There’s a laid table, and then there’s a tablescape. The former might involve place mats, cutlery, napkins, salt and pepper, a candle in an old wine bottle if you’re feeling retro and a bunch of flowers if you’re pushing the boat out. The latter is more of an experience than a table. It must be visually arresting, unexpected, as beautiful as a landscape — and it has to have a theme.

Hiring the Help

There’s clearly an untapped market for this kind of thing — a mass of people who want to entertain more gorgeously, but don’t know how — because at least two businesses have launched this autumn offering “a tablescape in a box”. In the US a number of prestigious investors, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon, have put money behind Social Studies, a company that lets out everything needed for a themed table to clients in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Here in the UK the socialite and Vogue contributor Alice Naylor-Leyland last week launched her smaller but similar self-named company, which sells co-ordinated Christmas tablescapes with “festive friends”.

In Naylor-Leyland’s Jolly Nutcracker tablescape, for example, those festive friends are the aforementioned jolly nutcrackers, plus glittery gold reindeers and mini fir trees to arrange across your table. Her box also includes napkins, glasses, candlesticks, vases, crackers and more. It costs £280 for four place settings, and other themes will follow; she’s working on spring and Easter ideas.

Social Studies offers ten themes — choose Provence and among other treasures you’ll get marbled crockery; slices of agate acting as coasters; dainty salt and pepper dishes with their own little spoons; and bunches of dried lavender ($40 per guest to hire; the company will take it all away the morning after).

If you’re baffled that anyone would approach a dinner table as if they were dressing a theatre set, you’re probably not a user of Instagram, where an enthusiastic audience has flourished for tablescapes, floral arrangements and interiors ideas of all kinds. Naylor-Leyland is part of this scene and has for some time been posting pictures of her tables, often with co-ordinated balloons and flowers, and sometimes with her sweet, Alice-in-Wonderland-like daughter standing nearby in a party frock. When I call Naylor-Leyland to discuss her new business, she’s packing boxes; it’s five days after launch and she has sold half her stock.

“My mum, from a young age, always laid the table madly — with chicks or nutcrackers or pumpkins,” she says. A glance at the Instagram feed of her mother, Serena Fresson, confirms that she’s still doing this, with almost 14,000 people following her efforts. “Then I started about seven years ago, layering up my own tables, and when we had people staying, realising how fun it was for guests to walk into the room and find that it had been transformed into Santa’s grotto. Also, I think I have a fear of boredom — of sitting at a table that’s always the same.”

Save ’shroom for dessert—one of Naylor-Leyland’s place-settings.

Naylor-Leyland would post her handiwork on Instagram with the hashtag #tablesbyalice. “I’d do a table and get 1,000 people saving that image. It made me think, ‘Maybe there’s something in this.’ ” She considered setting up a business that would sell beautiful crockery or glassware. “Then suddenly I thought, ‘Let’s just sell the whole thing.’ I genuinely hope it will take the hassle out of things, particularly with Christmas. People who’ve bought the boxes so far have been saying to me, ‘I love that I don’t have to think about my Christmas table.’ ”

Entertaining Made Easy-ish

Jessica Latham and Amy Griffin, who have known each other since childhood, are the founders of Social Studies. Like Naylor-Leyland, they are warm and charming, and they clearly exist in the upper stratum of New York society; I suppose this is where the idea of a tablescape must have trickled down from. Griffin tells me admiringly that Latham, who was the head of events for Vanity Fair then moved into the film industry, had a flair for designing small at-home events that were “elevated but not over the top”.

“I left my job to have kids, and I would call Jess about an event and say, ‘It’s just a dinner for 12, can you deal with it?’ ” Griffin says. Latham would style these parties and Griffin’s friends would admire them. “The idea morphed into providing that convenience and elevated experience for people who wouldn’t necessarily bring in an event planner — people who had to organise perhaps a baby shower or an engagement party,” Latham says. “Everyone looks to Instagram or Pinterest for inspiration, but the images they’re looking at have often been styled by professional event planners. How do we help people at home to entertain in that way?”

I can’t quite decide how I feel about ordinary people having parties at which they create not only a meal for friends, but a tablescape too. This level of planning is something I’ve encountered at work dinners and public events, but rarely at a friend’s house. On the one hand, a beautiful table does add a “special occasion” feeling to a meal and we all like life to feel special. On the other, it might just be a new way for women to feel inadequate. A meal is about food and company, really; I want to feel good about cooking for friends even if I serve it on Ikea plates with kitchen roll.

When I ask Naylor-Leyland about her Instagram success, she expresses unprompted concern about this pressure too. Of the Instagram effect, she says it is “something that, funnily enough, I don’t think is totally a positive. I feel strongly that laying a table is an art form, but in no way do we eat like that every night. It shouldn’t be an expectation.” She also hopes that her customers will use her supplies again and again. “You don’t need to carry on getting new stuff.”

I want to feel good about cooking for friends even if I serve it on Ikea plates with kitchen roll.

I ask how many sets of china she owns. “I have seven or eight different sets — definitely under ten. I’m worse with all the reindeer and skeletons,” she says. It emerges that at her home, Stibbington House in Cambridgeshire, she has a “hallmark day” room. “It’s full of boxes that say, ‘Easter’, ‘Hallowe’en’, ‘Christmas’, ‘birthday parties’. I’ve got swans that come out for new year. My favourite things, which I found in New York, are white flamingos.”

Even if you don’t have a hallmark-day room — and, reader, I don’t — she offers encouragement to amateur tablescapers. “Often you can do it without spending money,” she says. “Flowers can be expensive and they don’t last, but in summer you can put some limes in a bowl and bunches of mint on the table.” Griffin echoes this, suggesting crystals, pomegranates or lemons. “The more candles the better, and scatter them in unexpected places around the table so it doesn’t feel too considered,” Latham adds. “With flowers, nothing too tight or too big; we like varying heights and vases. It’s about being a mixmaster, if you will.

“I remember my parents entertaining when I was a child, and it was about hosting people and impressing them,” she goes on. “I feel that now it’s a little bit more casual. I think people care what it looks like, but rather than being very matchy-matchy, they want it to look cool and curated, but also like you just threw it together.” This makes me feel exhausted. Maybe it’s easier to buy it after all.