself on storytelling, the gift of giving long after the meal is one of Barkovic’s main objectives in hosting. Barkovic, whose ideal dinner party scenario closes with lazing around with friends and a glass of port after the meal, notes enjoying company is one of her favorite moments of entertaining. It’s what makes this set-up so perfect; it’s so well put together you could surround yourself with it all night long, chatting over a drink until morning comes.
To craft a place setting your guests will always remember, Barkovic scouts antique shops for pieces that “feel like antiques you could find in your great uncle’s house” as well as farmers markets and local suppliers for the perfect centerpiece. Mix textures (dulled antique silver plates alongside gleaming tin mugs of whiskey) and search for common tones, with one or two that pop (here, a deep royal blue does the trick).
“I think we kind of amp it up during the holidays,” she says of her table decoration. “There’s something endearing about having your friends and family around the table–it’s just an extra layer of whatever you’re already doing.”
So what would one serve at such a rugged table?
“Our food might be a little more gamey in spirit,” Barkovic says, siting boar, pheasant and venison as the most likely candidates. The heartiness of food coupled with the rustic ambiance you create here is a guaranteed winter memory your guests will share for years to come.
Owner of vintage cocktail shop The Hour
Mixing old and new comes easily to Victoria Vergason so I knew I’d be in for something fun, festive and unique when I stopped by. What I was greeted with was a flirty holiday set-up for cocktail tasting that screams holidays and versatility.
“The idea is to make it livable,” Vergason tells me, “The idea that you can use a tray instead of a plate or proper setting–you can pull up and chair or a footstool and put things on it. It’s portable. It’s to make you feel at home wherever you are.”
A cocktail tasting party, she explains, is an easy and perfect idea for a get-together throughout the year but is brightest during the holiday season and after seeing red (and that adorable “MERRY!” note, I couldn’t help but agree).
When throwing your own cocktail tasting, be sure to include small glasses or shots to sample a bit of everything and always offer food or a garnish of some sort to spice it up. Here, Vergason uses vintage bakelite skewers for lemon or a bit of garnish.
Sticking with gem tones is an excellent way to bottle that festive spirit (especially if your bottles are topped with ornament-like stoppers, as pictured) and be sure to tie in any accents with a unifying color scheme; here Vergason opted for a ’60s-nostalgic quartet of coasters.
So what’s the secret to mixing and matching?
“It’s kind of a take what you have and make something old and something new,” she says. “To me, it makes it current and unique.”
Gals bottoms up shotglasses (set of four, $32), Images d’Orient coasters ($5.50 each), vintage 1930s bakelite cocktail picks ($325), appetizer bowl ($30), red & white stripe spreader ($12), tray ($160), assorted vintage decanters ($250 – $500)
This piece originally ran November 2013