Tablescapes for Dummies; The Beginners Guide

BHG

Hasn’t everyone bought one of those “fill-in-the-blank for Dummies” books when you really don’t know something and you’re thinking “Talk to me like I’m 5 years old?”.

I certainly have. Years ago I dated a guy who was into philosophy and I just felt stupid every time he started talking about it, so I bought Philosophy for Dummies.  I’m not convinced I’m any smarter about that topic, but I did buy the book.

And while we’re on this subject, I have an interesting piece of trivia for you. Apparently, if you buy a new book and don’t start reading it within one week, the chances of you EVER reading that book are very slim.

Raise your hand if this is you? I laughed when I read it because I had two books on my bedside table that had been there for weeks (maybe even months) that I had not touched.

Anyway, this post is for anyone to whom decorating just doesn’t come easy. Or maybe you just need some practice.

Regardless, you need someone to tell you EXACTLY what to buy so that, once-and-for-all, you too can have a lovely tablescape in your living room.

So obviously, there are a million different objects you could pull from your house that might create a lovely tablescape indeed. But I am not in your house, so instead of just filling this post with a bunch of pretty inspiration images that might just depress you, I’m just going to tell you what to buy.

Often when someone hires me to choose paint colours for them, they have the misconception that wall colours will do most of the heavy lifting in terms of creating a look and a feel.

Related post: How Much Heavy Lifting can a Paint Colour Handle?

NOT TRUE.

The look and feel of your living room comes from floor and table lamps along with task lighting when necessary, NOT from installing 8 recessed lights into your ceiling. Recessed lighting should pretty much be relegated to the kitchen where task lighting like that is required.

Then, you need to create vignettes or tablescapes on your coffee and end tables and your sideboards.

I recently specified two lamps for one of my eDesign clients. She received the lamps, set them on her sideboard and sent me an photo (similar to this vignette by Lauren Liess), worried that they were too BIG because they slightly overlapped her art.

I assured my client that they were definitely not too big.

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It’s the same for master bedrooms. I can’t tell you how many master bedrooms with king size beds I’ve seen with tiny little lamps on each end table.

A bedside lamp should generally be a minimum of 28″ high (below).

So think bigger not smaller. If it’s a little bigger than it should be, it won’t look as wrong as a miniature lamp beside a big bed.

Traditional Home

Okay so now that I’ve covered the basics, let’s get back to exactly what you need to create a tablescape.

One more thing, before we begin.

In case you might be thinking, “I already have too much ‘stuff’, ‘nicknacks’, ‘whatnots’, ‘tchotchkes’ or ‘brick a brack’  I can’t buy anymore, I will have no place to put it” consider that what you have is most likely DATED.

What you need to do, is ship those dated picture frames and accessories to your local thrift store and get something new.

The essential 3 objects in a tablescape are:

Step #1

A tray or larger coffee table books

A vase of flowers 

Candles

A bowl

Green apples, lemons or limes or green moss balls.

Optional items to add texture and colour:

Decorative Boxes

Coral (Seashells are NOT just for beach houses)

A favourite object you might already own. Note that as soon as you place it on a book or a tray, it elevates it from a tchotchke into an accessory.

Anything with a cute face (okay this is just MY advice, but seriously, how can you walk away from a sweet looking bunny rabbit that looks like this one I posted on my Instagram the other day).

Step 2:

A tray.

If you have a large coffee table (or even if you don’t) a tray always works to corral other items:

If your table is dark, get a white or cream tray, whichever one works with the foundation white in your room.

Serena & Lily

Here’s one from Serena & Lily, if this size doesn’t work, just search for white lacquered trays to find one that works for your table.

Or this gold one from the Pottery Barn is perfect if you want to repeat some brass or gold accents in your living room:

Pottery Barn

If you have a white or light coffee table, then a wooden tray might work well. But think CONTRAST. Don’t put a white tray on a white coffee table. Or a black tray on an espresso brown coffee table.

West Elm

Step #2

Coffee table books. 

Most people don’t own enough of them. So if you’re only buying them to use as a pedestal or a tray like I’m suggesting, either go to a used book store or the sale section of any major bookshop.

