Give your dining furniture a whole new look in minutes by borrowing seating from other rooms. We pulled in a pair of wing chairs and added plump pillows to the back of a low-slung settee to make it the right depth for dining.
Our pull-out-all-the-stops formal table starts with a classic ivory damask tablecloth layered with scalloped linen place mats (it's fine to use both). Next come filigree-pattern chargers, each topped with a dinner plate and salad plate. Though the chargers are gold, they blend well with the touches of silver that come from the salt-and-pepper shakers, napkin rings, flatware, and place card holders for an opulent look.
Serving dishes make beautiful cachepots for flowers. We cut water-soaked floral foam to fit the bowl, then poked in orange calla lilies, Leonidas roses, hypericum berries, and fiery dahlias. For maximum freshness, store the flowers in the refrigerator until the guests arrive.
Here's a hostess tip from the pros: Set out serving dishes and utensils in advance and label them so it's easy to remember what goes where when the food is ready to be served. A small flower arrangement that complements the table centerpiece is a nice touch for the sideboard, and an entertaining journal is a handy place to record the details of your dinner parties. Include a picture or two of the table, the menu, a list of guests, and notes on their food preferences or allergies.
The same dining room and the same china take on a very different look thanks to the table and chair backs being draped in fabric, a high-impact technique that's quick and easy to do, even on a weeknight. (We used paisley shawls, but you could use any yardage you have on hand.) The long dining table feels cozy enough for four when the chairs are gathered at one end and the food for a family-style meal is set out at the other.
The same china pattern reappears, this time with a deep bowl and a large orange plate used as a charger. (You can get colorful, oversize dishes like these by the box at discount stores.) Whereas the formal table set the china against a sea of elegant cream, the fun of this tabletop is the way it mixes several shades of orange -- in the dishes, the amber goblets and tumblers, and the napkins with their whimsical holders -- for a warm and intimate feel.
A row of rustic barley-twist wood candlesticks holding beeswax candles visually separates the seating area from the food area. An old-fashioned wooden ice bucket holds white Alstroemeria for a no-fuss centerpiece. These inexpensive blooms are almost always available at the supermarket, so there's no excuse for not having fresh flowers at home every day! Just pick up a bunch on the way home from work.
A fringed wool car blanket placed on an angle at one end of the dining table not only protects it from hot serving dishes and scratches but suggests the casual feel of a tailgate for this simple soup supper.