The Community Table

The Art of Table Settings


June 19, 2018

6:38 PM
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How you set a table creates the first impression at any dinner party. It sets the tone for the evening and confesses the depth of the efforts made to create a perfect event for your guests. Less formal parties are marked by a buffet style setting where there are no place settings, only stacks of plates and piles of cutlery. A formal dining room set perfectly cannot only be beautiful but meaningful.

Formal table settings are an art form. The traditions surrounding placement are grounded in history, can be traced back to the Old Testament and are even found in the writings of Homer. Historically, taking the time to set a proper place at the dining table with the correct utensils was just as important as using the proper manners while eating. Even today, the care that is taken to make sure a dinner party is perfect honors every guest.

Originally, each item at a setting was  decided by the seating arrangements of the invited guests. Seating arrangements were decided by the hosts and organized according to comfort, mobility, and ease of conversation. Being seated next to the host was always considered the seat of honor. The way the table was set was not much different from the way we set the table today. The rules of table setting are a blend of traditions that stem from European history.

During the Middle Ages, cutlery was not common and only a spoon was provided at each place setting. Each guest brought their own cutlery to dinners. Men would use their daggers to cut food and the women would be served by the men. Forks had not yet arrived from Italy, so much of the food was eaten with fingers. However, with the knives being both weapons and utensils, people were continually puncturing their mouths, leading to the development of table cutlery around the sixteenth century.

During this time, dinner courses were served much like our family style dinners we still enjoy today. The food was brought out to the tables in large bowls or on large platters that served two or more guests, and everyone ate at the same time. This was called service à la française meaning service in the French style, and it was the chosen method of place settings for royalty and nobility from the Middle Ages through the Victorian Era.

Between 1750 and 1900 there was a shift that led to even more elaborate table settings and serving etiquette. Service à la française gave way to service à la russe, or service in the Russian style. This style of service involved courses being brought to the table in sequential order by servants who used dishes and utensils specific to the dish being served. This style of serving dinner and table setting is like dining at a restaurant today.

The service à la russe is the tradition that has become the standard to which we consider table setting etiquette today. Place settings became part of the décor and grew into elaborate displays that are still practiced by those who enjoy formal dining today. The formality of the setting is what creates the impressive display. In order to do it correctly, there are rules that need to be followed.

To begin, all lower edges of the utensils should align with the bottom rim of the plate and rest about one inch away from the side of the plate as well as the edge of the table. Each utensil should be handled by the waist to avoid any fingerprints. Each setting requires a minimum of 15 inches between settings to maintain comfortable elbow room for each guest.

Butter should be waiting for each guest on individual butter plates, and the water glasses should be filled. The wine should be ready but not poured. The water glass should be placed one inch from the tip of the butter knife. The knives should be placed facing the plate. Do not place more than three places of flatware along either side of the plate at one time unless you are using an oyster fork.

Forks are to be placed to the left of the plate with the furthest from the plate being the salad fork. The basic rule is to place utensils from the outside in, according to the order they will be used. Therefore, at more formal meals where the salad is served after the main course, the forks should be ordered accordingly.

The dinner plate is placed on the table as the main course is being served, not when the guests are seated. Large plates are to be laid about one inch from the edge of the table. The salad plate is to be placed to the left of the forks, while smaller plates like the salad, fish, and dessert plates are to be placed about two inches from the edge of the table.

The dinner knife is to be placed on the right side of the plate directly one inch away from the plate, and the blade should be facing the plate. However, if the main course requires a steak knife, it can be substituted for the dinner knife.

The soup spoon is to be placed at the far right of the outside knife. A small bread plate should be placed above the forks, but above and to the left of the service plate. The butter spreader is to be laid out on the bread and butter plate.

Glassware is where you may use a bit of your own creative freedom, but still within limits. It is customary to provide a water goblet and one wine glass. However, if the table is not too crowded, arranging glassware for additional drink courses is to your liking. For instance, the glasses can be arranged parallel with the edge of the table or diagonally toward the edge of the table.

Water goblets are to be placed closest to the hand of your guest, approximately one inch above the tip of the dinner knife. The wine glass should sit directly to the right and slightly above the water goblet.

Napkins should be placed directly in the center of the place setting or to the left of the last fork. A cup and saucer are to be placed to the right of the setting, and a coffee spoon sits to the right of the saucer, one inch beyond the outmost piece of flatware. The top edge of the saucer should be aligned with the top rim of the plate or bowl of your setting. The cup handles should be at the four o’clock position for easy access.

The dessert spoon (or knife) is laid on the table above the dinner plate, horizontally with the handle facing right. The dessert fork is to be laid beneath the dessert spoon with the handle facing left.

Because more people use salt than pepper, the salt should be placed on the right, positioning it closer to the hand that is most commonly used.

Today, formal table settings and dining etiquette that dictates each setting are a beautiful combination of both service à la française and service à la russe. The formal place setting is designed to be a stunning display while maintaining functionality during the meal.

When you decide to plan a formal dining experience, taking the time to plan the perfect table setting to match your menu is a gift that you give to your guests. Every aspect of the setting will mean more as you learn the history of each choice, and it makes for a great conversation starter at any occasion.


June 19, 2018

6:38 PM


Location: The Lightwell Gallery OU School of Visual Arts
          University of Oklahoma

Year:    2017

Team:    Jarica Walsh, Curator
         Reva Kashikar
         Rebecca Curtis
         Sterling Smith

For Symbiotic I am inspired by the idea of the community table. Something that is ubiquitous in many cultures around the world and often symbolizes inclusiveness. A table and the table setting are easily identified objects that have a strong visual relationship to community and our understanding of that notion.

But the tables we often see are not the ones we are invited to be at. As artists we struggle to get into and be included in a community, we have to carefully gauge our interactions and persona to be part of. As professionals we know that there are many community tables that are far from inclusive and to “get a seat at the table” can be a long process of climbing a corporate ladder or paying your dues before there is any sort of inclusion at the table for you. And what of the millions of people who go hungry around the world on a daily basis, where is their community table? It is in this sense that the concept of the community table came to mind for a medium scale installation work in Lightwell gallery.