I don’t buy books with subjects that are completely unrelated to my clients, but I do buy coffee table books strictly because they are also the right colour.

Sometimes I’ll even take the cover off to see if there’s a better colour underneath.

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So if your living room includes pink, for example, then you would get some books that look like this stack (above).

You don’t need a big stack of books unless you have a large table or a shelf underneath the coffee table. A pink and white one will work great,  because these two books will act as a pedestal for what’s coming next.

A stack of magazines will also work in a pinch. Since I still subscribe to a few magazines, I always have boatloads of them in my house. Whenever it’s time to style a clients home, I will pick up a few stacks from my house, because in my experience, no one ever has enough large books.

See the rest of this interior here

Notice that on this square table, I installed 4 books. The white one with Modern Luxury on it, picks up the purple accents in this living room and the green one on top coordinates perfectly with the green drapes.

Also, I have positioned the items on this tablescape into a square on the middle of the square table.

See the rest of this interior here

When I styled this bathroom for a photoshoot,  you can see I didn’t have a hot pink book in the right size (slightly smaller than the white one) which would have been better than the small pink novel, but it was better than nothing. I liked that the spine of the pink book repeated the pink in the room.

See the rest of the interior here

In this entry (above) I chose a white and blue book which created contrast with the brown entry table and provided an instant pedestal (or the look of a tray) for the crystal vase of yellow roses.

If you don’t buy fresh flowers on a regular basis, get some faux flowers, they have come a long way.

Notice that the two white birds underneath the console table look way better with the graphic blue and white decorative box than they would have sitting on their own.

Step #3

A vase of flowers or bowl of green apples or moss balls.

A tablescape without flowers or something that seems alive like green apples or limes or lemons (even if they are faux) or green moss balls doesn’t seem quite as alive.

See the rest of the interior here.

This coffee table I styled, even when it doesn’t have any fresh flowers on it still feels fresh because of the faux green balls in the bowl.

So, you have a tray (like in the above shot) now and two books, find a shallow decorative bowl, more shallow than the one in the above photos is just fine. like this one:

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If you introduce a coral, than I would choose a more simple shallow bowl, but this one (above) would look great with 3 moss balls or 5 faux green apples in it.

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If you’d like to add some warmth and texture this is a good one that would look pretty in a tablescape.

Pottery Barn

A basket will also work just as well as a bowl as a vessel for moss balls or fruit.

Or look for a shallow bowl in the accent colours of your living room, that works too!

Coral

I have coral all over my house, in a bathroom, they look good just sitting on a towel. Of course the ottoman in my main (needs to be renovated) bathroom becomes purely decorative too. You can’t stick your clothes on it when you’re having a bath, but hey, it looks good.

See the tour of my house here.

The last image of the living room (above) you can see that I placed a coral on top of two books. You should just get two of them right now. They look good anywhere.

Here are some green moss balls:

You can buy them here in 5 different sizes so you could get one medium size (5″) and two smaller ones 3″ depending on the size of your vessel. Maybe 3 medium size or 5 smaller ones would work too?

If you prefer fruit to balls you can get green or red apples here. Make sure you buy five or seven of them. It works the same for styling objects as it does for flower arranging. Odd numbers look better than even.

Mayfair

I always have fresh flowers on my kitchen island but not EVERYWHERE throughout my entire house so I have my fair share of faux flowers. If I had fresh flowers everywhere that I have fake ones, I would need a full-time florist in here just like a hotel.

Wayfair

Anyway, faux flowers have come a long way. And the good ones are expensive so don’t get cranky when you see the price, just think of what real ones would cost weekly and you’ll snap them up ASAP.

See the full range of faux flowers at Wayfair here.

Step #4

Candles or Votives

Okay so to keep it easy, let’s stick to votives shall we?  Two or three votives with tea lights from IKEA (the best place to buy them) and you’ll have atmosphere for four hours.

These are pretty decorative votives that would look nice anywhere. (Serena & Lily)

West Elm

I love this collection of colourful votives and hurricane lanterns. Two or three of these would be perfect on so many tablescapes.

Crate & Barrel

If your house is more contemporary, these would look great on a coffee table!

