For Athena Calderone, it all begins with the eyes. “Visuals create our first impressions. Aesthetics have the power to draw us into a room – and they can also make our mouths water.” One peek at the interior designer and entertaining expert’s addictive site, EyeSwoon, and you’ll see she practices what she preaches. With the recent release of her first cookbook, Cook Beautiful, we sat down with Athena to chat all things food and entertaining, why every table needs a bit of vintage, and of course, had her curate a stunning collection of her Chairish favorites.
Why do you think the connection between design and food is important?
“Design makes its way into everything I do. I approach plating a recipe in the same way I design a space – by adding layers and texture, including opposing elements, and playing with composition and negative space. I’m always asking myself whether the presentation needs more grit or glam, edge or sophistication, newness or rustic patina. An alluring dish sends a signal to our brain that we simply must eat that plate of pasta. Our eyes are everything. Our experiences all begin with a visual.”
What are some things every entertainer should have in their arsenal?
“Dimmers on all the lights, a playlist that can be popped on in a pinch, and a glass of wine before guests arrive.”
How does seasonality inform the way you set the table?
“I am always inspired by the natural world, taking visual cues from all that Mother Nature offers. The palette of each season is so distinct. These tones are also reflected in the food we cook at any given point in the year. In planning table decor I consider the palette, linens, blooms, and ceramics – and these elements are informed by what is going on all around me and in my own backyard. Speaking of my own backyard, foraging from my immediate surroundings is something I invariably do when designing a tablescape.”
Are there any details that you find yourself returning to again and again?
“A napkin folded vertically and tucked beneath the salad plate. Fragrant bundles of fresh herbs tied with twine or torn linen and placed upon the plate. And I love a name card embellished with watercolor or calligraphy and made of textured paper, with a torn edge.”
What are your go-to-ways to bring the WOW factor to the table?
“I love myself a garland down the center of a table, even if it’s all green, like those made of olive branches or eucalyptus. And then there are hand-thrown ceramics with character and texture. Linen napkins. Unorthodox vessels for blooms, like a wooden bowl or mismatched vintage pottery. A ton of candlelight. Some sort of thoughtful takeaway I made myself, like homemade citrus salts in a mason jar, for example. And finally, I always incorporate natural elements in thoughtful ways, such as opting for seasonal fruits or veggies in lieu of flowers. Artichokes could be used in spring and pomegranates or citrus on branches are in season in fall and winter.”
How do vintage finds factor into your table settings?
“I like to incorporate different finishes and textures into my tablescapes, and vintage pieces add a time-worn patina and history, which I love. I am particularly attracted to a tarnished finish set against something that might be more refined or reflective. I also enjoy using vintage flatware with mismatched glassware. I can dive down the rabbit hole of discovery for hours on Chairish. I love that you begin with a specific goal in mind but slowly begin to wander in so many different directions as you encounter swoon-worthy items you didn’t even know you absolutely needed.
Athena’s Top 5 Entertaining Tips
Branch Out. Bring fall’s natural beauty indoors by displaying a few leafy branches in a simple vase. Don’t be fooled into believing they need to be blooming—or even bountiful—to make an impact. In this case, less is more! A minimal arrangement of just two or three stems emphasizes their sculptural silhouettes.
Pretty Little Things. Let fall’s rustic vibe inform even the tiniest touches on your table. Use simple leather cord or twine to tie your napkins, tucking in a few foraged elements like pinecones and wheat sprigs for texture. And while place cards can often feel fussy, kraft paper brings them down to earth. Use your prettiest script for a bit of juxtaposition.
Flame Up. There’s nothing more flattering than candlelight and I’m always looking for unexpected ways to bring that flickering warmth to the table. Here, rather than employing a traditional candle holder, I corralled pillars of varying heights on a copper tray, tucking seasonal herbs among them for color.
Point Blanc. Fall harvest décor doesn’t have to be a ho-hum mix of oranges and browns. A cluster of white and gray pumpkins running down the center of the table looks chic and sophisticated, especially when softened with a few silvery green leaves. I adore a pale, neutral palette—even for my pumpkins!
Pretty Penny. Pick a hue and carry through! A bunch of disparate tabletop items can feel like a proper collection when united by a single material or tone—in this case, copper. I love the metal’s warmth and variety of patinas, especially when paired with fall’s earthy palette.
Photography by Johnny Miller, Courtesy of Athena Calderone