Journeys in Taste Interview with Tara O’Connor

Anyone out there for ‘tablescaping’? No, it isn’t a new Olympia sport, and, no, it isn’t something your teenager could do with their skateboard if it’s raining outside. It is, in fact, all about making your table uber-presentable for whatever event you might be hosting. Also, just in case you think it’s a makey-uppy word, ‘tablescape’ has been around for decades upon decades. According to Tara O’Connell, the more than able tablescaper and the founder of The Designed Table, the word (and its constituent meaning) was first coined in America, where, she says, it has been a competitive practice at state-wide country fairs since the 1930s. Gradually, people brought the tradition into their homes.

“It elevates your guests’ dining experience,” notes Tara. “I feel that if guests go to the trouble of accepting an invite to your home, then you need to ensure they have a memorable time. Putting effort and style into a table shows you are the perfect host. Now more than ever before, gathering around the table is so important. Whether it’s a Sunday roast with the family, a supper with friends or a simple dinner for two, mealtimes should be given consideration and dedication.” Doing this, she adds, turns them from an obligation into a beautiful formality.

The inspiration came from two areas, one of which was by chance. Tara’s love of simply wanting to organise things has certainly helped, but her time in college – notably, when she was on the committee of the Graduation Ball – fused her instinctive organisational gifts with an aching sense of achievement. She also liked, she recalls, starting “with a blank slate and seeing an event come to shape. This has always been my goal with planning any event, big or small. Starting with an idea and helping a client create a party or special occasion, and seeing guests have fun, brings me great joy.” 

Organisation, of course, is the central element. Tara’s natural inclination towards meticulously crossing the tees and fastidiously dotting the eyes makes her a shoo-in for being nabbed for that perfect event you have always wanted but wondered how to go about getting. Besides, who else do you know loves to create spreadsheets with details of all perfectly synchronised timings, and which supplier arrives from where and when and with what? 

What are Tara’s strategies when it comes to planning events, and how does she make her clients less anxious? If the client is fully aware of her organisational skills, she says, then they are much more at ease. “The reason they employ an event planner is to take the stress and worry away, and this is also something I convey to them.” Like many people in the event industry in the past 20 months, Tara has had to take stock of matters in both work and life. Her business stopped completely from March 2020 to July of this year, she reveals, and she used the time to recalibrate, rethink and re-evaluate. “I looked at elements of my work/life balance and decided to only work on events that I enjoy.” Another one of her vibrant lockdown ideas was to launch her own table linen business, The Designed Table. She devised the service in April of this year, she says, because “after years of styling events, I could never find nice linen in Ireland big or bespoke enough.”

That’s the background, but what’s in front of us? In other words, what are the essentials of tablescaping? Tara begins by likening the bare table to a blank canvas. “Have a little fun and don’t be afraid to mix patterns and colours. I always start with a tablecloth, but if tablecloths aren’t for you, add a runner down the centre of the table. Add placemats on top of your tablecloth to create depth, and if you’re serving an antipasti starter, add your starter plate.” Don’t add layers of plates you have to take away when guests sit down, she advises. “Pop a napkin in a napkin ring or as a nice fold onto your plate or placemat, and don’t forget your wine and water glasses.” A neat tip, she adds, if you want to do place names, is to display them via leaves, lemons, limes and pomegranates (“and have a gold sharpie on hand!”)

Any other handy suggestions? Pick your flowers and their colour to work with your table décor, says Tara. “Small vases in the middle of the table work great with flowers at different heights. For a more formal table, use symmetrical flowers. Hydrangeas always make a statement. Where possible, buy your flowers closed and leave overnight in a cold room before placing on your table.” The finishing touch, she recommends, are candles. “Tapered candles are great for adding height to your table, and tealights provide a beautiful atmosphere for dinner parties.”

I wonder what do people regularly get wrong that Tara always gets right? Two words: over styling. “There is nothing worse than not being able to see guests sitting at the other side of the table. Always test your seats by sitting on them. Doing this ensures that you can see the person at the other side.” Must-have accessories are candles, both tealight and tapered. “I love to put them at different heights as I always keep my flower arrangements low. Candles add height and layers to your table.”

And the tablescaping must-not, I ask. Apart from bad manners, what might that be, I wonder? For Tara, over styling is the big no-no. “Yet so many people do. As Coco Chanel said about fashion: ‘before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.’ Tara pauses before delivering the punchline. “The same applies to your table.”

For further information, visit www.thedesignedtable.com 

Tara can also be contacted via Twitter (@TaraDollOConnor)
and Instagram (@thedesignedtable)

Featured Photo Credit to Kieran Harnett

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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