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How to seat your wedding guests

Ready to enter a martial minefield? We jest (kind of).

Wedding seating is one of those must-figure out jobs on your checklist that comes in the final stretch of wedding planning and it’s quite the humdinger, the head scratcher, the hard-to-please-everybody sort of task. If you’re about to put it off for another week or two let us stop you right there! Because once the battle of the top table has been won, and the rest of the kingdom is safely and happily sat down, you’ll have an air punch moment of glory. The path to knowing how to seat people at a wedding isn’t a stumble-free one, but boy is it worth it when it’s done.

Do you really need to make a seating plan?

Erm, yes. Remember back at school when the PE teacher occasionally let you loose proclaiming, choose your own teams for hockey today? And remember the aftermath? The tears, the fallouts, the drama, the divides? You might all be grown-ups, but your wedding could quite easily slip into the playground or playing field scenario – with less stroppy foot-stomping and head-thrown-back bawling however. Expecting your guests to sort themselves out simply isn’t as simple as it sounds. Sometimes the tables won’t be big enough to host a whole friendship group for example, and leaving them to vote a few friends out, casting them away to another table is a bit too Love Island for your wedding day. You choosing who sits where might put the onus on you to attempt to please the masses, but at least it removes any inter-guest awkwardness and petty post-wedding friendship feuds. Also, people like being close to the top table. It comes with status darling and it means they get front-row seats for the speeches, so by opening the table plan up to your wedding party means you should expect a top table tussle. The other plus-point with a seating plan is that your day will go much smoother. When guests seat themselves, there’s a whole load more faff and dawdling when there’s food to be eaten and a dance floor to be danced on.

But, as always, wedding celebrations shouldn’t be about an indestructible set of rules. So, if the idea of a seating plan feels too formal, why not get yourself a halfway house and assign tables instead? This option’s a popular one because it means you’ve got some structure and have dodged some of the awkward lingering moments, but then it’s up to the guests to bagsy a chair. This works quite nicely if so-and-so has been getting on very well with somebody new that you both might not have foreseen (unless you’re a clairvoyant kind of couple) and they happen to be on the same table, they’ll be able to pull up a pew next to their new wedding bestie.

There’s one other bunch of people to think about when you’re table planning – the caterers. If you’ve got a buffet situation going on then assigning tables is easy-peasy – a free-for-all fits like a glove. But if you’ve got table service with everybody’s dishes pre-picked, then it can be a wee bit fiddly to not share the seating plan along with menu choices with the team beforehand. That’s how they’re able to swiftly set down dishes without shouting ‘who ordered the seabass?’ or taking to the mic in a bid to find the solo vegan, gluten-free guest with a severe nut allergy because they can’t for the life of them find where they’re sat. So you might just find that a seating plan is a bare necessity.

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Step 1 – Identify room layout

How to seat people at a wedding starts with table shapes and sizes. Some couples know straight away what sort of table setup they’re after. They might be all about the round table because they’re thought to make the vibe more relaxed and intimate, or they might want the mile-long banquet cum street party table that can be styled up to be very grand and regal or very boho and laidback. Or your venue might decide for you and say it’s rectangular tables or nothing. The point being, you need your tables picked before you start plotting people positions. If your venue is very hands-off and it’s all down to you to decide, a good idea is to draw the room and the tables to scale and play with the layout to see what feels best. You’ll need your guest list to hand – there’s no point doing the seating plan until you have all your RSVPs – and to know how many people comfortably sit around each table to be certain of how many tables you actually need too.

Step 2 – Group your guests

Keeping that guest list in your mits, look through the familiar faces and start to categorise them into close family, distant relatives, childhood friends, university friends, colleagues and of course the people-who-we-don’t-want-there-but-kind-of-had-to-invite category. It’s a good idea to leave a little room for notes because there may be some potential cross-pollination within the groups. For example, you could be thinking that Pip from your year abroad in Paris and her husband James (currently in the university category) might get on just swimmingly with childhood pal Sam and his wife Kirsty. So do you want to move them out of their box and into another to encourage a new friendship to blossom? If you find you’re saying that over and over with other guests, then that might tell you to do away with the notion of seating together everyone who knows one another in favour of the mixed bag approach that gets your guests mingling. This approach also means you dodge that awkward leftover table where the strays get sent (though this table often turns out to be one of the chattiest as they all get to know one another).

Step 3 – Assign tables

Step three is for you couples who have decided allocating everyone a seat is a no, and plonking them all on a table to decide for themselves is a yes. There’s still some decision-making to be done though. The grouping advice still applies. If you’re torn whether you want your tables assigned to pre-existing pals, why not meet in the middle and on each table assign some people who know each other and some people who don’t. That’ll make the atmosphere feel relaxed, it’ll guarantee some good stories as the firm friends share tales of their escapades, but avoids any clique-forming and the rest of the table being left out. In your role as official table assigners, you’ll need to decide whether you want to put people with similar personalities together. In other words, do you want a very raucous ‘fun table’ and one that’s very… let’s say, ‘reserved’? Not only does that mean your guests are likely to have more laughs and feel in their most suited habitat, but the whole atmosphere in the wedding breakfast will change too. If a hint of rowdy appeals and you want to hear booming laughter over the beef entrecôte, or if the thought of your grandparents being given their little table of a few softly-spoken and sensible neighbours makes you feel warm and fuzzy, then personality table assigning is the tactic for you.

