Product Design

This Placemat Designer Is Giving You Permission to Break All the Table Setting Rules

First, ditch the white tablecloth.

March 28, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Sandy Chilewich says she owes everything to something a stranger blurted out when she was young and struggling to break into the art world. Standing in front of her abstract collage, he told her that her work had a distinctly commercial quality. She was crushed.

Fast forward 30ish years. Today she produces over 40,000 placemats a week, but she’ll always identify as an artist first and foremost. In fact, she offers the same advice to every interviewer she’s ever met: Look at your table as a canvas. And if it helps, start with the placemat like it’s a mini canvas. That’s less intimidating.

Technically, Sandy’s made waves (weaves?) in her industry twice. First, as co-founder of the hosiery manufacturer HUE in 1978 (freeing women’s legs from smothering nylons and introducing cotton tights in zillions of colors). Then, by taking on the larger world of textile design after selling the company. Many zippered bags and structured bowls later, she settled on placemats. Flat was easier. But she wasn’t about to start cutting up lawn chairs to get the look she wanted. So she started at the source: a factory in Alabama that had been in the patio furniture industry since the 1970s agreed to make exclusive weaves for her in colors and patterns they’d never heard of before.

Photo by Bobbi Lin
Photo by Ty Mecham

Years later, every Chilewich design—now including an expansive tabletop and floor line—still starts from scratch at the skilled hands of master weavers before going to the industrial loom. What makes the yarn unique is that it’s extruded, meaning it’s got a core with a vinyl outer casing (read: practically indestructible, easy to clean, but inexplicably elegant with a textile quality).

Shop the Story

Apart from her unusual choice of materials, what really made Sandy stand out from the crowd was her commitment to unfussy minimalism at the table—a kind of winsome nose-thumbing toward all the bulky layers that usually went into place settings. And her ideas took off. Her big break came in 2000, when Tom Colicchio commissioned her mats for his unabashedly bare tables at Craft, the then-brand-new Flatiron restaurant. She was on the cusp of a redefinition of fine dining, one that now considered white tablecloths stuffy and anachronistic.

The phone didn’t stop ringing after that.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

When asked if she had a dream customer (fictitious or not), she replied, “Oh, that’s already happened to me.” In May 2016, her glossy off-white table runners were selected to be at the Obamas’ Nordic State Dinner. “It was breathtaking,” she recalls. “I’m in the program and I have a picture of the President with my placemat.”

Her designs were snapped up by other Michelin star restaurants, and the Museum of Modern Art began selling her wares in their store.

When it comes to everyday table setting guidelines, she says to keep it personal: “You have no idea how much fun it can be once you get into it—it’s really so much easier than dressing yourself.” Sandy even encourages the use of everyday objects in the mix of the necessary plates and utensils. When taken out of context, things like perfume bottles and eclectic containers from you jewelry box can transform into bespoke vases and salt cellars.

Photo by Rocky Luten
Photo by Julia Gartland

“The thing that most resonates for me is how emotional people sometimes get about this product,” she muses. “I think the reason is that we are putting so much thought and creativity into a very humble product.”

Or maybe it’s because her pieces are made to stick around. And, somehow, they support our human instinct to connect with something beautiful that’ll last. Sure, it’s made from vinyl. It’s not precious. You don’t have to iron it or send it to the dry cleaner. But it makes an ordinary Wednesday night dinner feel downright special.

What are your table setting traditions? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • JD Vincent
    JD Vincent
  • Maggie Slover
    Maggie Slover
Comment
Maggie Slover

Written by: Maggie Slover

2 Comments

JD V. March 28, 2019
I have a set of 18 Chilewich placemats that I purchased at a local charity thrift store here in Chicago last year. Not as fancy as the modern designs shown here - just a simple weave in nuetral beige and moss colors. Some retain the original label. I recognized the name right away as a friend of my worked briefly as an assistant sales rep for carpet and rug executive. She often mentioned the Chilewich brand. Does Ms Chilewich also design carpet? I love them. They are indeed easy to clean and beautifully fit into my minimalist Mid Century Modern decor.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. March 29, 2019
What a great testament to their durability! Yeah, Chilewich also has a line of mats which we carry if you want to peruse them here: https://food52.com/shop/merchants/chilewich