It can often feel like our obsession with perfectly styling out every surface in our home came of age alongside—or perhaps, because of—the Instagram phenom known as the #layflat. If you don't know it by name, here's a description that ought to be familiar to any design-loving 'grammer: a top-down view of a perfectly prop-styled tabletop, often involving a status book stack, artfully placed accessories, and perhaps a photogenic food item. But Leslie Banker, a leader of traditional design's new guard, and daughter of the celebrated New York decorator Pamela Banker, is about to show us that expert tabletop styling has been studied, tweaked, and taught since long before its defining hashtag.
"A room will only look finished when the tabletops have been styled," Banker says. Anyone who has ever filled an empty room with their favorite furnishings, only to be baffled when the end result looked far from homey, knows this simple observation to be true. The trick is knowing what to do about it. "Having an original and well-composed collection of objects on side tables and, to a lesser extent, a coffee table brings character to a room," she says. And that's where her time-tested tips come in. Read on to complete your tablescaping master class.
1. Arrange in Height Order. "When putting together a tabletop, select objects that are different heights and shapes," offers Baker. "Place the low items closer to the front of the table and taller items towards the back. On a table in the center of a room, place the tallest objects at the center of the table." Lonny loves a classic bust, stone obelisk, or orchid to create height. A sculptural table lamp (like the one above) is a great option for console tables.
2. Mix Up Your Materials. "A combination of stone, metal, ceramic, and glass adds depth to a room," says the designer. A classic formula? "Have a few small books stacked up beside brass candlesticks and a glass vase."
3. Edit Down Picture Frames. "Choose one, possibly two, framed pictures for a side table," says Baker. "Avoid having frames on every tabletop in a room and feel free to have zero picture frames." Picture your parents' entry table or piano-top jumbled photo assemblage, then channel the exact opposite.
4. Create Collections. "Have multiples. Tabletops are the perfect place to display a small collection of anything from miniature ceramic elephants to lacquer incense holders," says Banker. "There’s always a story behind a collection and it helps to personalize the room. If there is one small object that you like, having three or five of them will increase the impact."
5. There’s No Need to Break the Bank. "The things on your tabletops do not need to be expensive," she says. "They just need to be things that you find beautiful and that tell a part of your story. It’s a place to give something simple that catches your fancy a chance to shine." Eddie Ross, whose New York apartment is pictured above, shares the surprising pieces he finds at thrift shops on his Instagram.
6. Display Travel Mementoes. "I have sea urchin shells that I collected as a child on a trip to Sardinia in a silver bowl on a side table in my living room," the designer says. "Not only are the shells beautiful, they make me happy every time I look at them. I also have on a side table, a pair of small brass bowls that my in-laws brought back from a trip to Beirut. The bowls are attractive, they have a story, and they are perfect for filling with nuts when guests come over."
7. Consider the Composition. "A tabletop should look full and considered but not cluttered," Banker mandates. "Think about balancing the objects and colors on a tabletop and creating a composition as if you are an artist creating a collage." Instagram stylesetter Patrick Janelle's floating desk (above) incorporates a mix of books, art, small sculptures, and fresh flowers, all offering various heights, textures, and design styles.
8. Use Family Treasures. "Display heirlooms, rather than keeping them in deep storage," she says. "If there is an old cigarette case, enamel box, or another item that has a family history, it will be perfect to display on a side table."