Al Fresco Dining Décor

By Karen Parr-Moody


Summer's balmy weather, along with vintage decorating finds, conspire to create one of life's cheeriest pleasures: dining al fresco. The setting could be a garden, a riverbank, a breezy porch, a deck;  an open sky is the only requirement. The vintage accoutrements, found in full bounty at GasLamp, speak to the setting's mood, which is one of charming ease.


Melamine dishes' pastel tones and chip-proof nature provide one vintage choice for a colorful picnic. Another alternative is mismatched china, especially floral patterns that reflect the surroundings; milk glass flower vases provide a fitting accompaniment here. Flowers tossed into tin cans can be tied onto chair backs with ribbon or wire for carefree chic. A wrought iron or rustic farm table is all it takes to complete the look. 


Even if you don't live near the river or ocean, it's easy enough to rent a space near a shore for hosting a party with a "sea" theme. Such a theme needn't be overly done; it's best to simply throw in a hint here or there. In the photo, left, there is a vividly painted set of six vintage teacups and saucers with a fish pattern, made in Japan, this is perfect for such a party ($119.95; Booth W-414). Also pictured is this shell pedestal, which is key to have on hand when hosting a party inspired by the Mad Hatter, but at the shore instead of in Wonderland ($28; S-544). One could pep up guests at the end of a light meal with coffee from these teacups and pedestal (used to hold a teapot or coffee pot). Or, since outdoor dining is tailor-made for stress-free food, these items could be the centerpiece for an enchanting tea party. It is easy to imagine a table set with a few more pedestals filled with finger sandwiches, petit fours, or slices of lemonade cake, along with some vintage dessert plates. 





Since "ease" is the operative word for al fresco dining, vintage hammered aluminum, as seen in the photo, right, is a fabulous choice for serving ware. Most hammered aluminum pieces arrived in homes from the 1930s to the 1950s; the wares were often given as wedding gifts. Sometimes called "poor man's silver," hammered aluminum was not merely designed to appeal to the thrifty; it was fashioned to attract the affluent, as well, with its well-made handles, beautiful floral patterns, or dimpled surfaces. 


What makes hammered aluminum ideal for outdoor dining is that, while it mimics silver, it is lightweight, making it easy to carry over the hills and far away. And there's no chance of breaking off a dainty teapot leg, as can happen on occasion with silver plate (I know; I've done it). The items shown are, clockwise from left to right: a pressed aluminum tureen ($29; Booth W-477), a round tray with floral etching ($16; Booth B-101); a Nasco serving bowl with lid ($8.95; Booth W-414); a server ($24.95;Booth W-414), and a rectangular tray ($16; Booth B-101). This vignette is pictured on a yellow and chrome rolling cart, which would be another fabulous item for use at an al fresco dinner ($149; Booth B-101). 


The pressure is truly off when it comes to outdoor dining. The fresh, magical, youthful nature of such an event reminds us of childhood lemonade stands and picnics. That low-key atmosphere simply begs for elements of shabby chic, which populate GasLamp's booths in abundance. In the photo at left is a rusty iron washstand topped with a fluted metal bowl (washstand, $95; B-103B; bowl, $25; Booth W-414). This fun piece could be used as a side table with several possibilities. The bowl could be filled with ice, used for making drinks. Or it could be filled with ice, into which bowls or goblets of ice cream are set for keeping cool. Lastly, it could be filled with flowers. 





Rough-hewn fabrics and linens, such as these in the photo, right, are great for the outdoor theme. These burlap bags were actually once used for transporting sumatra arabica coffee from Indonesia to Charleston, S.C.; you can still smell the faint aroma of java in the fibers. They represent several fashion them into pillows, table runners, or place mats ($10 each; Booth B-223B). 









The photo, left, shows vividly colored tiger lilies on scalloped, cotton hankies ($4 each; Booth B-209). They are too pretty to keep folded as a pocket square, so why not reinvent them as napkins? Few guests would be the wiser; all they would know is that the hostess runs with creative ideas. 



Eating outdoors is the ideal opportunity for friends to get together to chat and laugh, so the table design should encourage that convivial feeling. Vintage decorations are a creative and affordable way to put together a table in such a way that it will invite many repeat performances. And the ideas for outdoor theme parties are endless. Just think of the possibilities behind these party themes: Lakeside Lounging, Magic Forest, Lemonade and Teacakes, Anglers and Writers, or Mad Hatter Hits the Beach. Just look for the citronella votives along the path ... surely they are leading guests to an enchanted evening. 

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