Tablescapes for Dummies; The Beginners Guide


Hasn’t everyone bought one of those “fill-in-the-blank for Dummies” books when you really don’t know something and you’re thinking “Talk to me like I’m 5 years old?”.

I certainly have. Years ago I dated a guy who was into philosophy and I just felt stupid every time he started talking about it, so I bought Philosophy for Dummies.  I’m not convinced I’m any smarter about that topic, but I did buy the book.

And while we’re on this subject, I have an interesting piece of trivia for you. Apparently, if you buy a new book and don’t start reading it within one week, the chances of you EVER reading that book are very slim.

Raise your hand if this is you? I laughed when I read it because I had two books on my bedside table that had been there for weeks (maybe even months) that I had not touched.

Anyway, this post is for anyone to whom decorating just doesn’t come easy. Or maybe you just need some practice.

Regardless, you need someone to tell you EXACTLY what to buy so that, once-and-for-all, you too can have a lovely tablescape in your living room.

So obviously, there are a million different objects you could pull from your house that might create a lovely tablescape indeed. But I am not in your house, so instead of just filling this post with a bunch of pretty inspiration images that might just depress you, I’m just going to tell you what to buy.

Often when someone hires me to choose paint colours for them, they have the misconception that wall colours will do most of the heavy lifting in terms of creating a look and a feel.

Related post: How Much Heavy Lifting can a Paint Colour Handle?


The look and feel of your living room comes from floor and table lamps along with task lighting when necessary, NOT from installing 8 recessed lights into your ceiling. Recessed lighting should pretty much be relegated to the kitchen where task lighting like that is required.

Then, you need to create vignettes or tablescapes on your coffee and end tables and your sideboards.

I recently specified two lamps for one of my eDesign clients. She received the lamps, set them on her sideboard and sent me an photo (similar to this vignette by Lauren Liess), worried that they were too BIG because they slightly overlapped her art.

I assured my client that they were definitely not too big.


It’s the same for master bedrooms. I can’t tell you how many master bedrooms with king size beds I’ve seen with tiny little lamps on each end table.

A bedside lamp should generally be a minimum of 28″ high (below).

So think bigger not smaller. If it’s a little bigger than it should be, it won’t look as wrong as a miniature lamp beside a big bed.

Traditional Home

Okay so now that I’ve covered the basics, let’s get back to exactly what you need to create a tablescape.

One more thing, before we begin.

In case you might be thinking, “I already have too much ‘stuff’, ‘nicknacks’, ‘whatnots’, ‘tchotchkes’ or ‘brick a brack’  I can’t buy anymore, I will have no place to put it” consider that what you have is most likely DATED.

What you need to do, is ship those dated picture frames and accessories to your local thrift store and get something new.

The essential 3 objects in a tablescape are:

Step #1

A tray or larger coffee table books

A vase of flowers 


A bowl

Green apples, lemons or limes or green moss balls.

Optional items to add texture and colour:

Decorative Boxes

Coral (Seashells are NOT just for beach houses)

A favourite object you might already own. Note that as soon as you place it on a book or a tray, it elevates it from a tchotchke into an accessory.

Anything with a cute face (okay this is just MY advice, but seriously, how can you walk away from a sweet looking bunny rabbit that looks like this one I posted on my Instagram the other day).

Step 2:

A tray.

If you have a large coffee table (or even if you don’t) a tray always works to corral other items:

If your table is dark, get a white or cream tray, whichever one works with the foundation white in your room.

Serena & Lily

Here’s one from Serena & Lily, if this size doesn’t work, just search for white lacquered trays to find one that works for your table.

Or this gold one from the Pottery Barn is perfect if you want to repeat some brass or gold accents in your living room:

Pottery Barn

If you have a white or light coffee table, then a wooden tray might work well. But think CONTRAST. Don’t put a white tray on a white coffee table. Or a black tray on an espresso brown coffee table.

West Elm

Step #2

Coffee table books. 

Most people don’t own enough of them. So if you’re only buying them to use as a pedestal or a tray like I’m suggesting, either go to a used book store or the sale section of any major bookshop.

