What You Need to Create a Next-Level Tablescape, According to an Event Planner

From dinnerware to table linens, here’s what you need to take your holiday meals from ordinary to memorable.

Ellie Nottoli | Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Ellie Nottoli | Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
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One of the best ways to make a holiday meal stand out from any other is by accompanying and integrating it with a plethora of festive decor. Beyond the delicious meal, there’s something about sitting down to a table bursting with a beautifully curated display. Plus, it serves as the perfect backdrop for collecting the memories you’re about to make.

Unfortunately, we’re not all blessed with the talents of interior design, which can make creating a unique tablescape a bit daunting. So, to give you the confidence and knowhow you’ll need to pull off a wonderfully personal table setting of your own, we asked Ellie Nottoli—an event planner and stylist—for advice on how to easily execute a beautiful holiday-worthy tabletop. She owns an event planning company in Lake Forest, Illinois, and specializes in decorating weddings, home gatherings, birthdays, and intimate dinner parties.

Thrillist: What inspired you to pursue party planning?
Ellie Nottoli: I started my business about five years ago and it really stemmed from my love of entertaining. That sort of met with my love for art and design. I kind of found a way to implement design onto a tabletop and to events in general.

What’s the first thing to consider when planning and designing a dinner party?
Nottoli: I like to think of my approach to events as storytelling. How can we tell the story about a couple through the design and styling elements that we choose? Even if it's bar signage or the signature cocktail that we choose. Everything's very intentional and purposeful. We pull Pantone colors and kind of build from there and then talk about details like, do they want a formal sit down dinner? Do they want more of a cocktail past appetizer situation? So we sort of go down this checklist of what they want their event to look like.

What color combinations would you use for holiday parties?
Nottoli: I have some clients that are really traditional and love red and green. I have some clients that are very sort of avant-garde and they like more of an off-color for Christmas. My own personal taste is to do something a little bit unexpected. And even if we're pulling in traditional tabletop, like the Spode collection for example, everyone's grandma has it, right? It's probably been passed down to too many people. I'm so inspired by nature, so I love to bring in a lot of organic elements, a lot of textures through different woods, like birch bark or even just evergreen greenery on the tabletop. We've set some beautiful holiday tables, Christmas tables that are blue and grey and it still has a very festive holiday feel to it.

Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

Let’s get to table must-haves, what elements do you like to incorporate in every tabletop?
Nottoli: [There’s] a couple of components I want to share with you about table top:

  • Linen: I think certainly for Thanksgiving, which lends itself to more of a casual meal for most families. If there's a really pretty kind of farm table, I love to use that exposed wood. It just feels a little bit warmer and a little bit less formal. We like to incorporate texture through either a really beautiful runner on that wood table or through a full linen if they prefer a linened table. [For] a really formal sort of mahogany-esked table, sometimes you can dress that down with a really beautiful, full linen that has some texture, like a really loose woven linen.
  • Dinnerware: I have several sets of my grandmother and great-grandmother's vintage china, and I am a huge fan of using what you have, using what is in your family. I love the sentiment, especially when you're setting a holiday table. I love the formality of a china plate, and I think there's a way you can mix and match it with something that's current and new. One of my favorite go-to collections is the Mercer collection from Crate & Barrel. It's just a really simple clean plate that has a little bit of texture on it. You can actually use it as a dinner plate or a charger. So often we'll use that dinner plate as a layer, as the charger, and then put a piece of china on top of it, just to create a little bit of a juxtaposition. And then depending on what you're serving, if you're serving soup, then of course a bowl would be appropriate. Salad plates are great for a first course or for desserts. We have quite a collection of Depression glass dessert plates that we use often for appetizers or salads or dessert.
  • Utensils: Utensils are another thing that is really easy to source [and] relatively inexpensive. Even Target has great gold flatware, rose gold flatware. Crate & Barrel has some beautiful bamboo handled flatware. I think that's another place. You can almost think of it as jewelry for your tabletop. It's an accessory and I think that it's much more accessible now to splurge and buy a set of 12 or 20 of a different kind of flatware than you use every day.
  • Glassware: The glassware is really similar to the plates and the flatware. I think of it as an accessory. It's just a really nice place where you can bring in color, texture. Again, we use a lot of that Depression glass, which has a texture to it. I like to mix and match that with modern styles, whether it's just a really simple, beautiful Riedel wine glass. Estelle glassware is really beautiful. It's more modern, it's clean, but it comes in the most delicious color spectrum. I think that's a really beautiful way to tie in, whether you have a pattern on your plate, or if you're using florals that have a specific color. It's just a nice way to kind of complete that storytelling.
  • Decor: I'm a huge believer in candle light, even if it's a luncheon. I think [it’s] just really important to pull in natural elements, and a flame just adds that kind of sparkle and warmth and essence to a table. It just kind of makes everything kind of come alive and you can find taper candles in any color.
  • Styling tip: Another way that I like to kind of bring life to the table is through fruit and vegetables as styling elements. It may sound bizarre, but to kind of think about seasonal fruit that you could place on your runner, or even on the dinner plate as a place card maybe. Often for Thanksgiving or Christmastime, we'll find a fruit of that season like a persimmon or a pomegranate, and we'll physically write the guests' names right on the piece of fruit and use that as their place card. It's beautiful. I think that's a really good inexpensive styling tip, to just go to your grocery store and find some really beautiful fruits and vegetables to incorporate on your table.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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