"The man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world," Oscar Wilde once quipped. While the strict social mores of the author's late 19th century―determining everything from seat placement and stemware to conversation―have fallen out of fashion, the formal dinner table is once again à la mode thanks to period dramas such as "Downton Abbey," where much of the action on screen revolves around mahogany and crystal.
But with Service à la Russe no longer dictating the placement of every fork and glass, the art of the table, or "tablescaping," is more important than ever. "We call it painting with plates," says Rebecca Willer, owner of the eponymous high-end design and tableware shop in London (www.willer.co.uk). "Our clients don't buy china sets. They buy key pieces in different materials―gold, porcelain, stone―that they mix together."
The store's current show of French designer Paul Mathieu's work is all about drama. A giant LED Murano-glass, standing-light candelabra, part of his 20-piece furniture collection (price upon request), gently illuminates the whole dining room, and not just the table. "I don't use a tablecloth, so the light is reflected from the surface of the table. It creates an amazing atmosphere," says Mr. Mathieu. "I like the setting to be very simple, and to concentrate on conversation. We are in a world where everyone is so isolated. Tables bring people together―a little bit of reality in cyber world."
But that doesn't mean they haven't taken cues from the digital age. Tabletops are now following in the footsteps of fast fashion: updated regularly, spontaneously and often inexpensively. And the new look, which mixes Baccarat with ready-to-wear and machine-washable bric-a-brac, offers recession-friendly shopping opportunities. Women who don't have the time to change the contents of their handbags find themselves regularly nipping into Anthropologie (www.anthropologie.com), browsing through the American retailer's ever-changing crockery department and splashing out on a plate or two, at ￡24 each.
"Busy people might still outsource the cooking to me, but they then feel the least they can do is lay a beautiful table," says Michael Harwood, head chef in one of London's grandest households and author of "Miniature Feasts." "They pull out all the stops. I have clients who spend the whole weekend preparing for a dinner, but present it in that effortlessly, just-thrown-together, stylish way―with mixed crockery and unmatching glassware, as though they had run out (they haven't). It's the same idea as mixing the Chanel jacket with the Converse trainers."
New York-based designer and manufacturer Sandy Chilewich reinvented the art of the table when she came across woven vinyl, a kind of extruded yarn that could be encased in PVC. Her signature vinyl placements (no washing required) now come in more than 100 different colors, including faux wood, cowhide and hues of silver (www.chilewich.com). Hostesses use them to play a kind of tabletop tic-tac-toe. "When I started, I liked layering the mats," says Ms. Chilewich. "I liked to put things you can see through on top of a darker color, and small on top of big. I think setting an unusual table gives people a chance to be creative, and it takes the tedium out of setting the table."
Adding to that sense of fun are caterers, who frequently collaborate with artists, circus performers and the like for a more theatrical dining experience. Pret a Diner, the pop-up restaurant concept created by German catering firm Kofler & Kompanie (www.koflerkompanie.com), has taken the idea of the art of the table literally by bringing artists and stylists alongside chefs to create temporary restaurants-cum-galleries in Germany, France and the U.K. Their most recent pop-up, "Italians Do it Better," held in May and June at the London club 50 St. James, included newspaper place mats and an in-house DJ. Caterers routinely compete to create more elaborate dining experiences. Kevin Gould, the cookery writer and restaurateur, once catered a dinner at hairdresser Charles Worthington's minimalist London home where the canapés were placed directly onto the surfaces―window sills, tabletops, you name it. Guests were advised not to sit down on the food, a challenge given the fact that the cuisine was designed to match the all-white space.
Not everyone will bring the theater to the dining room. But tableware "gives you endless opportunities to express yourself," says Libby Sellers, a London gallerist who represents designers such as Nicolas Le Moigne, whose enameled clay plates bridge the gap between art and design. It can also become a key design element in the home. Some homeowners leave their tableware on display, a kind of permanent art collection, which they change habitually like department-store windows.
At Baccarat (www.baccarat.com), the sales team has noticed the emergence of a new type of clientele who buy their crystal one piece at a time, as they would fashion accessories. When a new collection, such as Patricia Urquiola's colored-crystal "Variations" (launched in Milan last April), comes out, they buy one or two key pieces to update their existing table "wardrobe." "It becomes a nice topic of conversation over dinner," says Baccarat Chief Executive Markus Lampe.
Iittala (www.iittala.com) is famous for its mix-and-match dinnerware and colorful "Kivi" glass tea lights, which, when grouped together in different colors, create a dramatic centerpiece. The Finnish tableware company next month is launching a new range specifically created with that kind of interchangeable design in mind. The 26-item "Sarjaton" collection, created by six young Finnish designers, offers hundreds of variations and combinations, ideal for budding tablescapers. The customary practice of nicking part of the table décor at fancy functions as a memento led one designer to take the idea one step further. Hostesses can send British designer Jenny Duff (www.jennyduff.co.uk) pictures and she will make a pack of coasters or place mats specifically for that dinner (￡65 for six, plus postage), helping to steer conversation or mark an occasion. Music impresario and frequent party host Andrew Lloyd Webber is said to have had his Pre-Raphaelite art collection photographed and turned into place mats. Or you can let guests draw their own. Chrissie Probert Jones, of Stitch designworks (www.stitchdesignworks.co.uk), sells tablecloths (from ￡35) and place mats (￡19.95 for a set of four) with wash-out coloring pens. A lull in conversation becomes an opportunity for creative self expression; it's up to the hostess to keep the doodles for posterity (in case the guest is the next Tracey Emin) or throw them in the wash for the next dinner.
Tablescaping, when done well, can create―and even dominate―conversation, whether it is a placement with a favorite memory, a centerpiece bought on holiday or a unique handmade accessory. "The first time I went to Marrakech, I came back with enough tableware to set up a shop," says Mr. Harwood, the private chef, who is also a former textile designer. "I also bought some really cheap tea towels―not from the souk but from the large out-of-town supermarket. I cut them up and made then into really cool napkins. Everyone comments on them, whereas when I use my hideously expensive French linen ones, no one says a word!"