If you ever want to cause a little social anxiety amongst your friends, I've found a great way to do it is to put up an Instagram post of a table setting, with little other detail on it. The text messages and comments will then roll in enquiring exactly who is coming to dinner, and why aren't they?


This table setting above was for a photo shoot at my house, there'll be more on that some other time, but by the time the text messages were coming in that evening, I was packing away the silver and place cards, and instead making Spaghetti Bolognase for the family after a rather long day of trying to make my house Photo perfect.

Plates from Mottahedeh, linen scalloped placemats and napkins from Birdie Fortescue, coloured candles from my friend Kal in random glass candlesticks, watering can place card holders from Ballard Designs, antique Kings pattern silver, and green water glasses from Villeroy and Boch

While I do enjoy entertaining friends and family with a lovely table setting and a more interesting menu than Spag Bol, I was really wanting to discuss table setting in general, because Social Media has divided into two. There are either elaborately set out tables that are often for a fake "entertaining" set up, or they are a dispiriting "keeping it real" post of utensil free tables or kitchen islands with kids eating meals they probably shouldn't with their hands, no placemats or napkins in sight. The middle ground of a standard dinner setting seems to be lacking.

On the face of it, I have no problem with actual stylists setting a table attractively and letting everyone know it's a photo shoot. I have more of a problem with people, civilians if you like, trying to do the same, except pretending it's real life, or a "professional" of some kind pretending it's everyday for them. This leads into the whole problem with social media and the Insta-fake lives that so many lead, whether that be posting a photo of a Paul Bangay designed garden in Sydney Harbour and saying you took the photo when on a holiday in the South of France at a villa you rent each Summer (yes, a New York based designer really did that), or posting the same stack of ironed napkins and gifted plates on your outdoor table claiming breakfast was being served, on a day when the temperature where you were was about 9C (did everyone wear puffas?)


Breakfast is served - eating outside when it's 9C, plus a chicken, at Melissa Penfold's house at Bowral via Instagram

But back to table settings.... I was recently entertained by a post from Sophie Paterson Interiors on Instagram. Sophie is a well known Surrey (England) based decorator with an enormous social media following on Instagram. She was hosting 10 other designers over for a networking dinner at her house, for which she had styled her house immaculately and brought in a chef to cater. Her dinner placements were elaborately laid out with multiple glasses, sets of cutlery, placemats, chargers and napkins fluffed out in rings. There was just one problem: her knife blades were all pointing the wrong way. Cue the reasonably blunt first comment on the Instagram post that the knife blades were pointing the wrong way. Cue Sophie responding in a huffy lengthy paragraph that she was a busy working mother with better things to do than think about knife blades and it was all done in a rush and .......

the offending knife blades via Sophie Paterson Interiors Instagram account 

Putting aside how to respond to comments that you consider rude on social media, (a simple, "thanks, hadn't noticed it" would have saved face and shut down the back and forth of the pile on that then happened, with people hotly debating whether it was of any importance which way the knife blades faced, or if it was irrelevant because it looked pretty anyway), an Australian designer then commented that they'd done a photo shoot for their upcoming "styling your house" series, for which people pay money to take an E -course, and that they'd realised after the shoot that every single table setting they'd photographed they'd put the knife blades pointing the wrong way. They were now feeling a little anxious about the potential backlash.

Attractive table setting, not theirs

As well they should - if you're purporting to be a style expert and people are paying money to learn from you, you really need to ensure that you get the basic details right. Style over substance is the key point here - a simple check on google if you're unsure of your table setting placement would have shown the knife blades were pointing in the wrong way. One thing I have noticed on Social Media is that obviously as you are talking to a global audience, what is the "right" way to do something in one part of the world, is not necessarily the "right" way to do it on the other: there are cultural norms to setting a table, or even in naming something (Serviette vs Napkin etc). Announce something is wrong at your peril...

Via Tory Burch's Instagram account - white cabbageware and Iksel wallpaper

But really,  this all highlights a few things to me. My personal bugbear is that so few sit at a dinner table to eat anymore. I know from my client work that a lot of people want a kitchen Island bench to accommodate their entire family sitting down to eat a meal, however usually there is a dining table immediately adjacent to the island. When you sit at an island you line up on one side, which is not sociable, facing the mess in the kitchen. Eating casually like this (or off your lap in front of a tv) means many people don't actually set a place. You grab cutlery and sit down.... which means that if you've done this all your life, as an adult you may not actually know how to do a basic table setting (just a single knife and fork, a napkin and glass) unless you've worked in hospitality.

