1. Set your table one to two nights early. This also means getting out all of the serving pieces you need. I like to put sticky notes on each platter and bowl so I know what goes where.
2. Have an extra folding table and some folding chairs on hand in case your guest list grows. I ordered the Folding Party Table ($159) and tablecloth (I like the simple burlap one because it goes with everything and works for every season: $90) and the Louis Folding Chairs ($99 each) from Ballard Designs. They are comfortable and stylish — it’s hard to believe they are folding chairs.
3. Take the time to arrange your seating plan beforehand to avoid confusion or awkward seating arrangements.
4. Keep your centerpiece low enough so that when you sit at the table you can see the person across from you. Centerpieces don’t have to be million-dollar bouquets. Keep them inexpensive, simple and long-lasting. Ideas: Fill a bowl or glass compote with clementines (available at this time of year at just about any grocery store). Not only will the citrus fruit last more than a week, but they also can become part of the meal. Group several similar-colored vases and vessels in different shapes and sizes to make a sculptural centerpiece. Cut any single variety of flowers or leaves and mass them together in a vase. My preference is to stick to one variety and color of flower and always buy three times more than you think you need. Two of my favorites: carnations and magnolia leaves.
5. Invest in cloth napkins. You do laundry often anyway, so what’s a few more cloth squares to throw in the wash? Just make sure you spray them with stain remover once you clear the table — then you don’t have to worry about washing them right away.
6. Mix and match china. Gone are the days of the five-piece place setting. It’s so much more interesting to layer your grandmother’s china with your everyday pieces (not to mention more practical). I use dishwasher-safe plates for dinner and fancier antique plates for dessert, mostly because the latter are easier to hand wash. Also, think about varying patterns, textures and materials. Wood, china and glass plates, when mixed together, give a table visual interest. This means varying glassware, too. I often set the table with fanciful stemmed Juliska wine glasses alongside my Diod tumblers from Ikea — the juxtaposition is unexpected and fresh.
7. Odd-numbered groupings usually look better than even.
For example, three centerpieces on a long table look better than four, and seven votives look better than six.
8. If you are serving a buffet, vary the height and shape of your serving dishes. Nothing makes a buffet look more unattractive than putting all of the food at the same height and in the same size bowl or platter. If you don’t have a footed cake stand or footed compote, you can always elevate a plate by putting it on top of a glass cylinder vase.
9. Add whimsy. I like to put a little party favor at each place setting. I have used such treats as a pretty frosted cookie from Eleni’s New York, chic printed paperbacks from Penguin Classics and picture frames with a photo of the guest already inserted in it.
10. Relax and have fun. Decor-taining is about having things look good. But more important, it’s about spending time with friends and family. Every table will look beautiful when it’s surrounded by smiling faces.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”