Guide to setting a table

There’s more to setting a table than knowing where the knives go. There’s your imagination, for instance. The way you add a pop of color or a special detail and suddenly, a quick bite to eat becomes a fun family dinner. Or maybe it’s the way your parties get remembered and talked about long after the fact.

At Pier 1, we want to help you find those clever touches and show them off in the best way possible. That’s why we really do go around the world in search of fresh, colorful and unique choices in dinnerware, glassware and table linens. And that’s why we want you to know all the details about what you’re putting on your table.

table-setting guide
The Everyday Table Setting
The everyday table

After a busy day, you need a fast, easy approach, so set out only the items you are going to use: Fork on the left, knife on the right, dinner plate and napkin in the middle, drinking glass to the upper right. If you're not going to need a spoon, why throw your utensilary pearls before swine? Some unwitting diner will inevitably knock it on the floor when grabbing for the last slice of pizza and then you'll have to wash it anyway. And no sporks. Ever.


The Casual Table Setting
The casual dinner table

For gatherings that are special but still cozy, this approach starts with the basic everyday setting above and adds a salad or bread plate with butter knife on the upper left, wine goblet next to the water glass on the upper right, and napkin to the side. Note that the knife blade always faces in—toward the diner and away from other guests. This symbolically reassures one's neighbor to the right that one does not secretly wish them harm.


The Elegant Table Setting
The elegant dinner table

Building on the casual dinner setting, add a charger beneath the dinner plate for instant glamour, then position the dessert spoon and fork horizontally and head-to-tail above. A smaller salad fork is placed to the left of the dinner fork. Rule of thumb: Always begin dining with the outside utensil and work your way in, no matter how many pieces there are. When in doubt, look to your host or hostess with big, pleading puppy eyes and shrug your shoulders.


These table-setting suggestions take you from everyday to the more formal occasions. And when you need special inspiration, check out more table-setting ideas for holidays and all year long.

setting up a buffet

This table-setting business is all well and good if you're having a sit-down dinner. But what about a buffet? Is there no handy diagram for that easy-on-the-hostess approach to dinner parties? Glad you asked.

Setting up a buffet
napkins silverware serveware serveware serveware serveware serveware serveware dinnerware Setting up a buffet

If you still want to keep your dining table for seating, you can set your buffet around a kitchen island or adapt it to a sideboard or kitchen counter.

the dish


A clay-based, porus ceramic fired at a low temperature. It's light, pliant and able to hold brightly colored glazes and colorful, hand-painted designs. Glazed earthenware is safe in the dishwasher but not the oven. Usually works in the microwave, but always check packaging or instruction labels first.


A heavy, nonporous pottery made from clay and fired at a high temperature. Denser and more durable than earthenware, stoneware is well-suited for everyday use. Which usually means the dishwasher, oven, microwave and, you know, table.


Ceramic that has been fired at an extremely high temperature, making it exceptionally durable and translucent white. High resistance to chipping, thermal shock and general mayhem. Usually dishwasher-safe and microwaveable UNLESS metallic details are present.


Easy to identify by the maker's mark typically found on a dish’s base, ironstone is a dense, weighty ceramic that is fortified with flecks of iron. Even stronger than stoneware, it's extremely durable.


“Should chicken be eaten with the fingers? No, the fingers should be eaten separately.”

The Flatware

The mighty fork came on the scene a few centuries ago and has been the mainstay of plate-to-mouth food conveyance ever since. A typical five-piece place setting consists of dinner fork, salad/dessert fork, dinner knife, dinner spoon and teaspoon. Some services include a cream soup spoon. In addition, hostess or completer sets may include a large tablespoon for serving, a pierced tablespoon, cold meat fork, butter knife, sugar spoon, pie/cake server, casserole spoon and gravy ladle.

Flatware can be made of sterling silver, silver plate or stainless steel. Out favorite? Convenient, versatile, high-quality stainless. The common designations for stainless—18/10, 18/8 and 18/0—refer to the percentages of chrome and nickel in the alloy. So when stainless steel flatware is referred to as 18/10, it has 18% chrome and 10% nickel. This is considered the highest quality of stainless.


Linens are not always, we're glad to say, made of linen. Luckily, there are plenty of coverage options of styles and materials to choose from.


The most traditional choice, tablecloths unify the components of a table setting and set the tone for your entire dining landscape. Light-colored solids tend to look more formal, while bright or patterned cloths lend a more casual note. In general, the longer the cloth, the swankier the occasion, but a 6” drop on all sides is the least you should expect. Anything shorter is just asking for trouble and the tablecloth should be sent to detention immediately.


A fun, casual way to add interest to a table while protecting its surface. Placemats come in myriad colors, textures and patterns, and can be mixed and matched. Use them alone, in combinations of colors, combine them with a table runner, or set on top of a tablecloth for a layered look. There are no set rules, but if you'll be setting the table for more than eight, skip the placemats and go with a tablecloth for a cleaner look.

Table Runner

From formal to everyday, there's a runner for every occasion. Used alone or on top of a tablecloth, with or without placemats, runners are arguably the most versatile elements at the table (next to you, of course). Center your runner horizontally or down the length of the table. Or place several runners side by side for a contemporary look. Generally, runners should hang over the table edge at least 6" on either end, or the same drop length as the tablecloth, if you're using one.


Spartans in ancient Greece used small balls of dough to wipe their hands at mealtime. Later, people used slices of bread. Cloth napkins are the greatest things since sliced bread. On the table, dinner napkins may lie to the left or on top of the empty dinner plate, or be tucked into the water goblet on the right. Napkin rings are a fun decorative addition, too, and way easier than making folded napkin swans.

the centerpiece
The Centerpiece

As if you didn’t have enough to do before a dinner party, there’s still the centerpiece to consider. Phone the florist, create one, or make it easy on yourself and nab a ready-made showpiece at Pier 1. Do keep in mind that, family feuds notwithstanding, a centerpiece should never block guests’ view of each other across the table. Generally, that means a maximum height of about 12 inches; very tall centerpieces should be placed on a sideboard or sturdy, slender pedestal that won’t obstruct conversation. Do keep width to about 18 inches for a small table, 18-24 inches for a larger table. Don’t limit yourself to a single centerpiece or just flowers—a row of glass hurricanes filled with candles or fruit can have a big impact. And, in the name of all that’s good and true, do avoid aspic towers, butter carvings or anything from the Golden Age of Molded Food.