A Lesson in Linens

Tips on colors, fabrics, displays and more

Rustic elegance: A rust and gold-swirl tablecloth with gold lamour chair covers
from Cloth Connection

Sure, a hotel can provide you with linens, and at an upscale establishment, they’re probably quite nice. For a sophisticated banquet, however, so much more can be done, even on a budget.
   “It was probably about two years ago when clients started to recognize the value of linen,” says Steve Kemble, president of the Chicago-based International Special Events Society and owner of Dallas-based Steve Kemble Event Design. “If budget is a concern and you don’t have a lot of money for lighting, why not spend your money at the table?”
   Read on for a crash course in selecting fitting and fabulous linens for your next event.

Table manners: Yellow tablecloths and gold napkins in poly/cotton;
the place mats are mini-Persian rugs. Linens by BBJ Linen

Choosing colors
With the vast array of colors and patterns available today, picking what will work can be a little more difficult than in years past but also more exciting.
   Coordinate the venue. Find a color that matches the carpeting or something else that dominates the room. Or, according to Mark Musters, owner of Musters & Co., based in New York City, pick a tablecloth that matches the general color of the venue, and order an overlay that “picks out one of the subtle color details in the room, such as a wood or metal accent,” he says. Neutralize the room. Dark walls merit lighter tablecloths, and light walls call for slightly darker linens, says Ruth Schlosberg, marketing manager of White Plains Linen/Linens à la Carte, based in Peekskill, N.Y. For example, if the walls are brown, use beige tablecloths. If they’re a stark white, a light yellow might work wonders. If the room looks like a warehouse, use fancy, colorful linens to make it more cheerful.
    Shocking carpeting might have to be neutralized, as well. Pick a neutral color out of a busy carpet and emphasize that in the linens to calm the room.
    Find the “it” color. Chocolate brown has been the rage for almost a year. “Brown connotes a lot of warmth,” explains Jo Dermid, national director of sales for the Novi, Mich.-based BBJ Linen. “It’s a comfort color.”
Other hot colors, says Dermid, are dark rose shades and persimmon, a deeper version of salmon. Next year, though, “it” may change. How to predict what’s going to be hot? Borrow from the fashion world, advises Kemble. Linen trends tend to follow clothing trends.
   Consider the season. Appropriate colors change with the time of year. Spring and summer hues are bright, like lemon yellow and periwinkle (a bluish purple). Floral and Hawaiian prints are more commonly used in the warmer months or when it’s really cold and everyone wishes it were warmer.
   In autumn, pick earth tones, such as pumpkin orange, olive green, rust and chocolate brown. Metallic colors (gold, silver, bronze and copper) are hot in winter, as are rich, festive choices such as burgundy, navy blue, red and green. Use heavier fabrics, too, to give the room a plush, warm feeling.
Keep in mind that these rules are not written in stone, notes Musters.
    Mix and match. Put colors together in unexpected ways for the most impact. The following combinations can either be layered or changed from table to table. Steve Kemble likes to divide the room into quadrants and use different linens in each corner. Some interesting mixes:
   " Saffron with magenta
   " Aqua with citrus green
   " Hot pink and orange
   " Chocolate, apricot and gold, which look good in organza (a thin, shiny fabric) and satin
   " Chocolate with burgundy
   " Plum and magenta, especially in velvet or lamour
   " White, blue and turquoise
   Brand with color. Try using the colors in the company logo. Or, match the tablecloth colors to the event’s theme.
   Pick a safe color. Some clients won’t want the linens to shock anyone. White and ivory will offend no one’s taste. Though more adventurous, black, copper, gold and silver also will always be in style. A black tablecloth with a metallic fringe is a good bet, says Michael Davis, owner of Cloth Connection, in Spring Valley, N.Y. Pick chair covers and napkins that match the color of the fringe.
   Avoid all white. While white may seem the safest color, don’t overdo it. “All white will deaden the room,” says Dulany Noble, owner of Baltimore-based Gala Cloths by Dulany. For an event that needs to be white, Noble advises trying ivory as a substitute.
   “White is a tricky thing to pull off,” says Wendy Dodds, co-owner of New Rochelle, N.Y.-based Indigo Moon, a custom linens firm. “It comes close to suggesting that you simply used the hotel’s stuff.” Dodds suggests white chair covers, white hemstitched linen napkins and white beads on the fringes of the linens.

