While pulling together a party does take some time and effort, it is much easier if you have the right tools on hand to set a fabulous table. Years ago, I began investing in the party props I'd need when I entertained. Here's my list of must-have entertaining essentials. Mary Carol Garrity, Scripps Howard News Service
Chargers: Perhaps it's the way they anchor a place setting or elevate the entire look of a table, but I consider chargers an absolute essential, whether I'm entertaining casually or formally. I've used all manner of things for chargers, from clay plant saucers to antique silver trays. But my favorites are simple rattan chargers. They are loaded with texture yet are so neutral they look sensational on both formal and casual tables and in every season.
Linens: Instead of using full tablecloths, which are expensive and a hassle to clean and iron, I cheat and use a 52-inch square tablecloth turned on the diagonal at the center of my table. This smaller cloth size brings color to the table yet still allows the beautiful wood of the table to show. You'll also need a selection of cloth napkins. Start with a set of white cotton napkins you can bleach, then slowly expand your collection with napkins in different colors and patterns.
Dishes: If you don't have a set of plain white dishes, put this at the very top of your list. White dishes work magic on the table because they look sensational all by themselves, or you can completely change their look simply by pairing them with different accent plates, linens, accessories or stemware. For instance, in the summer, zip up your white dishes by combining them with blue-and-white china salad plates and apple-green table linens. In the fall, show your white dishes with russet napkins and brown transferware serving pieces. In winter, make them more elegant by adding in gold and silver accents, or make them whimsical by adding holiday-themed dessert plates and napkins.
Stemware: If you have a smaller budget and limited storage space, invest in clear glass stemware that has strong, clean lines because they will look marvelous with everything. Then, if you want to add to your collection, try glasses that are colored amber, green or red, or embellished with gold filigree, or etched with a simple pattern like your monogram or a bee.
Flatware: Not lucky enough to inherit a set of sterling flatware? Consider investing in the next-best thing: silver-plate flatware. Instead of a matched set, why not collect a wonderful mishmash of different patterns from antique stores or flea markets?
Serving pieces: You'll need a good assortment of beautiful serving pieces. Whether you buy them new or scout for them at antique stores or flea markets, you'll want to get several platters and trays, beautiful compotes and serving bowls, cake plates and three-tiered dessert stands. I also advise having a beautiful water pitcher you can rest on a silver tray on the table. For something out of the ordinary, put new or antique saltcellars at each place setting.
Vases for centerpieces: Right now, I adore simple centerpiece treatments. And all you need to pull one together is an assortment of vases or containers. My favorites are different-sized blue-and-white china vases I can cluster at the center of my table, each holding a single flower. Cachepots and English footbaths are also ideal to use for centerpieces, filled with nothing more elaborate than a fern or rattan balls.