It's the place we break bread, convene with friends and family, celebrate a holiday, and toast life's most important, as well as most private, moments. A table, in other words, is more than just a table. It reflects who we are and how we live now, which is why we asked six of the most creative people we know how they would, in the best of all possible worlds, set the perfect table.
For fashion designer Vera Wang, it's all in the details. "I always add little antique British silver cups to my table, no matter how grand or simple the affair is," she says. "I have a dozen. I love their intimacy and how small they are. They give off a light that makes the table more glamorous. I like to fill them with roses." New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser takes a more rustic—but just as personal—approach. "I use props like an antique wooden trough used to make baguettes," she says. "It's shallow, and I put little tea lights all along it. I avoid anything that seems like it's not there every day. I want people to feel at ease."
Restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten agrees that setting the tone of the evening is crucial. "I like to keep dinner parties informal," he says. "They should be a simple affair with friends. Sometimes I don't even set my table—I just have piles of plates and allow my guests to set their own place. It helps break the ice." Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery, also takes a less formal approach, setting her table with a variety of silver and china. "A mix of objects," she says, "creates a table as unique as the moment."
Hotelier André Balazs' trick is placing the chairs closer than usual. "There's something so wonderful about sitting close together," he says. "A lot of table settings increase the physical divide between guests across the table, but I find the quality of the conversation changes depending on where people are sitting."
And a few were inspired by a perfect meal somewhere far from home. For jewelry designer James de Givenchy, it was his uncle's house in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. "For lunch, we'd sit under a pergola covered with wisteria, looking out across the bay to Monaco," he says. "It was the most magical setting—extremely simple, but so chic and playful. That table was not so much about any one theme but about creating a very special moment."
Vera Wang, fashion designer
My favorite colors these days are burnt orange and brown. I like a strong accent with a white tablecloth.
I learned from my mother the importance of comfort even in the grandest of situations. She used to remind me that in China, people would eat in their pajamas—an old-world idea that can be aristocratic or humble. I love that sense of real luxury and ease, and I'm always trying to translate it to a modern setting.
People always look best in candlelight. Votives create intimacy, but tall candles create drama.
Glamour should never be stuffy. People tend to equate formal with cold, but the truth is that formal can mean more attention paid to the details, to the food, setting, guests, and making people feel comfortable.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten, chef and restaurateur
I never use a tablecloth at home. I love a mix of textures, the feeling of different surfaces: linen placemats, stoneware plates, the ceramic handles of my Limoges flatware.The only problem with the latter is that if you drop one, it shatters. My young child knows that all too well.
Unexpected touches are what make a table interesting. I use this extraordinary opaque glassware for both water and wine. In the daylight, it looks red, but it's so dark that under a bright light it looks black. It's very unusual for a restaurant person to conceal what's being served, but I like these small mysteries.
I learned to entertain in Southeast Asia, where I lived for five years. It's always been my inspiration, both for the respect people have for one another and for their Zen approach to objects—pure but relaxed and a little spiritual. I like simplicity in my cooking and on my table.
Amanda Hesser, "New York Times" food writer and author of "The Cook and the Gardener"
I tend to shy away from anything imposing or artificial. That includes elaborate bouquets of flowers and other things that aren't usually on the table.
Benches can be useful because they create a sense of intimacy that you cannot get with chairs. Even though it's quite subtle, I think during the course of the evening the bumping together of elbows helps guests let their guard down.
I'm not a big fan of placecards. They're too formal and, I think, pretentious. My husband and I always talk ahead of time about who will sit where. I like to be really organized for parties. When you go to someone's house and they're not ready for dinner, it's stressful. I like the tables to be set and the platters out. The only thing guests don't mind doing themselves is finding the bathroom.
André Balazs, owner of The Mercer, Chateau Marmont, and The Standard hotels
I strongly believe that a tabletop shouldn't be a canvas for a florist. The beauty of minimalism comes from its rigor, but because of its rigor it doesn't allow for the things that we usually associate with warmth. I think there always has to be the personal element, the casual mistake or a whimsical touch.
There is no difference between a good business table and a good social table. Both should enhance the two primary activities taking place there: eating and talking.
I don't do it very often, but when I do have occasion to dine alone it can be a great opportunity to collect my thoughts.
My all-time favorite setting was at Les Prés d'Eugénie, a countryside spa in Landes, France. Michel Guérard's food was extremely light—something like 900 calories for a three-course meal. And on the table? One single local flower.
My ideal table setting is modern, but in a super-luxurious, Art Deco sort of way. I had the stylist remove all the flowers from the table but this one, which I think is lovely on its own.
Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery, NYC
Flowers are essential. I'm a gardener, so my favorites are the ones cut that morning from my garden.
My table in Manhattan is in the corner of my apartment, which has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the East River and the bridges. It's almost like being on board a yacht. It's an extremely airy environment, and I like to use contemporary ceramics and lacquer pieces that I've picked up while traveling in Asia.
The most important lesson is to always design and select with the occasion, season, and guest in mind. As a rule I dislike sameness and would never use a single set of silver or ceramic vessels that are all the same color and shape.
James de Givenchy, jewelry designer
I love extravagance. Parties are about attention to detail but also about luxury and flair. What I've learned from great entertainers is that they never take themselves too seriously.
I never follow rules. For a recent Chinese dinner for thirty, I used identical Buddha heads as a centerpiece. I put them back to back with flowers on top, and around them I placed little bowls filled with water and candles. I purchased large paper umbrellas in Chinatown, cut the stems, and hung them upside down over the table, with lights underneath to illuminate them.
Seating is crucial. There is nothing worse than having to sit next to someone with whom you have nothing in common.
It's always important to have the right wines—and, of course, the right dinner partner.