Bold Patterns, Saturated Colors—Meet Designer Nicole Crowder’s Holiday Tablescape

Plus, her favorite festive tunes and go-to family dishes.

October 31, 2022

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There are few things I love more than putting the finishing touches on a dinner table—whether it’s for a low-key night of apps and wine (cue the linen napkins and mismatched colored glassware) or a full-on sit-down meal (time to break out the fancy candlesticks).

As much as I enjoy the process, in the world of table decor, I am but a novice. So with the holidays around the corner, and many important moments to be shared over good food and drink in the queue, I turned to a real expert: furniture maker and pro tablescaper Nicole Crowder. We talked tips for putting together the ultimate festive spread—including the inspiration behind her own design this year—plus her go-to holiday music, family favorite dishes, and then some.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Dave Katz

Erin Alexander: Okay, so the holidays are coming up. What are some of your favorite holiday traditions that you look forward to every year?

Nicole Crowder: My big tradition is, well, there's a couple: I love driving around the area with my family and my partner, just looking at lights. For decorating, my mom saves all the holiday cards that people have given her and puts them on the wall. It's kind of busy, but it's really special to see notes that people have left over the years.

EA: That's so sweet.

NC: She's a big archivist. She keeps everything. I've been keeping my own cards, but I might display them a little differently. And then, I'm big on setting a table with the family—that’s my thing. My mom cooks, my sister likes to take photos, and I'm the one decorating the table. I've started doing this with my niece, too, which is really, really special. That's one of my favorite traditions, I would say. Oh, and my partner and I started holiday movies. Because he's a big Halloween person, during October we watch all the scary movies. And then for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I bring out my inventory of movies that I love.

EA: What are your go-to movies?

NC: Definitely A Christmas Story. Oh my gosh, Love Actually.

EA: Of course.

NC: Diehard is always another great one. The Best Man Holiday. There's so many movies that I love watching. A Charlie Brown Christmas—all these films.

EA: It's so nice to revisit the classics every year. Okay, so when you’re planning a tablescape, where do you normally start? What's the first thing that sparks the idea?

NC: Honestly, I'm a big glassware person. I love how light hits glass, so I think about the glassware as an entry point. And it's like, Do I use stems? Is it a tumbler? Is it colored glassware? Is it clear glassware? And then from there, I think about the mood that I want to create around the style of glass.

Working in textiles and furniture, I typically build from the ground up. Sometimes I'll use a solid tablecloth, but I love prints. I think that helps to automatically establish the tone for the table. I'll put down something like a plain tablecloth, and then I'll put a printed runner on there. Or I'll even do a smaller runner on top of that one, just to create more layers. And that way, you can accent around the table with glassware, beautiful bowls—I love putting a little eucalyptus leaf on a plate to make it a little more special or formal. I also like to fill the table with lots of dried florals or fruits, depending on the season, to add some extra vibrancy and juiciness to the scene. But it's glassware and textiles for me.

EA: Looking at your holiday tablescape here, I can totally see how that came through. I also noticed the patterned runner on the table cloth. Can you talk a little bit about that design?

NC: That's actually a fabric that I use in my everyday upholstery.

EA: Oh, amazing.

NC: I really encourage people to play with bold prints, bold colors—especially anything that has a texture to it, like embroidery, jacquard, twill, all that kind of stuff. Don't hesitate with the prints.

EA: Go for the print. Go for the bold.

NC: Go all in. Do print on print with a printed table runner and then, a complementary tablecloth with it. Because it's your table, right?

EA: Totally. I love the palette that you chose, too. It feels very seasonal, but kind of moody.

NC: Honestly, the color palette was really inspired by a peacock: the vibrant blues and purples, the notes of green that are also in the feathers. I wanted something that felt sexy and elegant and elevated. As I was figuring it out, I thought, Do I go in a more saturated direction with those colors? Or something more pastel? And I automatically thought of eggplant; I thought of plums, indigos, and teal accents. There’s a little bit of a turmeric hue in there, too. I personally haven't used this color palette in my own tablescape before and I wanted to push myself a little bit—to incorporate more blues and purples, and shake it up a little bit in terms of what a holiday table can look like. But also, I love those two colors together. Blue and purple, it’s just ahh. And then anything with gold or glass…

EA: It's beautiful.

