How to set a formal table


Setting an elegant table is more than just knowing where the salad fork goes. It's paying attention to the small details that add up to a gracious experience. Watch how designer Rebecca Cole sets an elegant table.

How to set a formal table

Here are tips for putting an elegant table arrangement together:

Candles add the ambience: 

  • A taper candle is a good choice for a formal table. Tall candlesticks like those made by Michael Aram are very nice. They come in different heights--mix and match the heights of both the candles and the candlesticks for a great look. 
  • Cut off a bit of malleable candle beeswax and push into the base of the candlestick before adding the candle. The wax will keep the candle tight in place. 

Arranging the place settings:

  • When setting a formal table, each setting should be identical. From the placement of the plates to the fold of the napkin, everything is aligned the same way. 
  • The napkin always goes on the left side unless you put it on the plate or in some other way. The fold of the napkin will go on the outside so the edges go in. And also the edge goes at the bottom whereas the fold goes at the top.
  • Each guest should have at least three different glassware. Typically there would be a wine glass placed above the knife, a champagne glass a little right of the spoon, and a water glass to the right of the champagne glass, slightly above. The three form a little triangle.

Arranging the silverware:
  • Every course should have its own silver piece: teaspoons, dessert forks, salad forks, dinner forks, et cetera. 
  • All silverware should be on the table when you sit down -- don't bring out dessert forks later when you serve dessert. All silver should be in its appropriate order of courses. This ensures that a guest doesn't end up eating dessert with the dinner fork they just used.
  • When arranging a formal setting, place the salad fork on the far left of the plate and work your way towards the plate. Next to the salad fork will be the dinner fork. 
  • On the right side of the plate is the knife; make sure the edge faces inwards. The soup spoon is just outside of the knife. Any other spoons will be to the right of the soup spoon. You might put the dessert spoon above the plate, however, so it's out of the way. 



Hi, I’m Rebecca Cole for howdini, and we’re going to make an absolutely gorgeous, elegant table arrangement.

The first thing we want to do is think of the candles, because I don’t think there is anything that says elegance more than candles. And of all the different kinds of candles we can have in the world, probably the most elegant is a taper candle, which is this. So we have to find some beautiful candlesticks. I like a mix-and-match.
These absolutely gorgeous Michael Aram candlesticks, I think, are terrific. I do like it when they come in different heights because it’s nice to play with heights in the taper candles as well as in the candlesticks.

Some of the fancier candle makers, like Creative Candles, will come with a little beeswax that’s malleable and sticky. I need to use this for two candles, so I’m going to pull some off. Just cut it off and then stick into the base, and that’s going to form a real sticky, much tighter base that I can now put that candle in and really push it down and that’s not going anywhere.

Now, let’s set the table. We have a big enough table here to comfortably seat six. These are also Michael Aram’s gorgeous dinner plates. Even if you’re going to serve elsewhere and bring a plate in, you really need to have the plate at your setting. A plate that has absolute beautiful interest like this gorgeous leaf — this is going to be our salad plate. With an elegant place setting we’re going to be pretty conscious of how the leaf is set up. It’s going to be all facing; all the stems are facing the same way. A more casual arrangement, I think, would be better to mix and match it.

For an elegant place setting, every course should have its own silver piece; teaspoons, dessert forks, salad forks. You don’t want to either reuse or be handed it; so that’s part of what elegant place-setting is, is to have it all set up right now. And basically, the easiest way you can remember doing it is that you want to put things in the order of how you’re going to use them.

So first, the napkin always goes on the left side unless you put it on the plate or in some other way. I think this is a very sort of elegant, formal way to do it. The fold of the napkin will go on the outside so the edges go in. And also the edge goes at the bottom whereas the fold goes at the top. They’re all set on the left. Now, we’re going to put the forks — you start on the outside with the first fork that you would be using, which would be your salad fork because we have our salad plate there. The next after that will be the dinner fork.

On the right side is the knife, and the edge always faces in toward the plate. And then, your soup spoon just outside of that. And if you’re going to serve something else with a spoon, you might have a teaspoon that might be outside that, a dessert spoon. It’s nice to actually put that at the top because then it’s going to be out of the way. Your dessert is usually going to come last.

I’m going to give each guest three different glassware. One is going to be for wine. A nice, big, beautiful wineglass, I think, is very elegant. Wine’s very popular now. There are red and white wineglasses. You might have room on your table to put both kinds of glasses on. I don’t, so I’m going to put a big, beautiful, red wineglass. That goes just above the knife. Just before that is the champagne glass, sort of in line with the spoon — a little bit to the right of the spoon. So that would be the first thing you would grab. And then a water glass. I don’t have all water glasses that are the same. I think that can be very elegant and cool.

But anyway, a nice, big healthy water glass is going to go just to the right of the champagne, up above so you’ve made a little triangle here: champagne, water, wine. And we’re going to do that at each setting.
I don’t think there is anything more elegant than a beautiful little crystal votive holder.

There you go... an elegant dinner party, ready to go.
I’m Rebecca Cole for howdini.

meet theexpert
  • Rebecca Cole

    Rebecca Cole Floral and Interior Designer Rebecca Cole is now one of the most in-demand interior and landscape designers in the country and has been declared a 'stylish, urban horticulturist' by New York Magazine and a 'garden guru' by the New York Post. more about this expert »

make the most of MAKEUP

get more fromexperts