How do you like to personalize a dinner party?
I always make my own place cards. I write each name with a felt-tip pen and include a little doodlesomething seasonal, like an acorn in autumn. I've started papering a dining room wall with them.
Where did you find your dining room furniture?
My "Tulip" chairs from Baker are really hall chairs ($623 each; 800-592-2537), so I glued red-and-white floral-patterned cushions to them. They're very curvy and quite sturdy, which is essentialI've been to parties where the chairs are about to cave in. I have a new dining table from ABC Carpet & Home (212-473-3000) that seats 14 and is sort of 1940s French.
What do you like to collect?
I'm a china nutI have eight sets, most of them vintage or antique. Swid Powell, which no longer exists, is my favorite modern china maker. They had Charles Masson [the owner of the Manhattan restaurant La Grenouille] design plates with a pink pattern, a white border and a little black band that are really chic. I like china that has white on it somewhere, whether it's the pattern or the border.
What else do you usually use on your table?
My soup bowls are red cut glass from Bloomingdale's By Mail (800-777-0000). For silver, I have a 40-person artillery of "Francis I" from Reed & Barton, which I inherited from my grandmother ($435 for a five-piece place setting; 800-343-1383). It's an extremely ornate pattern, so I always pair it with simple plates. Pick china that's too rich and the table would look like Donald Trump's.
Do you like to do anything special for serving drinks?
I totally approve of decantersI have about 20. Some are lab bottles, some are cut glass. Some are Baccarat, some are Pottery Barn. Some are English, some are French, some are American. I fill them with wine or water and leave them on the table. It's just a sea of decanters, which looks drop-dead beautiful. I can't stand to see plastic anywhere. No can do. A tonic water label? Ew. I also have a collection of pitchers, which I use for nonalcoholic beverages, like juice or iced tea. Since I have them, I use them. That's why they're there. And there's good-looking stuff that doesn't cost a lot, so there's no excuse.
How do you plan your menus?
I like to do several courses. A meal should be like a story, a narrativewith a beginning, a middle and an end. And I usually write out the menu. Last year [interior designer] Albert Hadley gave me 50 lamp shades because he figured that I could find something to do with them. For dinner parties, I write the menu on one of the lamp shades in felt-tip pen, and to doll it up, I might trim it with ribbon using a glue gun. Then I put the shade on a lamp at one end of the table, seating everyone else at the other end. You can get lamp shades at Wal-Mart and do the same thing.
If you could design anything for the table, what would you pick?
Plates. If Swid Powell were still in business, I'd want to design something for them, but now I'd probably choose Bernardaud. My great-grandmother painted porcelain. She bought Limoges standards, hand-painted them and then had them fired. She used them as chargers, but I like to serve food on them instead.
Where do you shop for china?
I'll go anywherethe Bernardaud store, flea markets. One thing I've learned to do is buy in bulk, because I entertain a lot. I've found wonderful things on eBay. You may not find a full set of 12, but that's fine. Sometimes you have only 11 people coming for dinner. I've also ravaged all those businesses that carry discontinued china, like Replacements.com and Silver Queen in Largo, Florida (1350 W. Bay Dr.; 800-262-3134). Sometimes you can find incredible sets of china at auction, but you do have to take everything included in the set that's up for sale. I found a set of old Arabia of Finland espresso cups at a Doyle auction house tag sale (doylenewyork.com).
Do you buy anything abroad?
In North Africa, where I go a lot, the Marrakech Souk is absolute heaven. Textiles, pots, vases, pillows, basketsthere are some extraordinary things. There's also a dealer in Marrakech who I think is wonderful, Mustapha Blaoui (011-212-44-38-52-40). His antique stuff is just sensational. I'll buy lanterns, a lot of textiles and embroidery. It's not inexpensive anymore, but hey, what is?
Do you have any easy do-it-yourself ideas?
I collect wooden candlesticksI like architectural shapes. I paint them white, then sketch over their edges in black felt-tip pen, to create a graphic effect. These look great with white candles, though once in a while, I'll use red. Otherwise, I buy only white candles. There are loads of other DIY suggestions in my book, Glue Gun Decor.
How do you arrange your flowers?
I'm not one for overdoing the flowers. I really love berriesI'll mix them with green leaves and pack them into smallish vases. I like to see a battery of flowers marching down the table, in a slightly random-looking ordernot a perfectly straight linebecause I don't want it to look like a wedding. Last summer I found a bunch of red baskets at a dollar store. They're about five inches tall by four inches wide. I put small glasses in these and fill them up with leaves.
Do you always use table linens?
If you have a table made of beautiful wood, sometimes you don't need a tableclothjust putting your chargers and silver out is nice. Sometimes I'll lay out a red cloth from India with embroidery on it, or maybe an old shawl. Sometimes it's hard to beat a white tablecloth. But for summer, I don't use white linen unless it's a serious occasion. Florals and stripes are more fun.
Where do you buy tablecloths?
There's a wonderful shop in Paris called Simrane on the Left Bank, right off the rue de Seine (23-25 rue Bonaparte; 011-33-01-43-54-90-73). The prints there are charming. Another place I love to find summer tablecloths or tablecloths for buffet tables is Urban Outfittersit often has beautiful, big pieces of batik (800-959-8794).
What napkins do you like to use?
I don't mix napkin patterns; I think everyone should have the same one. I buy them in bulk and never skimp on qualityI must have 100 zillion white linen napkins. I have luck buying these at antique shops. But if you try it, check out the whole pile. They're often tied in bundles, and you should inspect each one for damage before purchasing. Napkins can never be too big; they should be at least 18 inches square. It adds to a feeling of generosity. For new napkins, anything from Williams-Sonoma (877-812-6235) works. And the department store Marshalls (888-MARSHALLS) is great, especially for patterned napkins.
What's on your wish list?
The "Harcourt" glasses from Baccarat (from $250 each; 866-886-8003) are my ideal, but they're too expensive for the amount of breakage I have. I found something similar, the Bernadotte line from Villeroy & Boch (from $25; 800-VILLEROY). The glasses are not very ornate, but they have a big petal pattern up through the goblet. I got the larger water-glass size, so they're huge. I like a chunky, heavy glass.
Do you like your guests to help out with the cooking or cleaning up?
No! I do not like an open kitchen. My new one is closed off with a curtain. I don't want people to watch me. Cooking is very private and cathartic. You're not there to see me work hard, or freak out if the sauce doesn't take. Let's just keep you drinking wine and chatting at the table. I won't be in the kitchen long. I prepare in advance and have everything in the oven before guests arrive. I just have to pull things out and serve.