So there you have it! The beginners guide to tablescaping. I hope this inspires you to clear off the magazines from your coffee table and get decorating!

I also have a favour to ask. Terreeia and I love Chicago and are thrilled to be spending almost two weeks there in May with two Specify Colour with Confidence events. When I launched my courses this Spring, our first Chicago date sold out almost immediately so we scheduled a second one for the following weekend, but we have a few days in between courses.

Where should we stay? What should we do? Where should we go? I’d love your advice!

Happy Easter everyone!!

Related posts:

The Real Reason Your Lighting Sucks

How to Create Instant Atmosphere In Your New House

How to Create a Vignette or Tablescape

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  1. Maria
    You continue to amaze me… still a super fan LOL
    The photo of your bathroom that quote “needs to be renovated” is probably the best advertisement for you and your business.
    The room looks “fantastic”!!! it is styled so beautifully… and then you really look and search and say well maybe it could use a reno… BUT it looks better than many brand new bathrooms I have seen.
    Keep inspiring us. So appreciate it.
    Happy Easter to you and yours

  2. Chicago: Architecture Boat Tour a must, Take a Segway tour from Millennium Park which take you right into the Bear’s Stadium and you cover so much ground all along the lake. If you haven’t Segway’ed before, you must! All in one place: The fun fun fun Millennium Park (The Bean! The Fountains! The Bandshell!) and its fabulous Lurie Garden (my favorite thing in Chicago which leads you straight into the Chicago Museum of Art– ) ….. if its warm enough you can put your toes in the garden’s stream from its boardwalk! And across the street is The Chicago Cultural Center…. it was the first Public Library of Chicago, but above all has TWO Tiffany Stained Glass Domes (only ones in the world) and stained glass mosaics all over the building done by women in the Tiffany Studios, because their fingers were smaller and could execute more delicate work….. Speaking of Stained Glass, on the Navy Pier is a museum of Stained Glass, more in one place than I’ve ever seen. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House on the campus of U Chicago, and if you go back with your nephews, the Museum of Science and Industry. And that’s just a start! Did I say I love Chicago???

    • I’m in Chicago too. All I can say to this list is… YES. Saved me some time typing! LOL

      I would add to Maria – stay at the Hotel Allegro in the theatre district – beautifully renovated Art Deco/Modern mix.

  3. Willis Tower has this cool glass ledge you can walk out on. Florodoro is a neat clothing and shoe shop. Portillos for Italian beef. Ann Sather for breakfast. Check out the pool at Hotel Intercontinental -its a stunning mosaic. There is so much shopping on Michigan Avenue. Love the water tours and museums.

  4. Hi Maria – I hate to be SO thick, but what do you consider “medium and small” moss balls?? There are 5 different sizes on the link…Thank you!!

  5. Great post! Chicago? You may have already done these if you have been before but, if not, or even again, definitely don’t miss:

    1. Chicago Architecture Foundation – for one of their famous tours. It may be too early for the boat tours, but the walking tours are excellent, and the longer bus tour includes the Frank Lloyd Wright house – a must-see for the designers among us.

    2. Art Institute of Chicago – fascinating temporary exhibits and a world-class permanent collection. Start in the morning, break for lunch on site, and finish in the afternoon – you may even find a talk or a tour that interests you.

    3. Restaurants: Alinea – but you’ll need to book now, and The Purple Pig – both outstanding!

    4. Where to stay? So many great choices but I would pick somewhere in the Loop, then check what’s playing in the theatre district while you are there.

    Jealous!!

  6. Hi Maria, I have an unusual suggestion for what you and Terreeia should do with some of your free time while you’re in Chicago! I’d like to invite the two of you to visit a fantastic consignment shop, in Northbrook, located just minutes from the Chicago Sheraton Northbrook! Village Treasure House – We are not for profit and in the almost 20 years we’ve been in existence, we have given over 2.5 million dollars to local agencies serving women and families in crisis. It would be an honor to have you and Terreeia visit our shop! We are open 10-5, Tuesday thru Saturday, but would certainly be available to you beyond our regular shop hours. We would love to see you!!!!

  7. Good post Maria, just what I needed to see for my coffee table. I now need to get a wooden tray to decorate it with and some ornaments. Thanks.

