The Centers of Attention

Times Staff Writer

Yes, an outstanding table setting can create a powerful emotion. Next to food, which arouses and satisfies the palate, total ambiance--created by a table awash with lovely appointments, soothing colors and a charming centerpiece--can be as equally gratifying to the senses.

The key word in holiday entertaining this season is opulence. Echoing the days of Roman grandeur, when feast tables were laden with foods more to be seen than consumed, tables are more lavish and have become a feast for the eyes.

“Decorating the table is no longer a luxury but rather a necessary part of the dining experience today,” says Dennis Kerkowski, a noted floral designer in Los Angeles, who has created a great many table settings for important events with unrestrained decor.

Centerpieces are not just floral displays anymore. Caterers have set the trend.


“Instead of just putting a lot of flowers down on the table, we’ve done parties decorated with more fresh food decorations all over,” said Julia Douthat, a catering chef at Bristol Farms.

“It’s more conducive to eating,” she continued. “We always take enough ornamental green and purple kale to spread around with fresh berries, grapes, pineapple and even nuts.”

Roll baskets (huge baskets with all sorts of breads mixed with herbs, greens and flowers) also make nice centerpieces, she added.

To draw away from mediocre designs, many florists are enthusiastically adding touches of fruit or vegetables--particularly the more exotic, colorful varieties--to arrangements.


Carolyn Brown, a floral merchandiser from Ralphs Grocery willingly shared some creative holiday centerpiece ideas, using products from the produce and floral sections of the supermarket. According to Brown these sections have grown tremendously in size and variety since she joined the company 15 years ago.

For a coffee-table setting of nuts and candies, Brown devised a rich-looking but simple arrangement of red apples inside a whitewashed rectangular country basket. To accent the centerpiece, she added a few long-stemmed ginger flowers and one bright green apple. She achieved the stunning alignment of the fruit composition by skewering the apples with floral picks onto oasis foam (blocks of absorbent foam found at a floral supply) that was securely taped in the basket. A striped green-and-burgundy velvet ribbon around the basket tied the colors together beautifully.

Another food and floral centerpiece highlighted a formal dining room done in overtones of mulberry, purple and mauve. The melange carried on the color theme from an exquisite China pattern that’s been getting much attention recently: the Victorian Garden designed by Bill Goldsmith for Limoges. Goldsmith used brightly hued old-fashioned floral designs based on turn-of-the-century decals.

“You can use your favorite vase or bowl lined with oasis foam,” Brown said. “An assortment of Christmas greens from cedar and pine sprigs may be used as a basis.”


To this, she added large pink Rubin lilies, one slightly opened purple cabbage, a scattering of green apples secured with floral picks and, on one side, a cascade of red grapes. A few tinsel balls and a large candle on the other side of the arrangement provided the holiday accent.

For something whimsical--yet elegant--for the buffet table or an appetizer-and-drink table, Brown created cauliflower and broccoli Christmas trees. The tree was placed on a mirrored tray that was actually a carved, wood-framed mirror. Using foam plastic cones that could easily be purchased from craft houses, she made the cauliflower tree by attaching the florets to the cone by wood picks, starting at the base.

For color, she tucked cranberries and small parsley sprigs between the florets. The finishing touch was a gold ribbon cluster placed on top, with two strands gracefully flowing down the tree. (Or you can use a star cut from any other brightly-colored vegetable.) The broccoli tree was made in a similar way but with layers of parsley sprigs between the rows of florets. The concept can be varied using varied tiny vegetables or cut-outs. For contrast, add some small floral blossoms or sprigs of Baby’s breath or Monte Casino spray.

A dessert table can be enlivened by some fruit or berries placed in a clear bowl with a small opening. On top of the bowl, set a clear plastic dish to hold an oasis and arrange a few white lilies, cedar pine, tall silver glitter sprays or twigs. Contrast with a handful of strawberries or grape clusters, silver or gold tinsel balls and a bow.


Another effective decoration is a topiary tree created from a branch of brussels sprouts. Sprouts in the middle section were removed leaving top and bottom, which were shaped into a more rounded form by garnishing with baby vegetables and baby’s breath.

Sandra Elliott, who just moved her “Urban Gourmet” shop to Old Town Pasadena, finds that her shoppers are still buying high-tech accessories, very little country and surprisingly, even though she thought it was becoming passe, some Southwest accents. Good sellers in her shop, she said, were the Luminarias from Sonora Company. Made of brown-bag-shaped terra cotta, the candle holders have Christmas-themed cut-outs that show candlelight.

