Below artist Leonard French’s spectacular stained glass ceiling in the Great Hall at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the crowd milled around equally spectacular table settings. From the restrained settings, such as that presented by architects DKO to the wildly extravagant such as the setting by interior designer Justin Bishop, featuring a marquette, inspired by Andrea Palladio in the neo-classical style, it was visual overload! But in a great way!

Floral wreaths were piled high on many of the tables, others displayed a fair dose of taxidermy in the form of peacocks, while interior designer Danielle Brustman’s table setting for Kay & Burton offered time to ‘breathe’ and reflect amongst all the riotous colour. A combination of sleek and raw, in various hues of blue, including Yves Klein Blue, framed the centerpiece, a revolving Cleopatra’s needle. “I enjoy seeing the reflection of the objects and cutlery (created by artist Jia Jia Chen), as much as seeing the reflections from Leonard French’s stained glass ceiling,” says Brustman, who was keen to create a sense of calmness, as much as reflection, in her design.

Bergman & Co. provided a completely ‘left-of-centre’ table setting. Marie Antoinette was the centerpiece, well at least her bouffant ‘do’ piled up in silvery grey curls.  The grey locks found their way onto dinner plates, glasses and even formed miniature plaits entwined around silver cutlery. The high back dining chairs surrounding the table were also draped in hair, as was the actual tablecloth, reminiscent of the work of fashion designer Rick Owens (known for his wraps made from horse hair). “Marie Antoinette is synonymous with opulence. The way she arranged her hair also reflected her moods at the time,” says interior designer Wendy Bergman, who was also keen to celebrate the role of women not just in the 18th century, but the many women who work tirelessly with the NGVWA.

Hecker Guthrie, recipient of the NGV’s Rigg Award, played on the idea of excess for their table setting. Plates were lodged beneath the glass tabletop as well as stacked up above, with a tower of mugs forming an impressive pile in the centre. A flimsy ladder, made of copper, was placed against this stack, as if to say, take up the challenge and make the climb, fortunately no one did! On the adjacent table, created by Flack Studio, a relatively simple black and white arrangement showcased the practice’s work with refugees living on the Atherton housing estate in Fitzroy. Working with artist Patrick Dagg, who fashioned the gold organic centerpiece, the proceeds of this table went to supporting ‘Cubbies’, a program devised in response to families living in public housing around Fitzroy.

Another table that caught this writer’s eye was the setting created by Lisa Roet, who created a miniature rainforest. A giant gold claw-like hand reaching from the centre evoked a rain forest, the type one might find in Borneo from the endangered Gibbon. Butterflies, a montage of trees and a sense of urgency characterized this display. Others, such as a table setting by Barb and Alexandra Brownlow for Brownlow, presented a more traditional approach, conveying their love for the English style. Although this setting was richly layered with patterns, it was the nametags on the table that were truly impressive: Cecil Beaton, Jacqueline Kennedy and Sir Winston Churchill, all who passed away long ago and would be invariably late for this dinner party! “We were thinking of who would you want to have at your dinner party?” says interior designer Alexandra Brownlow, whose list was inspired by Princess Lee Radziwell (sister of Jacqueline Kennedy), whose dinner parties often included such A-list guests.

Janno McLaughlin, who recently completed a master’s degree from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), showed what can be achieved with the hand, not just one pair, but several, roping in family and friends to assist with her table setting. “My auntie helped with applying sequins, as well as relatives from the country,” says McLaughlin, who literally started planning her table setting from the day she graduated from the VCA.

As well as taking inspiration from Cleopatra’s feast, McLaughlin was drawn to the famous masked ball that took place in Venice in 1953, considered to be one of the most lavish events of all time. So Cleopatra and this considerably later event fused into one, including seats in the form of Egyptian thrones, with heavily outlined eyes, like Cleopatra’s, sewn on to the peacocks forming the centerpiece. A pond on the table paid homage to both the Egyptian oasis and also the canals in Venice. Visitors would have also noticed the unusual jewellery scattered across the table, collected by McLaughlin on her many trips, including Argentina, which she fondly recalls. “Everything has literally been made by hand, hence the reason it took me six months to complete,” she adds.

Martyn Thompson’s table was more organic, appearing as though moss had crept across virtually every surface, with placemats to chair covers in his own fabric designs. “I wanted to create a more Bohemian experience for diners,” says Thompson, who has been living in New York for nearly two decades. “As you can see, I’m into eclecticism,” he adds.

If Marie Antoinette could have attended on the day of this truly extraordinary event at the NGV, she may have said ‘Let them eat cake’. She certainly would have picked up more than a few decorating ideas for her cherished Versailles!

Words by Stephen Crafti
The Art of Dining 2019: Best of the Best was produced by the NGV Women’s Association.


Bergman & Co. Table

Danielle Brustman X Kay & Burton Table

Janno McLaughlin for VCA Table

Lifestyle & Design

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