We spoke to stylist Fiona Hugues from Gatherum Collectif about how to conquer entertaining this winter
When planning a mid winter get-together, what are they key things people should consider about styling?
Let your environment set the scene for your gathering. Nature is the perfect designer so let her guide you. You could accent your table with found pebbles or twigs at each place setting, or forage for foliage or local produce to use as a centrepiece. Remember to always serve seasonal food that suits the cooler weather – many slower cooked hearty recipes can be made in advance, allowing you more time to relax with your guests. Make sure, too, that your guests are comfortable, if you’re dining al fresco, serve warm mulled wine, light a fire pit or a chiminea close by and drape wool rugs on the back of chairs in case your guests get chilly.
What types of items or materials are worth using? Is it best to go for one style or layer various styles?
I prefer to layer styles. The juxtaposition of old and new, rough and smooth, polished design and dishevelled handmade or natural surfaces add so much more interest to your setting. At the moment I love serving rich meat stews in black La Chamba ceramics, using wooden bowls and plates, rustic bread loaves and brassy gold serve ware. As the weather warms up I’ll bring out my collection of pale blue antique transfer ware that I’m keen to team up with new rich indigo ceramics and dyed linen.
Is it best to strive for the perfect looking, neatly ordered table?
No, not at all. I find crisp and neatly ordered slightly uncomfortable in a home setting, restaurants are best at service perfection so I think leave it to them. Sure, sometimes I like to line things up a little, but I always end up offsetting it softly with, perhaps, a loosely layered napkin or bundle of cutlery.
How should people approach heights of dishes, glasses and vases?
My French husband absolutely can’t stand not being able to see eye to eye with the guests at our tables so over the years I’ve designed all manner of standing or suspended ways of styling a table without obstructing this view. I don’t mind a little transparent softness here and there but totally agree with him. There is nothing worse than gargantuan floral numbers that obstruct connections and literally kill the conversation. In summer I like using ethereal glass shapes for drinks but now its cooler I prefer lower, heavier glassware and bowls you can wrap your hands around.
How do you ensure people enter into a relaxed setting?
Music and candle light are musts for me – soft jazz or lounge in the background (emphasis on the background especially in the early stages) with at least a candle or two burning and I’m settled. It’s easy to forget in the moment, but always greet your guests at the door and soon after, offer them a drink. If you’re going to be tied up in the kitchen make sure there’s someone doing this job for you. If you’re brave enough and running solo as host, have a self-serve bar area set up so guests can easily help themselves.
How should people approach colour?
Personally I’m not a big one for loud colours although I have used punches of rich hues in styling when it’s called for. I prefer aged, soft and muted tones that easily tie into the natural props, vintage and foraged flotsam I usually incorporate into my work. There are no real rules, but as I guideline I’d say pick a key colour and base your table accents around it. For instance, if you had a fabulous bright ceramic serving dish you wanted to use, team up some wax candles and serviettes in a similar colour whilst keeping everything else neutral.
Where can people find inspiration for their table setting?
I look at all forms of culture all the time, whether it’s on the street, in magazines or on the internet. There’s so much more accessibility to fashion and art all over the globe relatively instantly now and my kids too continually enlighten me with their version of where things are at on a regular basis. Nature, again, has a huge part to play inspirationally for me and will constantly trigger an idea. At the moment I’m loving putting fur on the table, with vintage slate and soft denim serviettes for a Scandinavian fashion snowed-in cabin look.
How should people approach the use of fabrics?
Try to use a colour or type that suits the season or your theme. Dressing the table casually with fabric in our accurate haphazard way is a bit of a signature for Jani and I as we both adore the contrast of light and shade on the folds and in what we call the rumpety parts. Calico and cheese cloth are inexpensive and can be easily died or painted, plus it’s not going to break the bank to buy extra, as sometimes it’s nice to run the cloth right off the table on to the floor at either end. Hessian is cheap and great for country style soirées, but hang it outside for a day first as the fresh jute smell can be overwhelming indoors. For a recent Brazilian-themed shoot I found a wonderful printed linen but it contrasted a little too much with my chosen ceramics, so I soaked it in tea over night to dull it down a shade or two.
How can food be used as part of the setting?
I’m always using food to style with whether its fruit, nuts, artisan bread rolls or a divine washed rind cheese as a focal point. Again, whatever is in season or suits your theme goes – a perfect polished apple sitting on a napkin that’s lying on a plate is simple perfection in autumn, or a piece of string holding a sprig or two of woody herb wrapped around an unhemmed napkin is uncomplicated winter beauty. Now with citrus fruit in abundance I clip individual fruit like lemons and oranges with a leaf or two attached as a place setting accent and use the foliage a lot in floral work.
How can people incorporate the winter season in their table setting?
Fallen leaves can add gorgeous colour – you can also write directly on them with indelible ink. Twigs like tortured willow and magnolia have wonderful naked forms to use in arrangements teamed with evergreen foliage in place of flowers. Be brave – I once used a large expensive wool scarf as a winter table cloth, it looked plush and fabulous until towards the end of the meal when the wax on the candelabra dripped all over it. Oops.
Words by: Catherine Steel. Photography by: Jani Shepherd. Styling by: Fiona Hugues; Gatherum Collectif.
Note – All images (except the portrait shot of Fiona) is from French Country Winter.