The two designers who have made the basic knife blade error are from a generation that likely grew up not being forced to set a table for dinner every night, a generation that on the whole as adults feels more comfortable eating out at a food truck that sells gourmet food at exorbitant prices, rather than sitting in a restaurant that charges the same, but puts a tablecloth on the table (so formal!).

Via Tory Burch's Instagram account

In the end, does knife blade placement really matter? Not really I suppose. It's just a detail... but it's symptomatic of a wider problem - the demise of the importance placed on eating communally, of setting a table every day to enjoy a meal with others, of talking and taking time out from other distractions be that work, or just the world at large with everything we do being plugged into it. Eating dinner with others, and placing an emphasis on visual enjoyment as well as a culinary one is one of those simple things that give dignity to ordinary everyday life, and that place emphasis on enjoying time with others. This is something anyone, from any walk of life can do within their means. It's just sadly symptomatic of society in general that emphasis is placed on doing it only for a special occasion or a photo shoot, not for everyday - it's about Style over Substance.

But then, I guess, that's Social Media in general....


Edit: I'm so sorry but I'm turning off anonymous comments for a while as the blog is being inundated with Spam, and it's becoming very tedious wading through it to find the genuine comments. 

29 comments:

  1. Such a fascinating topic!!!!

    I am all about the table setting- ironed napkins, knives facing in, tablecloths etc. Food and comfort and doing things properly and generously, and making things attractive and cosy is very important me.

    I like my home to be a sanctuary. Probably because of the subject matter in my day job. But I 100% support anyone who takes an opposite view because I'm all about Choice. Yes it takes a bit of time, but it looks so much nicer and people appreciate the effort. I often set the table about 14 hours in advance and I set it the night before for my kid's breakfast (what else have I got to do with my time I only work a 9 day fortnight).

    I do not like the trend of sweet potatoes, onions, a hunk of cheese and stuff like that as fake props for tables. Having said that, maybe you could use them for a harvest festival themed dinner or something.

    I do like coral, candles, shells, flowers, topiaries, carnival glass, antique gilt candlesticks, stuff my Grandma owned and lemons scattered asunder. And I like to theme for certain occasions. Once, I couldn't find a leopard table cloth so I bought a velvet leopard print doona cover and used that. Make do and mend.

    I do not have a kitchen bench so I can't feed my family at one.

    A well set table is instantly cheering. God speed with the tablescapes x

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    1. I think you're the Queen of the table setting FF, yours are always attractively decked out even if it's just for you to sit down to.

      You've made me laugh re the Harvest Festival theme though! So funny!! I'm all for a still life arrangement of vegetables, but some don't make the most attractive groupings - cauliflower, sweet potato and normal potatoes for example... clearly they're missing a few turnips, cabbages and leeks. Something for us all to remember.

      I think it's an interesting thing that something that doesn't cost money, only time, and that can add so much to something simple, has fallen by the wayside. Everyone seems to be time poor, but to use it as an excuse to skip the most basic 5 minute job in favour of posting an instagram pic of yourself with your feet up with a g&t seems to mean priorities are perhaps a little out of whack.

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    2. The less time I have, the more I want my home to be well run and beautifully appointed.

      Our homes give us so much and ask for so little. It's the least we can do to look after them.

      Such an interesting topic. x

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  2. Oh my goodness! GSL just loooooves all this napkin fluffing, piling on, and knife blades directed at fat juicy targets over a deep dish of Spag Bol.

    Bring me the head of Sophie Paterson!

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    1. I'm sure you'll enjoy the comment section immensely on that post GSL - sheer outrage expressed over something with such immense consequences! But I do hope her chef wasn't serving up Spag Bol to her guests....

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    2. Oh, I just skimmed her IG and followed....she's just the sort of Brand -Building Sloaney Mumzy Striver who needs a little GSL in her life.

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    3. ...and her "brand" logo is a $ sign?!?! Where has she been all my life?!?!?!

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    4. I hadn't noticed that! Very clever!

