Seating plans, like most forms of etiquette, have their origins in thoughtfulness and practicality. If it is a large seated affair it’s terrible for a guest to be lurching around the room in desperate search of his place card.
If it is a smaller party – even for 8 or 10 – it is nice for guests to know who their dinner companions will be so they don’t spend the entire cocktail hour talking to the same people. Don’t ask me why, but that is invariably what happens if guests are unawares.
Only once did I think this immutable law of the universe had been transgressed, and I was wrong: Some years ago a polished New York hostess rang me breathlessly at the last minute with an invitation to dinner and the enticement of (I was single then) an eligible single man. I spent most of the cocktail hour in a lively conversation with her husband, the host. Gosh, I thought, this is the first time I won’t be seated next to the person I’ve spent the most time talking to before dinner, because surely I am seated next to Single Man, and I don’t rank sitting next to Host. Guess who I sat next to? Um-hmm. And guess who SHE sat next to? Right. I recounted this story to two friends, who both shouted practically in unison: “She’s sleeping with him.” Really? Oh I don’t know about that, truly; but let me just get back on my turnip truck and get to the point.
A seating plan can be scratched on the back of an envelope or it can be something more substantial. A seasoned East Hampton hostess I know casually clips her handwritten plan right by the front door, so guests see it before they even come in. I teased her that if said plan did not suit there was still time to change one’s mind and flee. “Oh!” she laughed. She is so nice she hadn’t even thought of that. I keep mine inside, just in case.
My favorite system on-the-fly is pink and blue stickies on a manilla folder. You can see boy-girl at a glance and change it easily – right up to dinner – and a sharp-eyed clever hostess should reserve the right to do this.
But I wonder why “proper” seating plans have become rather scarce of late. They are generally leather covered boards or folders with the shape of the table embossed at center. Around the table are slits into which are inserted cards inscribed with guests’ names. Scully & Scully in New York sells them, but I don’t know who else. (Would love to hear if you have a source.) The Internet offers many software options but they are mainly targeted at brides and big corporate events.
So… you can make one yourself. Using Foamcore or cork tiles (or both, one on top of the other), fabric (I used Ultrasuede), ribbon, thumbtacks and a glue gun, the thing can be done in one episode of Glee, maybe running into part of Castle, depending on how much you actually watch the show. I think the photos are self-explanatory. If you have questions or want more specific instructions, email me and I’ll be listening out for you.
P.S. Sometimes people call the seating plan the placement, pronounced in French as plas-MAWNH (sort of). But recently I read one of those very authoritative articles saying why did everybody call it a placement when it wasn’t that at all because x, y, and etc. – I can’t remember. But I do remember concluding it was uncool to say placement when referring to seating plans, so that’s why I didn’t even bring it up. Until now.