A gold scroll damask over a champagne solid
from White Plains Linen

Choosing fabrics
After picking colors, choose the fabrics. Finding textures to stimulate through touch can be even more fun than arranging a color palette for the eyes.
   For the sake of durability and ease of cleaning, most fabrics these days are synthetic, which can look and feel like any fabric on earth. Don’t be alarmed if the linen tablecloths contain polyester. It’s far less expensive, and most people can’t tell the difference.
   Go traditional. For upscale, muted events, pick a basic poly/cotton blend, or one of the following specialty fabrics:
   " Brocade, a regal-looking heavy fabric with raised metallic designs
   " Damask, a heavy yet elegant tone-on-tone embossed linen most common in white, ivory and champagne, but exciting in brighter colors
   " Velvet, particularly good for elegant winter banquets
Pick something unique. Another option is to try a fabric that hasn’t been done to death. Dodds says her natural collection, using fibers that look like furs or straw, is popular. Or try:
   " Bichon, a shiny, crinkled faux silk
   " Burlap, good for a natural-looking room. Use a muslin or domestic burlap for a smooth texture.
   " Dupioni, raw silk that creates an uneven surface, has a great range of colors and looks good with beads.
   " Iridescent crush, a crushed satin that reflects a myriad of colors in light
   " Lamour, a thick, rich satin with minimal shine that comes in many colors
   " Organza, a thin, sheer, sparkly fabric
   " Quilted fabrics, usually custom-made, consisting of diamonds or squares of two fabrics combined like a quilt
   " Satin, which looks lavish in bright colors such as purple, green or pink
   " Shag, a furry linen with a metallic shine
   " Sheer, a wispy, diaphanous fabric that works great with embroidery, beads or silk-screened patterns and looks best when layered over a solid-colored linen

It’s a Stretch

Stalactites from Pink Inc.

The world of linens extends well beyond the table. Tension fabric structures, made of Spandex stretched over specially built frames, look futuristic and particularly dramatic when accented with colored lighting.

Pink Inc., based in New York City, makes columns, projection screens and costumes using this technique. The group has dressed up New York City’s Rockefeller Center and created permanent installations at Sony stores.

Designer/CEO Debra Roth, a sculptor who segued into fabric art, particularly adores “tornadoes” tall columns that flare open at the top. “When lit in a dynamic way,” she says, “they’re really a wow.”

Pieces for rental or purchase can be ordered from stock or custom-made. Pink Inc. will send help for complicated arrangements. Pricing varies from about $150 for a simple creation to thousands for long tunnels and elaborate sets. (212) 253-6666 or (886) PINKINC - J.V.

Display ideas
Often, the method of presentation has as much impact as do the linens themselves.
   Layer the linens. Especially for tables without chairs, it’s very common to layer tablecloths. Often, you can use the hotel white underneath to save money. Just be sure that one of the layers reaches to the floor and the priciest linen goes on top, where people can see it. Some examples:
   " White over black
   " Red iridescent crush over black satin
   " Silver organza over red linen
   " Chocolate brown lamour under another color of brown suede print (for a Southwestern look)
   " Silver damask over espresso bichon
   Swag selectively. When linens are layered, swag the head table by pulling the top linen up to the table edge eight times around the edge, like a theatrical curtain. But note: Unless linens are beaded, indiscriminate swagging will turn the event into a wedding, says Michael Davis.
   Put down runners. Musters overlays 18-inch-wide runners spread across dressed tabletops to add extra color. Often, he’ll get the runners silk-screened with a design that ties into the event.
    Light the linens. Especially when using white, Kemble puts an electric light under the table to highlight the linens. He also lights them from above using variously shaped candles.

Napkins and chair covers
Linens denote more than just tablecloths. They include napkins and chair covers, as well as drapes and curtains.
   Practice good chairmanship. Fancy up the chairs to change the look of the room at a low price. Adding colorful sashes also will create an impact. Dodds offers creative chair covers that look like corsets, complete with grommets and contrasting ribbons.
   Make a splash with the napkins. Schlosberg uses a gold satin napkin over a white, black or royal blue tablecloth; Dulany Noble pre-ties the napkins with a metallic-edged organza ribbon.

Elegance on a budget
It’s easy to splurge on linens. Cutting back while still making an impression is a bit trickier.
   Pick one color. On a limited budget, Kemble suggests creating a bold monochromatic effect. Pick a few different fabrics with the same color, and put them at different tables around the room. Then use the same color for napkins and flowers. “You’ll have a stronger impact by using one color than by mixing and matching,” Kemble says. “And avoid designs,”  which can cost too much to coordinate.
   Focus on one element. If the budget is slim, Dodds uses hotel linens (usually for free) and rents napkins, napkin-holders or chair covers.
Go square. Even with round tables, use square tablecloths. When they’re all the way to the floor, guests won’t notice, and they’re more affordable.
   Rent smaller tablecloths. For informal events, don’t hang cloths all the way to the floor; 90-inch square cloths are about half the price of 120-inch rounds, explains Diana Bair, president of Beyond Elegance, an inexpensive linen rental company in New Sharon, Iowa.
   Avoid the East. Often, says Bair, it’s possible to save a substantial amount by ordering from a company not located on the Eastern Seaboard.
A word of caution: When hotels say they have linens to the floor, be sure that they don’t overlay two smaller tablecloths. “It’s the ugliest thing you ever saw,” says Noble.