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  3. So glad you broached this subject in such a succinct way too! Thing is everyone wants to be an influencer for a myriad of reasons. But in SP'S case - it is to be a person of reference when you are looking for ways to dress a table for a certain demographic. She isn't casual throw together a salad and bung a chicken in the oven so it was all so perplexing to dictate but then do it wrongly ( in the UK where she is from bc in Korea and most parts of Asia , knives aren't placed at the table at all unless one specifically is eating western food) But this does bring into question what Picasso once said about his style of art as some of his critics wondered why he would draw raw compositions when he was so classically trained and adept at it as well. He said - you can only break the rules after you know and master them first. But all of this is why I took such a long break on social media and am only lightly back to IG!

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    1. Well I'm glad you're back on Social Media N, and I like the parallel that you've just drawn with the Picasso anecdote. I think that's the problem that I have with it - there's nothing wrong with breaking rules... you just need to know that you're actually doing it. And when you're setting yourself up as an aspirational figurehead and style arbiter, then you'd better either get it right or know that you're doing it differently (and justify why to your outraged followers with something other than "I have a child to look after").
      Yes the whole influencer thing is so hackneyed... I guess everyone is in some way or form intentionally or not. I tend to find the more I see something on Instagram the less I want it. That thing that if everyone else is doing it/ wanting it, then I am sick of it!

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  4. Well surely the issue is a class judgement. Any old commoner with an eye for aesthetics can create an eye pleasing tablescape. But only those who have been raised in the "proper" way would understand the blades issue.
    Frankly I find the notion of highlighting someone's ignorance in itself rude.
    A bit like reading the program when your brother in law is exchanging vows - cough cough.
    Sorry cat ---> pigeons

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    1. Yes... the whole U and Non U thing was brought up in the comments in knifebladegate. And it turned into an argument about whether it was impolite to point it out in the first place. It was all fairly entertaining I have to say.
      Oh the Royal Wedding... well now that’s a whole other topic full of loaded issues! I’m hopeful that Naomi writes a blog post on it as she’ll no doubt articulate what I think and add a lot of extra nuances into it that I’ve missed. X

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  5. Oh Heidi! What a thoroughly enjoyable read this has been! I couldn’t agree more - “the more I see something on instagram, the less I want it”!
    Kathryn.

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    1. Hi Kathryn, I'm glad I'm not alone in that sentiment. It seems everyone catches onto the same thing at once and are busy reposting it... and it makes me just think no thanks! x

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  6. Good Morning, so happy to see a new blog post.
    I grew up sitting on the carpet (that was seldom vacuumed) eating off a towel, in front of the tv. We then just shook the towel off the back deck at the end of the meal.
    I probably could have made my island deeper to have the bench hang over and accommodate stools, but I never want to sit on a stool and eat ON the dinner prep. So glad I never bothered.
    My family and I eat every meal at the dining table. The TV is switched off. I think I am mentally scarred from watching quiz shows whilst people yelled out the answer and you weren't allowed to talk because they would miss the questions, my entire childhood. I don't want to hear anything except what my family are up to.
    As well as my husband and my mismatched working schedules, it is truly the only time of the day we get to all sit together as a family. I place great importance on it.
    My daughter Audrey has just been given the task to help set and tidy up the table. We still sit there with a bunch of toys on one end, but we will slowly get there.
    I am gathering from you post (& another comment I caught on insta about MP) not a fan? She bugs me. There is just something I can't put my finger on. She wrote a post about hostess gifts and I just thought it was so rude, but I dared not comment.
    A family member (on my husband's side) LOVES to point out when something is wrong and show how superior he is. It irks me to no end! Ok, they may have overlooked something but you bringing it up to belittle and embarrass them and big note yourself IS WORSE THAN EVERYTHING ELSE! Whewww. Just had to get that off my chest.
    The tablescape you did was lovely and I can't wait to see the book. I will definitely be registering for pre orders!
    XX neoreverie on insta

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    1. Hi Laura! So nice to hear from you. I couldn't get onto blogger for a while (something is wrong with google, this platform is getting very clunky), and just too busy with other stuff for the past few months. I think that's great that you've made such a conscious decision to change the way your family eats from what you "inherited" so to speak, and you always do set a beautiful table, so it's pretty incredible considering you've basically invented it all yourself and did not absorbed it all by osmosis. I agree too, it's the only time we can all catch up properly as a family. It doesn't happen every night, but even if it's just the kids eating together without adults we set the table and the tv is off. And I sit with them and talk and make sure they don't fight with each other....!!
      Well, I think that MP deals in absolutes that can be very strongly worded and from an unusual perspective at times, and that hostess gift post you mention was all those things. A lot of what she writes she lifts from overseas magazine articles, like Tatler, and things are done differently there from here. No one tips a host for an overnight stay here, for instance. It would insult most people and puzzle the rest. And a hostess gift is a gift. You accept it with good grace, thank the person profusely, then get rid of it quietly if you don't like it. Yes, agree with you about your husband's family member too...
      The book is going to be released next year, so a fairly long time to wait unfortunately! Can't wait to see all the other designers houses featured in it too though. xx

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    2. I will never forget the hostess gift post.

