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Top decorators show their table settings

When Tiffany & Co. of Fifth Avenue invites leading New York decorators to produce its now-famous "designer table settings," you can be sure they know how to produce a sense of occasion for dining which goes far beyond any correct assemblage of fine china and the arrangement of art objects.

Their settings show that this is the year for mixing and matching. Several of the designers effectively mix their china and silver patterns, and tables were surrounded with unmatched chairs.

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Many of them dismissed table linens altogether, except for the use of beautiful napkins, to show off unusual table surfaces. So tabletops ranged from a slab of polished gray granite to a 19th-century sandstone table to the usually unglamorous Formica finish.

Designer Jay Specture pulled Chinese chairs up to his stainless steel curvilinear desktop, which he has set with black and red lacquer trays for dining, and Juan Montoya selected a grid pattern on glass for his tabletop, which is supported by a black console on one end and a lacquered cylinder on the other.

Most of the designers seemed to agree with Robert Bray's view that you make guests feel more special when you give a table setting a lift with something a little daring and unusual. For instance, he places a big flat ceramic tub of green grasses on his stone table, a fresh-off-center decoration that could last as long as three weeks. At other times, he says, he uses low-planted containers of violets in the same manner, since they provide decoration but don't obstruct the view of diners.

Most of the designers dismissed that idea of a centerpiece, calling it static or dull. Many chose to place small individual containers of flowers -- or even small pots of plants -- at each place setting. Melvin Dwork decorated his unconventional geometrically shaped table with a Japanese wood carving at one end and two exquisite Japanese porcelain vases at the other. He placed an African chieftan's chair on one side, and a banquette on the other.

Designer Carleton Varney places his wedding breakfast setting within a replica of an old-fashioned domed spring house and mixes multiflowered printed chintzes with vermeil flat-ware, crystal goblets, and delicate porcelain.

Mr. Varney, who is also table-decorating consultant to the White House, says, "I dislike all those icy table settings that are all White Damask, white china, and sheer crystal. I think colors can enhance table settings so much more. At one of rosalyn Carter's luncheons, I covered whole groups of small round tables with lavender, lime, melon, pink, and red table-cloths draped to the floor and decorated each table with a round fishbowl of fresh tulips.

"We did another luncheon scheme in purple and red and it was a great hit with guests. People forget how adventurous they can get with color. My own favorite cloth for formal entertaining is green silk moire, and our favorite scheme for entertaining in the country is a melon- colored tablecloth used with bright green napkins."

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