NC: It's got my name on it.

EA: What’s one thing your holiday table wouldn’t be complete without?

NC: It's never without candles and florals. I love vases. Like I said, I love glassware, so having as much of that on my table as possible is just beautiful. Glass looks so good in the evening, and I really feel like the details are what fill out a table and make it feel cohesive. I have my candles there, I have my glassware, but then I also have a Sonos One speaker in my dining room, so that we can still vibe and have the music.

EA: Music is definitely key for making things feel festive.

Photo by Dave Katz

NC: I love listening to music—just in general, but especially around the holidays. I feel like my holiday mood hasn't kicked in until I've heard Nat King Cole or Mariah Carey.

EA: Iconic.

NC: Music inspires so much of my work, too. I feel like if there's something internally that's going on, and it's hard for me to just push through that with work, I turn to music. And I'm like, Let me just recenter myself for a minute. Then I can get back to the business of productivity. Music is critical, it really is a part of my day.

EA: Is there a Sonos station that you’ve had on repeat this season?

NC: Oh my goodness, what's the station that I was listening to? I think it's like, 2000s R&B Holiday, or something. During Christmas, the number one song my family played was Boyz II Men’s “Let It Snow.” That is my jam, I have to hear that during the holidays. I also was a very big Frank Sinatra fan when I was in high school. Any 1950s, 60s station that's holiday—like Bing Crosby, all of it—that's my go-to.

EA: I love the jazzy, old-school vibe for the holidays.

NC: Exactly.

EA: Tell me about your speaker set-up.

NC: With my Sonos speakers I can do whatever I'm doing, uninterrupted. I can take my photos and film my video content for my Instagram page. I can call my mama. And there's no disruption to the sound. I love how sleek they are, and how clean the design is. It's nice, too, when I can put different speakers in different rooms and they all stay connected. I can go from my bathroom to the bedroom to the kitchen and not have to miss a song at all. I can even talk to the speakers. I can just be like, Hey, Sonos, play X, while I'm working on upholstery or sending emails instead of having to keep reaching over to press a button. All of those functionalities make everything easier for me when I'm working.

EA: It's especially nice, too, for the holidays, when you have a party and you want everything to feel cohesive. You can have a speaker going in one room and the same music playing in another.

NC: I also love that you can just hand your friend the phone and say, "Play what you want." It's not like they have to dig too much or reconfigure a Bluetooth device.

Photo by Dave Katz

EA: So the music is going, the table is set—what are your go-to holiday dishes for completing the scene?

NC: The big dishes for my family are cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, and my mom makes lasagna.

EA: That sounds delicious.

NC: I will eat those dishes all year long, so having them at my table is amazing. I'm really good at side dishes, too, so I'll do a sweet corn ceviche.

EA: Ohh, yum.

NC: If you haven't had this, you take some yellow sweet corn—you shuck it and get the kernels off—then you add lime, cilantro, jalapeño peppers, and green peppers and just mix all of that together with a little salt and pepper. It's like that sweet, savory, kind of very citrusy flavor. It's such a great pairing with turkey, with chicken, with anything, honestly.

EA: A little brightness for all those heavy dishes.

NC: It's so good, but I'm also a big cranberry sauce girl, straight out of the can—that's my go-to.

EA: Easy and delicious. I'm here for that. Any final tips for creating an inviting holiday atmosphere?

NC: I think scent is also a big part of creating the vibe. Whatever your favorite candle is—pumpkin spice or vanilla scented—I think having that, so when your guests come in, they're already enveloped in this warmth and this mood that's been accented by music.

EA: That really brings the whole experience to the next level.

NC: That's it. When people come to my house for the holidays, or any occasion, honestly, I just want them to be like, "Ah, this is where I am for the next few hours, because Nicole, she's thought about me. She's hit all the notes to make me feel comfortable. And the scene, from the music to the food to the beverages, all of that's been considered."

What’s your quintessential holiday song? Tell us in the comments below!

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Erin Alexander

Written by: Erin Alexander

Erin Alexander is the Managing Editor of Food52.