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LIVEN UP ANY TABLE SETTING

Sometimes our most satisfying projects are ones that are spontaneously undertaken, perhaps when uninvited guests drop in and we have to find a way to set a pretty table with the traditional elements available, especially flowers.

Because urgency makes us more accepting of less-than-perfect results, we might ignore the rules and find ways to work around the fact that we have no vase, ironed tablecloth or even matching place settings of silver. In a crunch, we tend to be more open to finding plausible substitutes for the basic elements, and in the process, can actually find more attractive (and creative) ways to use ordinary things; this may help us develop a broader repertoire of ways to make the table something dynamic and imaginative.

We may feel carefree and confident when we have to throw a meal together; however, we seem to be less trusting of our impromptu efforts when it comes time to set a pretty table.

All I used was an old champagne box, some foam and fresh greenery from my garden and the local grocery store.

Well, as you might have guessed, I am going to try to encourage you to break some rules and change your expectations, so that you develop more confidence in your natural creativity.

The fabulous thing about decorating today is that traditional rules no longer need apply. If you love a chair from your grandmother's attic, you can set it out together with your carved fruitwood couch. Finally, we have come to see the value of expressing our personal likes and dislikes in our own living spaces, where everything doesn't need to match. Who cares if everything goes together?

The same overall acceptance of decorating a personal space applies to all decorative efforts, and nowhere is it more fun and less consequential than in creating a conversation piece at a table. Mixing and matching different patterns of china at one place setting is encouraged. Combining silver from a family heirloom together with the few place settings of another pattern is fine. To me, looking at silver, especially monograms and patterns in relief, is its own reward.

To get you started thinking in a more spontaneous way, I have included directions for a quick centerpiece that I threw together for drop-in guests.

Estimated working time: 20 minutes

Estimated cost: $15 to $27

Sources: Champagne box, free at a liquor store; foliage, from garden (if purchased, $12 ($4 for 12 stems); fresh flowers, $8 ($4 for a mixed bunch); dry foam, $2.89; plastic wrap, $1.29; aluminum foil, $2.89; masking tape, 59 cents.

Materials

To assemble one wildflower centerpiece, you will need:

1 wooden box (we used a storage box for champagne bottles)

Optional: white acrylic paint

Sponge

Fresh foliage: 3 bunches -- 12 stems each (we used lemon leaves, variegated Italian pit, ruscus)

Fresh flowers: 3 grocery store bouquets (we used 4 red poppies, 6 stems bachelor buttons, 14 stems daisies)

5 oasis foam blocks

Aluminum foil

Plastic wrap

Masking tape

Scissors

Sharp knife

Pitcher (for water)

Rag

Directions

Note: To add a country look to the box, use a sponge to apply a light coat of white paint, wiping off paint at the corners and edges with a damp rag to create a weathered look.

1. To prepare the box for "planting," line with sheets of plastic wrap, using strips of tape to secure overlaps at each corner and along the bottom.

2. Add a layer of aluminum foil over the plastic wrap, making certain the bottom and side lengths overlap at the corners. (Note: Plastic wrap and aluminum foil will form a protective layer that will keep moisture from seeping onto the display surface.)

3. Lay the blocks of foam inside the box to within 2 inches of the top edge, slicing the blocks with a knife to ensure a snug fit.

4. Pour tap water into the pitcher, then slowly pour water onto the foam until it turns from light to dark green. (Do not oversaturate foam.)

5. To prepare foliage, use a knife to slice the end of stems on a diagonal, then strip off the bottom tier of leaves. (This conditioning will encourage better water absorption, prevent rotting of leaves when submerged in wet foam and prolong display life of all varieties of foliage.)

6. To "plant" foliage, insert single stems of foliage in the foam, working from the center outward, alternating varieties, until the box is loosely filled.

7. To "plant" fresh flowers, insert single stems in the center of the foliage, then around the sides of the box, allowing flowers with longer stems to cascade.

Caution: To keep table surfaces safe from accidental water spills or leaks from foam, set the champagne box in a large serving tray or on a sheet of glass cut to size at your local hardware store.

One more project: To make a glass menu place mat, simply frame a favorite menu, using a common diploma frame. Flip the frame right side up and use it as table place mat or protector for the centerpiece.

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