Dinning & Wine

How to Style a Table for a Laid-Back Summer Meal

Ask any creative type about their entertaining philosophy and their answer will almost always be that their guests are the most important element of any meal. The rest — the food, the plates, the glasses, the music — is, in a sense, just the dressing. And yet, that doesn’t mean that they don’t also take those trimmings at least somewhat seriously. After all, if your job requires an eye for aesthetics, you’re likely to have an opinion about what lighting is most welcoming, or whether to offer charcuterie instead of crudités. So what are the tried-and-tested practices those people stick to when they have friends over? We asked three Los Angeles natives — Alex Tieghi-Walker, the founder of the gallery and design platform Tiwa Select; Saehee Cho, the chef, stylist and founder of the food subscription service Soon Mini; and the florist Tabia Yapp of the studio Bia Blooms, who also runs the talent agency Beotis — to share their advice for creating a table as stimulating as the company.

As might be expected, Tieghi-Walker’s approach is to prioritize unusual objects and textiles on and around the table, Cho makes use of the abundant produce from her garden and Yapp centers her dinners around exuberant floral arrangements. What they all have in common, though, is a penchant for using what is near at hand and working with their environment (Los Angeles’s cinematic sunsets, says Tieghi-Walker, are perhaps the best possible backdrop for a get-together). What’s more, each has a knack for setting an inviting tone that at least feels effortless, which allows their guests to truly relax and enjoy themselves.

When Alex Tieghi-Walker moved from a cabin in a redwood-forested enclave of Berkeley, Calif., to a more spacious 1920s-era house in the hills of Los Angeles’s Echo Park last year, the country was still in the thick of Covid lockdowns. While he wasn’t immediately able to have friends over, the transition gave him the opportunity to reassess his large collection of furniture and design objects, ranging from family heirlooms and vintage finds (midcentury Alvar Aalto stools, Thonet chairs) to works by emerging talents such as the New York-based artists Minjae Kim and Megumi Shauna Arai, and which he sells through his online gallery. These treasures had long been a source of comfort for his guests at the lively, and typically al fresco, weekly dinner parties he’d organize before the pandemic: Not only are many of the pieces — including face-adorned ceramic mugs by the North Carolina-based potter Jim McDowell and hand-stitched napkins by the Swiss artist Carmen D’Apollonio — functional, they also bring personality to a table. Tieghi-Walker’s new home encouraged him to see his collection with fresh eyes and experiment with less expected combinations, especially when he was eventually able to host dinners on his spacious, junglelike terrace.

Before he even thinks about what objects to put out, though, he considers lighting. “I will actually rewire lamps to create the right ambience,” he says. He recommends warmer bulbs, for their softer and more flattering glow, and will often use extension cords to play with the height of hanging lamps, lowering them to create an atmospheric setting that helps bring new people together, both literally and figuratively. But often your greatest ally is natural light, he advises. “I really try to time dinner so we can be outside when the sun sets,” he says, a decision that allows a party to shift naturally between a daytime and a nighttime energy.

To establish a laid-back mood, Tieghi-Walker invites people to seat themselves (no place cards, in other words), and safety permitting, he likes to strategically overcrowd the table with chairs and benches, forcing people to get close. Near the door to his terrace he places baskets of napkins and mismatched cutlery — among his favorite pieces are weathered Victorian-style knives and forks — sourced from Etsy, eBay and Craigslist, for people to grab on their way to the table. If it’s a cool evening or if he’s serving a midday lunch, he might also lay out vintage ponchos, blankets or sun hats for guests. One constant, no matter the weather or time: expressive, hand-painted ceramic serving plates — laden with simple dishes like roast chicken and vegetables or a quickly thrown-together pasta — from Creative Growth, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that supports artists with developmental disabilities. One features a portrait of a smiling Sean Penn. “I like getting a sense of joy or humor from a meal,” says Tieghi-Walker. “So much of life takes so much effort, but meals are a moment when you should relax, so why overcomplicate it?”

