Designer Mark Zeff sets the scene for a delightful holiday meal from F&W

When South African-born interior designer Mark Zeff is preparing for a dinner party in his New York apartment, he never sets the table the same way twice--which isn't hard since he has a shop full of things to draw upon. But certain rules do apply. First, something on the table must evoke his native land. Second, the setting must be, in his words, "visually assertive without being too showy."

For F&W's ham dinner, Zeff sets the mirror-topped table from his own furniture line with place mats made by Zairean women for the heads of their households; each one is unique. To the left of each place setting he puts small South African cowrie-shell mats from his store for guests to rest their bread on. The tall heirloom wineglasses are filled with a South African Merlot, the 1989 Meerlust.

For the centerpiece, Zeff arranges a collection of antique silver--salts and peppers, candlesticks and vases, a cigarette box--on a large silver tray that once belonged to a Johannesburg country club and is inscribed with members' names.

Tying the scheme together are spots of vibrant greens: small dessert wineglasses, a large glass vase in the center of the table and a dozen perfect greengage plums, one in the middle of each gold-rimmed white dinner plate. "The plums are a simple, easy hit of color," he says, "and they complement the warm, muted tones of the room."

For a catalog of Zeff's furniture, including his signature "Heraldry" chairs, call Mark Zeff Consulting Group at 212-580-7090. This fall the designer is launching a collection of bed and table linens, which will be available through his retail shop in Southampton, New York; for more information call 516-283-2999.

    By Eric A. Berthold and John FOOD & WINE Test Kitchen