I don’t buy books with subjects that are completely unrelated to my clients, but I do buy coffee table books strictly because they are also the right colour.

Sometimes I’ll even take the cover off to see if there’s a better colour underneath.


So if your living room includes pink, for example, then you would get some books that look like this stack (above).

You don’t need a big stack of books unless you have a large table or a shelf underneath the coffee table. A pink and white one will work great,  because these two books will act as a pedestal for what’s coming next.

A stack of magazines will also work in a pinch. Since I still subscribe to a few magazines, I always have boatloads of them in my house. Whenever it’s time to style a clients home, I will pick up a few stacks from my house, because in my experience, no one ever has enough large books.

See the rest of this interior here

Notice that on this square table, I installed 4 books. The white one with Modern Luxury on it, picks up the purple accents in this living room and the green one on top coordinates perfectly with the green drapes.

Also, I have positioned the items on this tablescape into a square on the middle of the square table.

See the rest of this interior here

When I styled this bathroom for a photoshoot,  you can see I didn’t have a hot pink book in the right size (slightly smaller than the white one) which would have been better than the small pink novel, but it was better than nothing. I liked that the spine of the pink book repeated the pink in the room.

See the rest of the interior here

In this entry (above) I chose a white and blue book which created contrast with the brown entry table and provided an instant pedestal (or the look of a tray) for the crystal vase of yellow roses.

If you don’t buy fresh flowers on a regular basis, get some faux flowers, they have come a long way.

Notice that the two white birds underneath the console table look way better with the graphic blue and white decorative box than they would have sitting on their own.

Step #3

A vase of flowers or bowl of green apples or moss balls.

A tablescape without flowers or something that seems alive like green apples or limes or lemons (even if they are faux) or green moss balls doesn’t seem quite as alive.

See the rest of the interior here.

This coffee table I styled, even when it doesn’t have any fresh flowers on it still feels fresh because of the faux green balls in the bowl.

So, you have a tray (like in the above shot) now and two books, find a shallow decorative bowl, more shallow than the one in the above photos is just fine. like this one:


If you introduce a coral, than I would choose a more simple shallow bowl, but this one (above) would look great with 3 moss balls or 5 faux green apples in it.


If you’d like to add some warmth and texture this is a good one that would look pretty in a tablescape.

Pottery Barn

A basket will also work just as well as a bowl as a vessel for moss balls or fruit.

Or look for a shallow bowl in the accent colours of your living room, that works too!


I have coral all over my house, in a bathroom, they look good just sitting on a towel. Of course the ottoman in my main (needs to be renovated) bathroom becomes purely decorative too. You can’t stick your clothes on it when you’re having a bath, but hey, it looks good.

See the tour of my house here.

The last image of the living room (above) you can see that I placed a coral on top of two books. You should just get two of them right now. They look good anywhere.

Here are some green moss balls:

You can buy them here in 5 different sizes so you could get one medium size (5″) and two smaller ones 3″ depending on the size of your vessel. Maybe 3 medium size or 5 smaller ones would work too?

If you prefer fruit to balls you can get green or red apples here. Make sure you buy five or seven of them. It works the same for styling objects as it does for flower arranging. Odd numbers look better than even.


I always have fresh flowers on my kitchen island but not EVERYWHERE throughout my entire house so I have my fair share of faux flowers. If I had fresh flowers everywhere that I have fake ones, I would need a full-time florist in here just like a hotel.


Anyway, faux flowers have come a long way. And the good ones are expensive so don’t get cranky when you see the price, just think of what real ones would cost weekly and you’ll snap them up ASAP.

See the full range of faux flowers at Wayfair here.

Step #4

Candles or Votives

Okay so to keep it easy, let’s stick to votives shall we?  Two or three votives with tea lights from IKEA (the best place to buy them) and you’ll have atmosphere for four hours.

These are pretty decorative votives that would look nice anywhere. (Serena & Lily)

West Elm

I love this collection of colourful votives and hurricane lanterns. Two or three of these would be perfect on so many tablescapes.

Crate & Barrel

If your house is more contemporary, these would look great on a coffee table!

