Improvised tabletops, napkins for your holiday gatherings

When it comes to entertaining ideas, we go to Sally Schneider's site, The Improvised Life. Sally is the ultimate improviser, as a cook and as a curator of design ideas. Her eye for repurposing is infallible.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: We should talk about the tabletop, and also the table itself, because this is the time of year you're going to have a gang of people in. You need a big table, and of course, none of us has a big table. How do you deal with this?

Sally Schneider: The first thing is to gather up the little tables you have, because those small tables are going to be the base for your big table. My favorite surface for them is plywood. It's inexpensive and comes in 4-by-8 sheets. I know a designer who made a 16-by-4 table by putting two sheets of plywood end-to-end. Little did anyone know, because the table was so beautifully decorated.

LRK: And wherever you buy, they'll cut it for you.

SS: They will.

LRK: But what about the seats? That's the challenge.

SS: One of the things I do, when a not-great cook asks, "What can I bring?" I say, "Bring a chair." Or I devise some. I've found that stacks of magazines held together with strapping material that has buckles can be great and oddly charming.

But my favorite of all is to take, say, three chairs and space them out, then put a long board across them. You make a bench, and you can do that on each side of the table at whatever size you want. Of course, this is for someone who can sit without a back, so plan your seating accordingly.

LRK: For the tabletop, nobody has cloths these days. And even if they do, they don't have big ones.

SS: One way to solve that is to use small cloths and piece them together. Overlap them in a really mismatched way -- even askew can be lovely. I've been known to make cloths out of ripped linen.

My very favorite these days, though, is paper. I'm talking about the wide rolls of paper famously used to cover tables in French bistros. You can buy 48-inch-wide rolls, 200 feet long, for $25 at an art supply store or even on Amazon. It comes in brown craft paper or white, depending on what you like. Just roll it over the table, let it hang over a bit, and cut it to whatever length.

Now, you can leave the paper as-is and do your table decorations on top of it, or you can decorate the paper itself by stenciling patterns or drawing on it. Have your kids draw on it. The best idea I've seen for this was drawing the place settings right on the paper, with the person's name. At the end of the meal, have guests write on each others' place settings the way you used to in yearbooks. A few days later, cut those out and put them in the mail, so the guests get a memory of sitting at the table.

I think napkins can provide great luxury very easily. Those huge cloth napkins (maybe 20 or 30 inches) from the middle of the 19th century -- one of those is like being tucked into bed. I buy linen and just rip or cut it to size. Wash it, dry it and let it be wrinkled. But fold it nicely and your guests will get this wonderful feeling when they're sitting at table.

LRK: Now let's talk about the center of the table.

SS: I do flowers, but not huge bouquets. I like to have an array of tiny bouquets lined up down the table. I use little apothecary jars, beakers, jelly glasses, whatever. You can also make bouquets out of herbs -- sage, rosemary and thyme -- that are very charming.

I also go out into the park and see what unexpected beautiful piece of nature is to be found. It could be curls of birch bark, vines, thin tall grasses, sprigs of a green that has berries, even dried leaves or a branch. And you can mix these with the little tiny flower vases or candles.

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