  8. I have to laugh at myself while reading this, but at the same time I’m honored to have made it into your post! (for those reading, I am the recent “omg are these lamps too big e-design client” – for the record, now that I’ve had them for a few days, I totally realize how perfect they are!) My husband and I marvel daily how pretty our house looks and that without you telling us exactly what to buy, we would have wasted so much time trying to figure it out! Unfortunately I was often told that I “didn’t have an eye for art and color” (my mother, but that’s for the shrinks office lol) and it stuck with me, so that’s my excuse for needing to be told exactly what to buy….. I also beleive in finding the best professional to help you when you don’t have the confidence and/or skills to do something, so Thank you again for being the absolute best! 🙂

  9. You can find long-burning votive candles online. I got some for someone once who entertains enough that candles going out in the middle of entertaining was a pain. I think I got them at Quick Candles.

    As far as coffee table books, I definitely think they need to relate to something the person is interested in. Otherwise, it’s like they’re living a fake life. 😉

  10. Hi Maria,

    Chicago – oh my. Chicago Art Institute. Museum of Science and Industry. Planetarium.
    Hancock Building. Original art deco all over the place – do a web search. Take a lakeside cruise.
    Or a helicopter tour.

    Have fun!

    Richard

    • hi Maria,

      Thank you so much for the Tablescapes for Dummies post! For some reason I could never figure tables capes out, mine ended up looking like a random collection of objects, kind of like junk. I’m excited to try to make some!

      Cammie

  11. Maria, I took your class in Chicago in 2015 and loved it, and also fell in love with the city. I echo some of the other comments – the architectural boat tour was wonderful, and definitely eat some small plates at the Purple Pig, or go to Eataly! Merchandise Mart too…. I am sort of forcing my child to look at colleges there, so we are visiting again in late April.
    As for the post, Amen and thanks to you! I don’t know why I struggle the most with tablescapes – especially dining tables when I am staging. Any tips for dining tables in particular? I want them to look casual and not “forced” – never set them for dining, and can’t use lamps or books, so I always struggle a little. A tray is great start, but sometimes can look small on a long table. Any insight would be greatly appreciated!

  12. Head north to Wisconsin! You can stay and visit in Milwaukee (1-1/2 hrs from north suburbs of Chicago) or head further north to Door County (probably 4 -5 hours north of suburbs; I am partial to Fish Creek because of its central location on the peninsula and proximity to the state park).

  13. Maria, thank you for this post! You’ve made it all so simple that I am feeling inspired to “shop my house.” I homeschool my 3 youngest children (I have 4) so the coffee table often gets cleared because someone wants to use it for building or drawing or whatever they can imagine. Using a tray will make it simple to put everything back when we’re done. I’d love to see a similar post about mantels. We have a beautiful, classic fireplace and I am at a loss as to how to style it. Thanks for your blog; you have taught me so much!

  14. Thank you for such a useful advice! Any chance you would do something similar for mantels? I have a very high ceiling and everything I put on the mantel shrinks in comparison. Your insight and expertise is so valuable – thank you for sharing it with us.

    • I second this request! I have a two story brick fireplace and I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve tried looking for inspiration photos on Houzz and Pinterest without success. I’d love to send you a photo if you decide to cover this topic.

  15. Chicago? If you’re there in May you might be in time for the Wright Plus homes tour in Oak Park (May 20). If you aren’t there in time for the tour, please consider the walking tour version, and a tour of the Wright Home and Studio — http://flwright.org/wrightplus
    And the Art Institute (they have Caillebotte’s Paris Street: Rainy Day)
    and all the Architecture tours aforementioned…

  16. Thank you for this post Maria! I have all the objects, but can never make them look right. TJ Maxx and Marshalls have had amazing faux plants and fruit lately…and the prices are great! They have an area with everything you could ever need/want to make your coffee table look like your pictures. BTW, I don’t work for them. 😉

    • Maria,
      Could you do a post sometime on displaying collections? My Mom has an amazing collection of Milk Glass, but it looks clutter-y to me. I think other people collect things too and don’t know how to display them properly.
      Thanks from a long time fan!