So there you have it! The beginners guide to tablescaping. I hope this inspires you to clear off the magazines from your coffee table and get decorating!

I also have a favour to ask. Terreeia and I love Chicago and are thrilled to be spending almost two weeks there in May with two Specify Colour with Confidence events. When I launched my courses this Spring, our first Chicago date sold out almost immediately so we scheduled a second one for the following weekend, but we have a few days in between courses.

Where should we stay? What should we do? Where should we go? I’d love your advice!

Happy Easter everyone!!

Related posts:

The Real Reason Your Lighting Sucks

How to Create Instant Atmosphere In Your New House

How to Create a Vignette or Tablescape



leave aREPLY

  1. Flowers seem to be an important element in some magazine photos, especially neutral décor. If you block out the flowers in the photo, the room looks drab!

  2. Just read posts from other Chicago people below, and have not yet seen some of the sites recommended. Thanks! I like the Driehaus Museum in River North/Chicago. It’s a gem – A Victorian mansion from the Gilded Age, is filled with sculpture, furniture, Tiffany lighting, including a stain glass dome! They usually have some kind of special exhibit as well.

  3. I notice this is a CTC post (Closed Time-like Curve / time travel into the past), but none the less excellent and informative. Thanks Maria! ☺ Marty McFly aka -Brenda- ☺

  4. Been to Chicago only once, but loved:
    1. architectural tour on river boat
    2. Field Museum of Natural History
    3. Art Institute of Chicago
    I wasn’t able to get to this, but explore Frank Lloyd Wrights work in Chicago and neighboring Oak Park-

  5. Hello, I have purchased several of your e-books and shorter courses on-line and enjoy everything about them but most of all I love your email posts. When I find one in my email box, I feel like it is a present to be unwrapped and I try find time to sit quietly by myself to enjoy every word and photo. But every time I read the emails posts and the coordinated links within the post, I have anxiety because you give such wonderful advice and photos that I want to use for the future and I am in a panic that I won’t be able to find it when I need it. Am I missing something or is there a way we can access a particular post? For instance, I love your advice on the tablescapes and want to be able to reference it down the road if and when I downsize. Is this something you have already available that I am missing?

  6. Hi, Maria,

    This blog post made me laugh. Years ago I learned how to tune up my VW bug and change the points, plugs, and condenser from Volkswagen Repair for Dummies.

    While I have used other “for Dummies” books since then, I really needed your primer about accessorizing. For me, it is a time-consuming process. You would think that candle or moss ball was the last thing I would ever purchase in my life!

    I am also conflicted because I don’t like clutter, and part of me considers accessorizing just more things to dust or get in the way of what I want to set down in that occupied space. The other part, of course, recognizes how lovely the vignettes are and how they enhance the feel of the room.

    Thanks for your great posts and for including links to posts I either missed or would like to read again.

  7. Love Chicago! Lots of good advice – the architectural tours are awesome. Loved the most recent one I did in the Gold Coast. Be sure to check out RH and the Three Arts Cafe. Beautiful setting for a Restoration Hardware store. I like the Ambassador Hotel down the street – in a quiet part of the Gold Coast – just a little out of the business of Michigan Ave.

    RL at the Ralph Lauren store is always a stop. Cozy fireplace in the bar area.

    Nothing better than walking along the lakeshore – you can walk for miles!

  8. Please update your blog post to include the word “faux” in front of coral in every sentence you mention it. You have replied to one comment that you buy faux coral but other readers may be encouraging the harvest coral from reefs because decorators say
    “Use coral”. In the 21st century, when our oceans and environmental resources are being decimated, please clearly state, “Use faux coral”.

  9. I was just flipping through the latest Mark & Graham catalog, and they have a gorgeous green lacquer tray with bamboo handles. I see a new tablescape in my future. 🙂

  10. Oh well, I just pulled that large Cape Cod coffee table book out of the donation pile. Holding on to it now, because you never know where I might need it! Thanks for a truly informative post with real “how to ” suggestions for those of us who are not professional designers. This post is probably also very helpful for those real ones too! I like how you explained simply and with illustrations the points you outlined. I always learn something from you!