How to Design Holiday Tablescapes with Antiques

Festive holiday table with red detail

The holiday season is here; not only heralding an opportunity to revisit classic holiday movies and play Christmas songs on repeat, but also signaling a packed calendar of gatherings with family and friends over a festive meal. If you’re the host of one such gathering, in addition to knowing how to set a table and how to create a beautiful plate, you know that building a spirited atmosphere though your holiday tablescape is just as important as the three-course meal you’re about to serve.

For holiday decorating ideas, we sat down with three leading design mavens — each with a penchant for combining vintage and antique items in inspiring ways — to get their tips for creating holiday table settings; from designing the perfect Thanksgiving table setting to artfully executed Christmas tablescapes. Read on to learn how to create a autumnal oasis or a winter wonderland through your holiday decor, while seamlessly incorporating meaningful family heirlooms, treasured evergreen objects, and other pieces of traditional decorative art.  

1. Showcase family heirlooms in your tablescape.

Left: Martyn Lawrence Bullard, photo by Tim Street-Porter; Right: a festive table at Bullard’s LA home.

Designer: Martyn Lawrence Bullard

“I love the holidays!” says Los Angeles-based designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard. “The first few years I was in the States, I’d go back to England but since I travel so much of the year now, I love to stay home for Christmas.” The designer, who divides his time between homes in Hollywood and Palm Springs, especially enjoys pulling out family heirlooms when crafting holiday tablescapes, like a Georgian silver tea service that belonged to his parents and crystal compotes that he inherited from his godmother. “I love them mounded with fruit—draped with grape clusters—and small flowers tucked in,” he says, noting that he also likes to set his tables with the crystal apples he designed for Daum, which catch and reflect the candlelight. “The holiday table is a time to honor tradition and things that hold memories.”

When traveling the world for clients, Bullard visits flea markets, where he hunts for small silver pieces like napkin rings. “I find all different ones and have them engraved with guests’ initials as place cards and little gifts,” he explains. “Some people have six or eight now—they’ve built a collection! It’s fun and interesting, and it keeps them coming back,” he says, laughing as he recounts the year he ruined Thanksgiving dinner and ended up ordering a turkey and cranberry pizza from Domino’s. “It was really good—we drank champagne and had a fabulous time,” he recalls. Bullard also likes to use vintage linens paired with new napkins in whatever color suits his holiday theme.

Left: Christmas decor at Bullard’s Palm Springs home; Right: Bullard’s terrier Daisy at his LA home.

No matter what he adds to his holiday tablescape, the star of the show each year is his beloved Wheaten Terrier, named Daisy. While she may dine out of a vintage sterling silver Gucci bowl all year round, holiday meals are made extra-special when delivered in a silver bowl made just for her by Christofle, a surprise gift to Bullard after he designed a collection of decorative crowns for the venerable company.

2. Make your holiday decor personal.

Left: Designer Alyssa Urban; Right: Urban’s Asian-inspired holiday table design.

Designer: Alyssa Urban

Alyssa Urban, a design partner at Manhattan firm Cullman & Kravis, is also a fan of making tablescapes and table settings personal with antiques, an idea exemplified by “an Asian fusion” holiday table theme for clients who were also collectors of Asian art.

To achieve the look, “We placed an 18th-century carved and gilded wood reclining Buddha at the center of the dining table,” she explains. “The table is draped in a crimson cloth and set with a variety of vintage Wedgwood china, contemporary lacquer placemats and chargers from Myanmar, and English Regency candlesticks.” The designer also repurposed 19th-century rinsers, which would have originally been used to rinse wine glasses between courses, as flower vases. “Although we were using an Asian vocabulary, the colors are consistent with the traditional Western holiday palette of red and gold,” adds Urban. “It’s a very interesting and personal interpretation of holiday decor.”

As for her own holiday decorating, the designer, who sometimes lets her antique deer weathervane stand in for Santa’s reindeer in her holiday decor, is always on the lookout for vintage glass ornaments, red and white Staffordshire dishes, and antique monogrammed linens.

3. Think beyond the table setting; create an enchanting atmosphere.

Left: Stephanie Lake, photo by Erica Loeks; Right: A chandelier festooned with faux candy canes and lollipops.

Designer: Stephanie Lake

“Start with splendor,” says Minneapolis-based jewelry designer Stephanie Lake of her approach to holiday tablescapes. The designer is quick to offer wonderfully festive inspiration, and even a peek into her china cupboards. With a collection that includes books on entertaining—her favorites are Dalí: Les Dîners de Gala and Beautiful People of the Café Society: Scrapbooks by the Baron de Cabrol—she has no shortage of ideas to share.

“Instead of blocking your guests’ view with a gargantuan centerpiece, decorate from above. Anything festooned and cascading from a chandelier—antique crystals, vintage tassels, sprays of metallic foliage, vintage felt garlands, Babes in Toyland-worthy lollipops—creates a fantastic sense of enchantment.”

Left: some of Lake’s favorite finds; Right: Lake’s holiday place setting.

“Shop your own home. I steal from my rock collection, my jewelry showroom, even my young daughter’s collection to adorn the spaces that guests will use in the evening. My secret weapon is anything malachite, because everything looks gorgeous on it, but collect what you love, mix with a discerning eye, and enjoy the surprises. I think of every table setting—and even the organization of my pantries—as a design puzzle.”

“I love figuring out ways to combine things that ‘shouldn’t’ work together. Antique Spode with 1970s astrological linens? Vintage Thai sunburst placemats with Cristobal china? All can be lavish and festive.” – Stephanie Lake

“Avoid the generic and set a scene specific to you. Consider all that frames it, including the backdrop, the soundtrack, and yourself. In my home, that means being welcomed by bottles of champagne chilling in the snow beside the front walk, listening to albums featuring crooners from the 1950s and ’60s singing classic songs of the season, and me in jewels that reflect the décor. Literally and figuratively, bring something to the table that could only be done by you.”

Looking to create an inspired atmosphere for your holiday tablescape? Explore decorative art for unique and joyful finds.