Upping the elegance factor at home is as simple as lighting a candle, but local designers have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Read on for chic ways to elevate your entertaining space with the ease of a pro, whether you’re sitting down to a family dinner, hosting friends on a Friday night, or throwing an unforgettable holiday bash.
Think Outside the Vase
Not exactly flush with floral containers? Don’t worry. Wendy Pashman, president of West Loop caterer Entertaining Company , suggests enlisting household items instead — think teapots, pitchers, serving bowls, and wine decanters. Her go to: an ice bucket! “It makes a great statement on a large buffet table or round dining table,” she says. Florist Cara Sullivan, owner of Wild Floral Design  in Chicago (and Make It Better’s new print managing editor!), recommends keeping a stash of empty wine and beer bottles on hand for a last-minute tablescape (be sure to prep them first by soaking in warm suds to remove the labels). “I like to group a bunch of different sizes together, then set as many as possible runner-style down the middle of a rectangular table, or clustered together in the center of a round,” she says. For maximum impact, fill the bottles with greenery, opt for branches of berries, or, for a minimalist statement, drop in single stems of like-colored flowers.
Create Drama With Lighting
Designers agree that the easiest way to beautify a room is with candles — and in this case, more is more. “There’s really no substitute for the gorgeous glow they emit,” says Sullivan, who has created entire tablescapes with nothing but wax and wicks. “The key is to choose just one color — I tend to stick with black or white — but vary the widths and heights,” she says. To add more texture, Vince Hart, vice president of sales at Kehoe Designs  in Chicago, suggests filling glass hurricanes with a few inches of coarse salt before setting the candles inside. “It gives the entire table a high-style look,” he says. Another great idea à la Kehoe: Turn ceramic vases into chic candleholders by flipping them upside down and setting the hurricanes on top. To complete the look, fill small, low vases (rocks glasses work nicely for this) with store-bought flowers in a single color palette, like white or yellow, then intersperse them among the candles.
Make Food the Focal Point
For family-style meals or cocktail parties, make like a caterer and elevate the food you’re serving to centerpiece status. “We love to incorporate edibles into our tablescapes,” says Pashman. “Not only is it beautiful and delicious, but it saves room, too.” To create a rustic, abundant look that’s perfect for fall, pile various cheeses, fruits, and nuts onto a long wooden cutting board, then set it atop a solid fabric runner in the center of the table. Garnish with a few sprigs of rosemary, decorative spheres and simple candlelight, and voila — instant atmosphere. Or for a formal, more modern event, Kelly Marie Thompson, owner of Fleur  in Logan Square, suggests styling with monochromatic foods. “Fill glass or white compote bowls with yogurt-covered cashews, puffs of meringue, and white-chocolate truffles, and group them in the center of the table along with a few short glass vases of white tulips,” she says. “The display will look as though it is designed with intent, but guests can nibble on the goodies during dessert.”
Impress With Potted Plants
On a rectangular table, fill a decorative tray with a few different varieties of potted flowers (note that the containers should all be the same) before setting it atop a colorful runner. Flanked with a pair of candlesticks, “It’s a great, easy way to elevate a family dinner,” says Skaro. If you’re designing on a round table, Thompson recommends planting multiple varieties of the same species together in a large terrarium. Try ferns: “Maiden hair, davallia, and silver tree make a unified statement and look so pretty together,” she says. “Plant a few 4-inch plants together in a footed glass compote, with moss wrapped around the inside of the vase to cover the soil. After the party, you can cover the compote with a glass cloche for a beautiful statement houseplant,” she says. Another great idea? “Set a 3-inch potted succulent atop every plate,” says Sullivan. “Not only do they dress up the table and ensure that each guest feels special (extra points for adding a place card!) but they serve as longlasting favors, too.”
DIY not your thing? No worries — you’ve got options.
Subscribe to a Service
Ever wish someone would email you detailed, step-by-step instructions for executing an impeccably styled dinner party six times a year? Wish granted — it’s called Tablescapes In Style . Launched last year by Toronto mom MaryAnn Skaro (formerly of Glenview), the genius subscription service sends budget-friendly digital dinner party guides straight to your inbox every two months. With both traditional and rustic style options, each guide includes a step-by-step instruction booklet along with photos outlining recipes, DIY décor ideas and sources, free printable name cards and menus, and even kid’s activities and interactive conversation starters.
If the thought of throwing a party where all you have to do is show up sounds too good to be true, repeat after us: full-service caterer. They’ll have access not only to the food and flowers, but also to rental items like linens, candles, and styling pieces. “We love the idea of helping our clients gather their friends and family around the table to create an event,” says Pashman. Beyond catering, she offers in-home styling and event staging — and, just last year, after noticing an uptick in her client’s desires to entertain at home, she launched The Storied Company, a curated online resource for unique artisanal entertaining goods from around the world. Another great option: your local florist. “Dinner parties are dream gigs for florists, especially those who are used to working weddings,” says Sullivan. “Party clients are generally more open to out-of-the-box ideas, and I always have so much fun bringing them to life.”
Look to Pros Who Pay It Forward for Your Next Party
These tips have you set in the tablescape department, but if you’re still in need of some extra help as you plan your next soiree, these party pros who pay it forward  will get you covered — plus, they’ll pass along the love in the process.
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- 10 Instagram Accounts With Serious Home Design Inspiration 
Lisa Zimbler is a Glenview-based wedding and event planner, and contributing writer on all things weddings, events, and philanthropy. When she is not planning weddings (or working on stories for MIB), she gives of her time as a board member for Bring It Home Glenview , a local community organization dedicated to preserving the historical significance of the Naval Air Station Glenview through the development of a local interactive STEM-based learning center and museum that will serve to educate visitors, students, and future generations alike to be built in Glenview. Zimbler also wrote and produced a documentary on the subject titled “Wings Over Glenview,” which can be seen on YouTube .