There’s a lot of talk around keeping couples, friendship groups and family members together being a bit boring, but don’t be swayed if you want to give people the opportunity to catch up. This is your wedding and there’s nothing wrong with categorising tables in a way that let’s everyone enjoy a good get-together. Your family might be the kind that doesn’t unite all that often so this is the perfect opportunity to be together and bond like crazy.

Step 4 – Decide who you want to sit with

Saving the most important people until last, seeing as this is your day, it’s not a bad idea to think about yourselves. Where do you fit into the table plan? Do you want to go bold and give yourself a tiny top table for two seeing as you don’t actually get to spend much time together on your wedding day? Everybody else might want to sit close to you, but it’s important to think about what will mean the most to the two of you. But if a bigger top table is more your bag, it’s not just about who makes it onto the crème de la crème of tables, it’s about who you want in your eye line and in talking distance. It’s a big old day for your parents, so they’re likely to want to be as close to you as possible. It’s nice to put in-laws with in-laws too so they can start playing family. Maybe you want your maid of honour and best man opposite to talk throughout the toasts and then your sister’s new boyfriend (who you 100% didn’t want on the top table but it wasn’t worth the hassle saying no) at the far end of the table so he’s out of sight and out of earshot – perfect! And finally, on the topic of eye line, consider who you can see from your bride and groom thrones on close-by tables. Arrange the tables so that you’ve got your faves within glancing distance to see them having a ball and to smile at through every course, and the lowest-ranking tables (let’s be honest, there’s always one or two) strategically tucked around a corner or at the back of the room. If you’ve put them in the car park, you’ve gone a bit too far.

FAQ

Now for the quick-fire round. The Papier team blitz through the top three most-asked seating plan questions…


Q: Does the bridal party sit together?



A: Tradition says that the bride and groom sit together (unsurprisingly) and then the parents either side followed by the best man on the groom’s half of the table and the maid of honour on the bride’s with bridesmaids and ushers on a nearby table. But, some couples like to go BIG on their top table and get the whole bridal posse up there. The choice is yours!



Q: Do children have to sit with their parents?



A: Nope! If you’ve invited little people along to your big day, it’s a nice idea to set up a children’s table to give the grown-ups at least a few hours off duty and to let kids be kids. You can even hire a babysitter for the evening to make sure things don’t descend into chaos – it’s a thoughtful gesture but just run it past the parents first to make sure they’re happy too. Pepper children across the tables with the parents on and the guests who aren’t, let’s say ‘child friendly’ are destined to be accidentally splattered with food flying from a fork or showered with a spilt drink. So, some segregation is no bad thing!



Q: Who sits at the head table?



A: Like question and answer numero uno alludes, the head honcho table is for the wedding’s main cast. The bunch who deserve to take a little bow at the end of the day. Bride and groom, that’s you, your parents and your hopefully-very-helpful bridal entourage. Sometimes it can feel a bit awkward to only have the maid of honour and best man up there and not the rest of your gang, so you can always keep the head table to a family-only affair if you’ll feel more settled that way.

Setting the table

While we’re on the table topic, let’s say a word or two on the table top. Just think of this as a mini checklist to sow the seeds of what you’ll need when it comes to this part of your wedding planning. Or, if you’re already there and the big day is fast approaching, it’ll serve as more of a reminder that you’ve got everything done and dusted.

It’s all well and good having your table plan settled, but don’t go and forget to actually print it off so everyone knows where you want them. There are so many designs out there from calligraphed boards printed and propped on an easel and draped with flowers to antique and gilded mirrors with the plan written in a snazzy chalk pen onto the glass itself. Make a mood board and see which styles suit your wedding’s overall scheme and then make sure your table names match so the whole look hangs together. They don’t have to be identical – finding mini versions of your drop dead glamorous mirror will be like finding a needle in a haystack – but just complementary. For example, your individual table numbers (or names) could be on little glass photo frames with gold edges. Elevate them on the table so that they’re easy to pick out and your guests aren’t left wandering like lost lambs. Take the plan down another level still to individual place cards (unless you’re doing the seat yourself thing). Don’t expect anyone to have a photographic memory and to recall which seat is theirs from the main plan, and you don’t want people to-ing and fro-ing to go check – traffic jams are a no no. For ultimate coordination, pick wedding table stationery that matches your wedding invites, order of the day and any signage. But if you’ve had a fancy stationer produce yours, get ready to dive into the Papier design portfolio where there’s without doubt going to be a clever creation or two that’ll work with it very beautifully indeed.

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