Sandy Chilewich loves to challenge people’s perceptions of a properly set table.
The founder and creative director of the Chilewich brand of place mats dumped traditional linen tablecloths 16 years ago for a more modern look. Her line of woven vinyl place mats and runners, made of a material produced for the outdoor furniture industry, has found its place at many a meal.
Even restaurants gladly canceled laundry services and set up the wipe-clean, minimalist Chilewich mats on their rustic farm tables and metal counters.
Chilewich, 65, has always been an innovator: Her first big success was as a co-founder of Hue legwear in 1978. (If you were around back then, you won’t forget the excitement over Hue’s stretchy cotton tights that came in zillions of colors.) That company was sold in 1991.
Chilewich, who discovered the woven vinyl while researching materials for another project, today manufactures 40,000 place mats a week in a Georgia facility. The company also uses this same material to make floor mats, wallcovering, carpeting and tote bags.
Chilewich says she was delighted when her glossy, off-white table runners were selected to be used last May at the Obamas’ Nordic State Dinner at the White House. “It was such an honor and one of the most thrilling things that has ever happened to me,” she says.
I caught up with Chilewich last week when she came to the opening of the Design Within Reach studio in Georgetown, which includes a Chilewich shop.
Why do people find table setting and tablescapes so hard?
It’s actually easier to dress your table than to dress yourself. It’s not so personal. You can play with your table and see it as a creative moment. It doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s.
How do you set your table?
For me setting the table is a very engaging process. I am all about pulling things from your home that can enhance it. I love collecting plates. I like to tell people to set with what they have: The dishes don’t have to match. You don’t have to use flowers in the middle. It’s about color and texture; try perfume bottles, rose petals, rocks. What about a weird-looking cookie or walnuts on a plate? It doesn’t have to be expensive.
What is your take on traditional table setting rules for where things like glasses and flatware should go?
I do put forks and knives and glasses in the traditional spots mostly. I usually put the napkin on the plate either just folded or often with a napkin ring. I always feel that a napkin on the side of the plate looks uneven and prefer the symmetry of the napkin on the plate; it centers each place setting. Often I will put the water or wine glasses on a tray along with a carafe of water or wine somewhere in the middle of the table. This is an opportunity to add color and texture, and it’s less crowded when you first sit down.
How do you use runners for a dinner party?
I love to take two runners and crisscross them on a table. Or you can do one runner and two place mats on either edge.
Tell us about your latest design, the oval place mats that are cut on an angle.
“On Edge” is a breakthrough for me because I treated the table like a canvas. The idea came from a Salvador Dali painting of melted clocks, “The Persistence of Memory.” I tried to drape the fabric, but it did not work, so I actually took scissors and cut it. The oval mats have straight edges that line up with the edge of a table. So many of my design breakthroughs are accidents.
What about napkins?
I like linen napkins, and most of the time I do iron them. I now make my own line of 100 percent linen napkins to go with the colors of the place mats. But I’m trying to develop a very good-looking washable napkin that doesn’t have to be ironed.
How have these mats changed restaurant dining?
Before I did these place mats, the way you defined fine dining was a white tablecloth, and the way you defined casual was a checkerboard cloth. These have such ease of care, they were a natural for the restaurant industry, although I didn’t even think about restaurants when I designed them.
How do you clean the place mats?
You can roll them up and put them in the dishwasher. But I would not do a heated dry setting. Take them out of the dishwasher, unroll and lay flat. Or you can put them in the sink and soap them up with a sponge and them wipe with clean water. They wear like iron.