Entertaining can feel like a chore for some chefs, but not for Saehee Cho, who — when she’s not baking elegant custom cakes, interviewing fellow chefs for her newsletter or sourcing produce for her farm-to-home delivery service, Soon Mini — hosts regularly. Shifting your strategy to match the size of a party is key, she says. For bigger gatherings — she sometimes feeds up to 30 people during pop-up events at Windrose Farm in Paso Robles, Calif., where she sets up long tables in the orchard — she advises serving meals family style and using both food and flowers for decoration to create a sense of natural, unfussy abundance. And don’t be afraid to keep the food itself simple. “Larger groups are more convivial, so I like to serve more dips and spreads, appetizers, charcuterie and crudités,” she says. “The other day we just picked turnips, washed them and ate them like rabbits and they were delicious. Even just a potato baked in foil over an open fire can be so good.”

Cho tends to host smaller groups of four to six guests at her home, cooking Korean-inspired dishes that she garnishes with edible flowers and herbs — she recommends a sprinkle of parsley, rosemary or thyme, if you have them — from her backyard, where her meals are always served at a simple picnic table. Her approach to food is holistic, and she takes into account what’s in season and most accessible. “I think of what I have surplus of and try to avoid waste,” she says. Fruits and vegetables nearing the end of their shelf life take priority and what isn’t edible often becomes an ornament for the table. She recently experimented with an arrangement starring a sculptural tromboncino squash grown by the gardener Horace Cameron, and will sometimes incorporate fresh flowers and dried vegetables, like brightly colored corn that she’s left to air in hanging nets on her back porch.

Food is served on a mix of Korean and Mexican ceramics — in 2019 Cho spent time at the Pocoapoco creative residency in Oaxaca, Mexico, and admires the work of the region’s potters. “I feel like every piece of tableware should have a narrative,” she says. “That’s not something you can create quickly. These are pieces that are priceless and represent a particular moment.” Among her collection are delicate porcelain drinking and footed rice bowls by her friend Nancy Kwon, a Korean American sculptor and ceramist, as well as a mug by the Oaxaca-based artist Rufina Lopez that Cho describes as a “study of a universal face.” But it’s an element of natural chaos that defines her approach most of all. “Everything is always a bit wild,” she says. Instead of creating a formal arrangement in a vase, for instance, she’ll often present flowers loose in a bowl at the center of the table, delighting as their scent wafts freely into the evening air.

In her roles as both a talent agent and a florist, Tabia Yapp uses her considerable skill set to make connections. Whose art will align with which gallery, which blooms work with which foliage — these are the kinds of puzzles she delights in. Accordingly, she sees the meals she hosts at her Hollywood home as an opportunity for family and friends to come together and share stories, experiences, knowledge and love. Most recently, this exchange took the form of an “Everything We Missed” dinner party that she held to mark several milestones — including significant birthdays for her grandmother and sisters, her little brother’s high school graduation and her own recent marriage — that her family hadn’t been able to celebrate in person during the pandemic.

Yapp’s first concern is usually creating a floral centerpiece for the table, and she suggests making this a collaborative endeavor. Enlisting your friends or family members to help cut stems and position blooms increases the joy of a gathering, making it, at least in part, a collective effort you can all be proud of. Start by choosing a color palette that will complement your overall vision for the table, she advises, “then select a focal flower that will be the star of your arrangement.” From there, pick out a few additional, more surprising, supporting flowers that will help bring your design to life. “And be sure to cut the stems at varying heights to give the blooms even more personality,” she says. For her recent family dinner, she prioritized yellow, because it’s her grandmother’s favorite color, pairing a centerpiece of yellow roses with a tablecloth of the same hue, goldtone chairs and white ceramic plates.

For more informal meals, Yapp takes a freer approach. Plates, cutlery and napkins don’t need to match — in fact, unexpected combinations are often preferable. To create texture, she chooses tableware of varying shades from the local rental shop Casa De Perrin, the design studio DEEP BLACK and the North Carolina-based East Fork pottery, offsetting the pieces with some of the miscellaneous utensils and serving bowls she’s collected over the years from Los Angeles thrift stores. And to further ensure that meals are never monotonous, Yapp and her husband like to play with feng shui. “Our space is pretty small — around 1,000 square feet — so we find ways to create a few different moments by changing the layout of our furniture,” she says. “We’ve also found that our 20-plus houseplants can add structure and somehow make our modest space feel bigger.” Creating a green backdrop for a table — Yapp especially likes to incorporate her seven-foot-tall cactus and sprawling monstera — can also help guests feel cozier, more comfortable and most importantly, at home.


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