At Elliot’s urging, we designed a centerpiece, centered around two luminarias pots, for Southwestern fans. Spraying out around the clay “bags” were dried long chiles, cedar pine sprigs and pink-blossomed French heather. White camellias, limes cut in flower shapes and a grouping of ornamental kale and plums in the center provided graceful lines. For a dramatic effect, we scattered about eight votive candles tied with ribbons in the middle. Small cactus pots or Christmas cactus placed on sand with painted pine cones and lots of candles can also be very effective.

Here are some other trends and tips from food and floral experts on designing your holiday table:


Food garnish instructor Karen Berk gets a lot of unusual centerpiece ideas by going to the produce sections of Chinese markets and to the farmers’ market held on Wednesdays in Santa Monica. Peppers (reds and yellows) are her favorites; they go beautifully with pine and other exotic flowers in an arrangement, she said.

Vegetable Combinations

Although nothing new, the crudite basket is another idea that rarely fails to draw attention, Berk said. New vegetable combinations, baby vegetables and unusual ones can create a unique basket. A good assortment could include jicama, daikon, red pepper, Belgian endive, asparagus and zucchini (the baby ones are terrific). Although everyone goes for carrots and celery, cauliflower might as well be forgotten, she said, because it always remains in the basket. Salad bowl lettuce creates a nice frilly base to separate clusters of vegetables in the basket. To hold dips, Berk uses different kinds of small squashes, which are still available now.

Caterer and food consultant Randy L. Fuhrman uses hot pink and lime green for Christmas colors this year. To establish traditional tones, he said, “Use blood-red deep-velvet ribbons mixed with forest-green tablecloth with a touch of Scottish plaid.”


To enliven the table, he suggested chocolate molded into little boxes to hold ornaments, flowers or Christmas candies and little gingerbread men placed beside place cards. And set on a table of fake snow, there’s the always-welcome gingerbread house, which Fuhrman likes to adorn with holiday candies.

Tablecloths are another major item on the design scheme list. Also borrowed from the Romans, who used them as napkins, tablecloths offer an unlimited selection of textures and patterns.

“Go to the fabric warehouses and you can pull out a range of designs at minimal cost,” Fuhrman said. An easy way to handle the materials for a buffet table, as Fuhrman demonstrated, was to drape two coordinated colors of fabric in overlaps.

Different Elevations


Food can be displayed on different elevations, achieved by tucking boxes or plastic cubes of different heights under the tablecloth. Fuhrman shares more party tips in his forthcoming video called A Guide to Entertaining ($19.95), which you can order by calling (800) 666-1161.

Fully skirted tables and drapery-like swag treatments are also in for table overlays. Moires and velvets give a formal look. There’s high-gloss vinyl in bold colors for high tech and Victorian floral prints for softer appeal.

“The now colors are mauve and burgundy, which is more on the fuchsia/magenta side,” said Dennis Kerkowski, describing how he used the colors in six grand Christmas arrangements this year. His treatment of a 25-foot Christmas tree with gigantic bow won him an award for the best lobby display.

“Black is out, I won’t do anything with black, but gold is very in,” Kerkowski said.


A trend in recent years is to use dishes with different patterns. At a sit-down dinner, for instance, different patterns for first course, salad, entree and dessert can be used. The use of a charger or service plate to coordinate the color scheme has also been revived.

And Candles

And what would we do without candles? Candle colors and designs have gotten bolder and, as evidenced by the fact that red, white and green candles are markedly reduced in some stores, the colors being picked up are untraditional, chosen to go with whatever mood is desired.

Votives and lucite tubes are also in. Lighting, in addition to centerpieces and music, plays an important role in providing first impressions in entertaining, Kerkowski emphasized. Finally, another treatment that I’ve seen in the past in a Christmas open house is a long, wide buffet table lined across the middle with pine (you can use an assortment of greens including holly, incense fir, silvertip, noble fir, etc.) and a pretty lineup of assorted fruits and vegetables in contrasting colors interlaced with giant white orchids (poinsettias are a modest alternative). Instead of pine, a twig garland can be used, which may reduce the variety of fruits or vegetables. In any case, it’s all reflective of abundance.


Whatever motif is chosen for the holidays and other months of the year, the time and effort spent to create these wonderful arrangements only demonstrate that the host cares.

Luminarias courtesy of Urban Gourmet, Pasadena. Food Styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane. Bill Goldsmith Design Site Corot China (Victoria Pattern) courtesy of Zero Minus Plus and the Cabbage Rose.