You’re decorating for your party, all your food is out, and at any minute your guests will walk through your door. But… something is missing. Your hanging decorations are good, and your food looks scrumptious. Your table, on the other hand, is blah and totally two-dimensional. Should you have bought nicer decorations? Decorated in bolder colors? Hung flashing lights?

Nope. You just need to layer your table.

Layering a table is a display concept using different textures and heights to build up your table and give it more dimension. In fact it shares a lot of principles with merchandising displays, except you’re selling the theme of your party, not a product. You start with a bottom layer, such as the table itself or a tablecloth, and then continue to add more layers, like table runners, placemats, centerpieces, display stands, etc. With every piece you add, you are building the table upwards and making it more visually appealing. In short, a plain, flat surface with just a bunch of dishes in a straight line is boring. Layering with alternating heights and textures helps make it interesting.

If you are new to layering a table, here are some things to keep in mind:

There are no absolutes. If your theme just doesn’t make sense with a tablecloth, then don’t use a tablecloth. Don’t need placemats? Then don’t use them. Everything here is a suggestion, and you should absolutely take what you want and leave the rest behind. (See what I did there?)

Plan ahead so you can stick to your budget. Layers can get expensive if you let yourself go crazy. I always raid my own stock to see what I can simply re-use before I surf the web for deals or go to the store. If I don’t have it, then I comparison shop online. I find a great deal on Amazon, and I get it there, BOOM, done. I don’t find exactly what I need and nothing else will do, at least I have gained an idea of what a realistic price range is for the item. An informed shopper is a money-saving shopper. After that you can estimate what you can afford, i.e. $ for candles, $$ for a tablecloth, and another $$$ for a tiered stand (justifiable if it is simple enough you can re-use it for future parties).

Explore the unexpected. I have used some awesome items for layering that cost a lot less than fancy dishware. I found purple gift boxes that matched my daughter’s princess-themed birthday party, and I was able to use them to display decorations, signs, and a tray of disposable champagne glasses for a yogurt bar. If you have extra fabric, you can even cover the display stands and no one is the wiser that there is a Christmas tin or shoe box under there (true story!). Using different textures can also add interest, such as a smooth cotton tablecloth with a rough burlap table runner, or a rustic wooden box with shiny metallic bowls on top. Just make sure it all still matches your theme and is safe!

Prepare by doing a dry run. I like to arrange the table the day before the party if it’s at my home, because then it’s one less thing I have to do the day of the party. If your party isn’t at your house, it is still worthwhile to arrange the items on your table beforehand to see if they will work together at the party site. This could also help give you alternative ideas for displaying, just in case you get to the site and discover it’s a round table, not a rectangle, or it’s more narrow or shorter than you realized. Then you’re prepared, not panicked!

Safety comes before theme. Everything on your table should be steady and relatively unmovable, even if the table is jostled and everything shakes. Don’t elevate candles or Sterno cans where they can fall down and catch other things on fire. Don’t place knives and sharp objects on the end of stands where they are balanced precariously. And never, NEVER put food in an item that is not food-safe, no matter how cute it is.

Now that you have some tips under your belt, let’s look at a table being layered step by step!

1) Make sure your table is clean. Dirt between the table and tablecloth could scratch the surface of your table. Sticky stains could cause the tablecloth to stick to the table, possibly even ripping or becoming permanently stuck there. Take a few extra minutes to give your table a good wipe-down before you start. You won’t regret it, trust me.

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2) If this is a table that you value, you can use a cheap plastic tablecloth as an underskirt to keep any liquids that get spilled from staining your table. NOTE: A plastic tablecloth will not keep your furniture safe from heat. Make sure you use a trivet or pot holder for any hot dishes to keep the heat away from the surface of the table.IMG_3220

3) Next comes your tablecloth! Remember, too, that tablecloths don’t have to be just tablecloths. You can use fabric bolts, sheets, blankets, and even shower curtains if the look is right. Also try looking at thrift stores. I got the lace tablecloth below for $8 at a major retailer, and then I found almost the same thing in white at a thrift store for $3. It was just a $5 difference, but I could have used that money towards food. Oh, well, live and learn!

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4) Table runners go on top of the tablecloth and are more decorative than functional. I’m not always a fan of them, because they make the surface uneven when you are trying to put a glass down without spilling it, but they do look good when they match your theme. In this case, the runner wasn’t actually long enough, but they were on clearance, so I bought two and laid them across each other in the middle of the table. I was planning on putting a dish there, anyway, and that hid the overlap. I really liked the way the smooth cotton looked against the lace tablecloth, with the green in both tying them together.

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5) If you’re eating at the table (and you aren’t always; see the bottom of this article for a display table that is layered), then having placemats can better define where people are sitting AND give you another way to add a pop of color or style element to match your theme.

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6) And then there were plates! These are dinner plates with dessert plates placed in the middle. This wouldn’t work with a large party that is done buffet style, but this party was family style with a small group of people, so it worked just fine.

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7) Drinkware and artfully placed napkins help provide that first taller layer to your table. They both can add to the style, especially the napkins. These were done in a simple handkerchief fold that made them look like little crowns sticking up out of the tea cups / coffee mugs.

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8) Last but not least come your taller display items, such as the trifle dish, cake stand, and multi-layered plate stand that you see here. This is where you really notice the difference in heights, which makes your table more visually appealing. If you aren’t sure, think about your favorite city skyline. Now imagine it with all the buildings the same height. Not quite so exciting, is it? It is the contrast of heights that gives us interest and causes the eye to linger and study.

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Here is a closer picture of the layers to give you more perspective.

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9) You are in the home stretch! Now you add the food, condiments, and any other little decorating knick-knacks that make sense to your theme. Since this was a tea party, I draped cheap pearl necklaces in the dessert cups and placed miniatures of tea sets around the table. We also had a light Wonderland theme, so I added a bunny figurine with a bunny salt and pepper shaker at one end and an Alice and Cheshire Cat salt and pepper shaker at the other end.

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And there you have it! While this was a layered table for sitting and eating, you can also layer your buffet tables, as seen below. This was for a much larger party, so we kept the layers to the multi-tiered plate stand for sandwiches on the left and a cake stand and fun purple boxes for the yogurt bar on the right. Not only was it more visually appealing, it also raised up some of the food, making it easier to reach.

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Now that you know what a layered display looks like, you might start to notice it more in store windows, catalogs, and other web pages. Once you are aware of the different heights and textures, it’s hard to un-see it. Good luck with your own table, and please feel free to share your experiences with us on our Facebook page!

P.S. If you want a few other great pages on layering tables, check out these awesome blog posts below. You’d be surprised how hard it was to find articles on layering tables!