Last Saturday, television presenter June Sarpong was, presumably, feeling excited about her dinner party. It was a sunny day in London and the lockdown had ended in all but name, so she arranged a table in the garden for 20 guests. In the hope that Twitter would enjoy the scene, Sarpong tweeted a picture: “#Lockdowngardenparty Glorious day in London.” But her deluxe table display – flowers, candlesticks, twine napkin holders and lemons – attracted a backlash as the presenter was accused of breaking the few remaining lockdown rules.
Although Sarpong’s post prompted widespread criticism, it also received more than 1,300 likes. The table setting was undoubtedly pretty and it’s obvious why some would feel a tiny pang of envy. Particularly in the last few months, these types of ostentatious dinner scenes have become more familiar, slowly creeping on to many people’s screens. Sarpong, perhaps even unbeknownst to herself, had participated in one of Instagram’s fastest growing trends: she had posted a tablescape.
— June Sarpong OBE (@junesarpong) August 1, 2020
Tablescaping, in essence, is the increasingly ubiquitous Instagram trend of sharing photographs of heavily decorated tables set for entertaining. It has exploded in popularity over the last year with the hashtag #tablescape boasting 1.19million posts and #tabledecor raking in 2.45million. The pictures are typically intricate, featuring not just forks and plates and flowers but close to 14 dedicated items per place setting. These pictures of dinner parties (sometimes with as few as four guests) achieve a level of detail usually reserved for weddings.
The aesthetic of most tablescapes is the material definition of maximalism: rarely are they humble or muted and rarely is the actual dinner ever seen. Dining spaces overflow with plates edged with metallic linings sitting on top of expensive looking runners, surrounded by enormous bouquets and extraneous decorations such as glass ducks or gold lanterns. Most tablescapes fit a particular design style – they tend to be stereotypically “feminine” with an abundance of pastels, florals and pinks. However, as the market becomes increasingly mainstream, there have been attempts at branching out into other styles and looks.
Even in a saturated market, tablescaping is particularly dominated by wealthy white women, flexing the dispensable opulence they can, it seems, afford regularly. The dining tables are so cluttered with decoration that users can sometimes barely tell what they’re looking at – floral arrangements obscure candelabras which obscure ornate jugs. It’s a luxury few will ever be able to afford, let alone manage for a casual dinner party of less than ten.
Instagram accounts have long been dedicated to tablescaping and businesses have launched to cater to those who can afford to make their dinner party resemble a professional event. But after the lockdown began in March, with people’s homes more on display than ever, tablescaping achieved new levels of popularity. In some cases it has become a means for upper- and middle-class people to gather and share their relative ease of life compared to most of those living through the pandemic. As the lockdown eased this summer, and people were able to meet and share food once more, tablescaping became yet more prominent (though this will likely change as the months grow cooler).
The companies that have appeared to serve the tablescaping market provide what resembles a mini catering service, but without the food. Lay London is perhaps the most prominent of these (and the most focused on tablescaping). Having launched in February this year, the company offers 15 different “themes” for diners to choose from at a typical cost of £25 per guest. For this, clients will receive plates, placemats, tablecloths, cutlery, as well as some blank name cards, but additional items from Lay’s “useful extras” section include cocktail trays, glass jug coasters and ceramic serving platters.
Lay also provides the option to “lay-up” a table (costing £50 per 6-14 guests and £100 for parties up to 30 people) and even has special packages for hosting this summer in the midst of the pandemic. “With ‘dining-out’ currently off the menu and the great British summer upon us, we want to help you to make the most out of hosting at home,” the Lay site reads. “During times like this, we believe that making the most of special occasions is all the more important.”
Lay’s founders, sisters Jemima and Alice Herbert, said they started the firm to try to combat the waste and cost of hosting. “Recognising the importance of circular economy we embarked on a mission to reimagine the way we host; reducing the waste that can accompany hosting,” they say. This mission statement may feel, for most people, entirely detached from their own financial reality. But Lay hopes to help those who can afford their service decrease the waste caused by single-use items.
Tablescaping as a trend is inextricable from lifestyle – individuals cannot host regular, lavish dinner parties without relatively easy access to cash. And for those who haven’t reached that level yet, it serves as an aspiration; they follow dedicated Instagram accounts without having hosted a dinner party themselves. Now, when people google “tablescaping”, they’ll be inundated with listicles from mainstream publications explaining the trend and what they need to be able to participate; outlining the tablecloths, centrepieces, glassware, cutlery, dinner plates and candlesticks required to be a true tablescaper.
Lockdown rules still require limited gatherings indoors and discourage people from eating with those outside their household. Yet it’s obvious from posts such as Sarpong’s that the itch to host and party is being scratched. But for most breaking lockdown rules to gather in large groups, elaborate table settings and decorations are far beyond their reach. At best they can watch as Instagram hashtags inflate and the affluent continue to up the ante, and hope that one day they can go from table setting to scaping too.