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    3. It was quite bizarre.....

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  7. Yes!! My husband and I sit down at the table every night with candles. Our children grew up eating around the table and whether they choose to do so now isn't for me to comment but they happily sit around the table when they visit and stay to talk. Meal times around a table are so important and I always tried to make it 'nice', I am not a stylist, not even a pretend one but we have nice china, cutlery and always candles.....

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    1. I used to light the candles every night, as I'd let whomever of the children that had been the best behaved blow it out at the end of the meal (honestly - it was the biggest incentive for them, so funny!). I think what you're saying is exactly what I was getting at - you don't have to be a stylist to set a nice table. And it's such a shame to just only do it for a special occasion rather than a normal night at home. x

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    2. Yes like keeping the good dinner sets for 'best'. Maybe it's my age but I use everything now when I feel like it what's the point otherwise.

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  8. I was brought up eating dinner at night at a table with no television and encouragement to talk as a family and so copied that with my own children. They have since left the nest but my husband and I still sit down to eat every evening. I wish I could say it's always candles and flowers but it's not . What it is however is time to chat about the day and relax a while, that's my real world.
    Great post Heidi, thank you

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    1. We're not candles and flowers everyday either! Generally it's fairly standard - placemat, napkin, cutlery and water/ wine glasses. I think though, that while I find the standard way we set the table fairly boring as it's the same most days, it's not unpleasant, and we all sit together and talk which is key! Thanks for your comment Kim x

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  9. Never mind table setting, I suspect we have a generation who don't even know how to use cutlery properly. I know someone who employs tertiary educated professionals whose table manners are astonishing. Most seem to be ignorant as to how to hold a knife and fork properly (watch the 20-35 somethings next time you are in a restaurant) and one of his staff members actually licked his knife while at lunch with a multi-$$$ client!

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    1. I think they probably go hand in glove. If you're not sitting at the dinner table, you're not having your table manners corrected as a kid.. which means you'll likely not know what is standard etiquette as an adult. Possibly another reason why food trucks and other forms of casual dining including share plates and things you eat with your hands are so popular amongst a demographic that is younger - you don't have to worry about tripping up on the most basic things (like licking your knife in front of a client!) x

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  10. Love this! I am so sick of the bullllllllllllllllllllllllllllshit! Maybe we should start a hashtag for real dinners only. It's silly because these clownish tables that are so full your only hope of eating would be if a very slight server expertly takes and removes one plate at a time and god forbid anyone need to get up during dinner because one scoot might knock over the ecosystem running down the mid 75% of the table. And you know I like a full table! But there's a line! It's just sad to think that people shy away from entertaining at home because they're intimidated they can't reach a standard that is actually fake!

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    1. OMG I'm laughing so much at your comment Stephen!! Yes to all you've said - the stacks of china on the table (just like it's displayed in a homewares department for sale), the thick foliage that mean you can't see people on the other side of the table... and agree that it's likely intimidating people. The tipping point for me was the woman on instagram that had a table with sand as the base (sea themed, naturally) instead of a tablecloth... you'd definitely be getting grit while eating off that. It was sort of like an installation, rather than a dinner party at home. There were also goldfish in bowls. You couldn't make this up! xx

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  11. I don't like a high stool to sit on to eat. I don't feel comfortable, unless I've had a few wines but then my bottom goes numb.
    I look forward to our new renovated house and eating together at the table as a family, though for the foreseeable it'll be me and my fella on the couch, then at the table cleaning up after an infant.
    I would also be thrilled to come to one of your dinners, not so much for the table setting but I am sure you would bring it in terms of food and vino quality.

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    1. I think you're right about the stools - they're designed to perch, and aren't necessarily the most comfortable things to spend time on for long!

      Are you about to start the reno Cilla?? How exciting!! I know you've been thinking about it for a while, and you'll love the end result (not necessarily the middle bit of the during part, but I'll be a sympathetic ear!) xx

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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