  17. Maria, you are the champ at tablescapes! Loved this post! I have 8 tables in my living room plus mantel and 2 bookcases. Would it be overkill to put flowers on each one? Do you recommend a limit and if so what? Is there a recommended ratio of flowers, moss balls, fruit and seashells?

    • Hi Diana, Hmm. . . that is a good question. For flowers you might have a bunch in a vase on your coffee table or mantle, but then maybe just one flower in a vase in the other area. . . It’s hard to be formulaic here but think about it in terms of what you are looking at, at the same time. I have flowers on my mantle but my sideboard in the family room is on the other side of the room so I’m not really looking at them both at the same time so I’m find with having flowers there too. But I probably wouldn’t have more than one bowl of moss balls in the same room. And probably more than 2 corals or seashells would start looking beachy unless you were doing a bookshelf vignette where you’d want several so it looks coordinated.
      Hope that helps!
      Maria

  18. Also on U of C campus is a hidden gem, The Oriental Institute, with the cultural riches of the ancient world (and a great little gift shop).

  19. Thx for another very helpful post. I will save it as I never know what to put out so go bare for fear of looking cluttered. Appreciate the ideas and pics to illustrate your points.

  20. Wonderful, Maria! One thing that has always baffled me is the height of lamps in relation to the table. Doing a quick onscreen measurement, in every case the lamps chosen in the examples you provided are almost exactly the height of the table! You could use a smaller lamp if you specifically wanted a more diminutive look, such as in a child’s room, and of course the width of the lamp has to match the look. I also only recently realized that if you can’t find a lamp base in the exact color you want, you can always have lampshades made in that shade. In the dining table scene, you might substitute tall, thin buffet lamps with bright green shades.

  21. I loved this post! Even though I don’t consider myself a “dummy”(and I know you don’t either) and learn something from almost every post, this one, with the step by step thought process you go through, including a contrasting tray, and books colors is what I read decor blogs for. Painting my wooden tray a creamy white and shopping for the right color coffee table books this afternoon!

  22. Very informative post! I agree about erring on the side of bigger. My pet peeve is rugs that are too small for the space/room. The right size rug, or even one that is “too big” makes things look richer. Like those lamps in the first picture!

  23. I never fail to learn something new and brilliant from you, Maria! Still struggling with choosing rugs, but at least I’m learning great ways to make our home pop, thanks to you. And I’m still in love with the wall colors we have from your brilliant color boards.

    • Thanks Victoria what a lovely comment! And thank you for being my very first subscriber 8 1/2 years ago!! xoxo Maria

  24. No shortage of coffee table books in my house! I live near our public library and jokingly call our house the library annex. Art, history and architecture for me, photography and history for my husband, and classics, poetry, philosophy and yes, more history for our son. No way could we ever arrange them artfully by color, but a few could perhaps serve as accessories:)

  25. Hi Maria! I visited Chicago (for the first time ever) in March of 2016 and we took a little tour of this house: http://www.driehausmuseum.org

    LOVED IT! Gorgeous. When we were there, they had an exhibit of period clothing and jewelry used on the Downton Abbey set. Presently, there’s a French Poster exhibit going on there for a while. Enjoy your time there!

  26. You’ve received a lot of great suggestions for things to do in Chicago and I’d like to add a couple more. Consider taking the long way from downtown Chicago to Northbrook. The route of Lake Shore Drive (LSD) to Sheridan Road is full of Chicago area treasures. LSD hugs Lake Michigan and you’ll continue to catch glimpses of the lake as you go through the towns along Sheridan Road. This route also offers a great variety of Chicago architecture from high-rises to Chicago-style bungalows to old, stately mansions. The Baha’i Temple is just off Sheridan Road in Wilmette. The temple is extraordinary and the gardens are beautiful – well worth even a quick stop. Another place to visit not far from Northbrook is the spectacular Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. There’s so much to see outside of the city. I hope you’ll have the chance to enjoy some of it!

  27. Thanks so much for this post on tablescapes! I copied the list and went shopping. Scored a great candle with a glass hurricane trimmed with gold to tie in with a nearby chandelier, a gold and cream inlaid shell tray, and a beautiful orchid to round out the coffee table books I already have. It looks fabulous! And smells great too.