Luzanne Otte is back today for the fourth installment of our six-part series on Patricia Altschul! The enormous popularity of Patricia is undeniable (Bravo take note), and several readers have written to say what a wonderful role model she is for young people today. Patricia is the perfect blend of elegance, poise, whimsy, and wit. And over the last four weeks, she has graciously taken us inside her beautifully appointed home to teach us the fine Art of Southern Charm (which also happens to be the name of her book). Patricia lives an enviable life of champagne wishes and caviar dreams, yet the lessons she teaches can be adapted by all. Today Patricia and Luzanne are discussing table etiquette and Patricia’s favorite Léron Linens. While we may not all be able to afford Léron, manners are free and everyone enjoys a beautifully set table with lovely linens, whether they are hand embroidered or purchased from Pottery Barn.
Table Etiquette and Design
by Luzanne Otte
Dining etiquette should be mastered by all seeking entrée into polite society. Good breeding is nowhere more indispensable than at the table, and its absence is nowhere more apparent. The well bred are obliged to know and act according to the rules prescribed by etiquette, lest they justly risk banishment.
Refined taste must preside over every table appointment. The importance of linen on the dinner table is second only to the silver appointment. The linen must be as impeccably laundered as the silver is brilliantly polished, and ornamental accoutrement must be suitable to the occasion. Deviation therewith imperils a hostess to exposure as a vulgarian who failed to acquire the cultivated social graces demanded of polite society.
A hallmark of the formal dinner, established by the Anglo-Saxon feasting rituals of the Middle Ages, is the white damask tablecloth. Embellishments beyond a traditional monogram or heraldic motif are acceptable, but must be superbly wrought for the sole purpose of enhancing the quality of the napery, not to conceal defects. As Emily Post keenly observed, “A test of quality is a linen of quality.” One must keep at the forefront of her mind when designing a table that too elaborate a display is bourgeois to the nth degree.
Although the exhaustive strictures of dining etiquette and haughty language akin to that employed above have relaxed since the Victorian Era, the basic precepts and guiding principles remain relevant in contemporary society. The objective rules of dining etiquette are available to everyone with an interest and Internet access. Contra. subjective matters of taste. An individual’s good taste may be innate, evolve over time from encounters with beautiful objects, or fostered by an aesthete. In my capacity as privileged student of iconic Grand Dame, Patricia Altschul, it is incumbent upon me to share the wealth of information on elegant living gleaned while under her tutelage. When Patricia reveals secrets and sources for the Old Guard, this parvenu is here to share the knowledge!
Today’s article focuses on the oldest linen house in America and holder of Patricia’s imprimatur for favorite table linens, Léron Linens. Please note that Patricia has table linens from every major house, as well as napkins (the size of beach towels) owned by the King of Bavaria, so her stamp of approval is significant. First, a high-level overview of Léron’s illustrious history; Next, learn more about the company from its President and third generation of Forster at the helm, David; In conclusion, an interview with Patricia about her sumptuous linen collection.
Historical Overview of Léron Linens
Léron Linens is the purveyor of creme-de-la-creme bed, bath and table linens. For three generations, the Forster family has identified the finest needlework artisans to ensure the highest level of craftsmanship. While Léron carries readymade linens with intricately embroidered motifs, it is best known for elegant bespoke linens.
Turn of the Century – Charles and Margaret Forster emigrated from Vienna to New York City.
1910 – Opens first store, Salon de Trousseau, focusing on formal (white) collections sourced from Parisian linen house, Léron.
1931 – Forster family formally acquires the name from the linen house and reopens as Léron on Fifth Avenue, its home for the next 60 years.
1949 – Margaret Forster dies and her son, Norman, assumes the role of President for the next 50 years. Norman infuses collections with color and expands the catalogue to include apparel.
2001 – Norman Forster dies and his son, David, becomes the third generation of the family to serve as President.
Mr. Forster graciously accepted our request for an interview about the family business. The following exchange occurred via telephone on August 3, 2018.
Luzanne: Did you always know you wanted to go into the family business?
David: It was not love at first sight but a process. After grad school in Michigan, I returned to New York City and set out to be a documentary filmmaker. I started working at Léron to make money. My father instructed, “Be in the store half the time. Keep eyes and ears open and mouth shut. The other half of the time, be in the basement to learn the nuts and bolts of making linens.” A wonderfully elegant and poised European saleswoman, Maria Kaftal, would create exquisite tablecloths. The customers’ enthusiasm really resonated. Maria said, “This is a business you can be proud of.” It was and it is. The creativity I’d been looking for growing up was right under my nose the whole time. You have to do what you love or you won’t be happy. I left for a few years to start my own business, then returned to Léron.
Luzanne: Is there a forth generation of Forster likely to operate the business into the future?
David: We have a 29 year-old son. He’s worked in the store. I don’t think it’s his passion but you never know!
Luzanne: The elegance of traditional white damask cannot be denied, but I’m sure the increased opportunity for artistic expression was a welcome change. The end of World War II heralded a transition in interior design from utilitarianism to individualism. Staid approaches to home furnishings were overturned for more colorful home fashions. How did your father respond to this paradigm shift for linens?
David: The infusion of vibrant colors and whimsical elements were in response to the shift in interior design. Where my grandparents went to Paris to buy white linens in the designs and sizes that were offered, my father found new resources in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and Belgium. He recognized the skill levels these countries possessed, but was savvy enough to bring his own designs for them to execute and get them to make samples in colors suitable for the American market. Throughout the year, my Father would collect ideas inspired by chinaware and home furnishing looks found in fashion magazines. He organized magazine pullouts in different folders. Before he’d go overseas on a buying trip, he’d lay the contents of the folders out, extract themes, and determine whether our artisans in France, Italy, Portugal or Vietnam would be best suited to realize his vision.
Luzanne: At Léron, custom means traditional renderings and any number of options on fabric, trim, edging, style of embroidery. You’re really the couturier of the linen world. For those unfamiliar with this rarefied world, please help us to understand the possibilities.
David: Customers often come in with a place setting, china, fabric or wallpaper swatches, and we help them create a linen design that complements their interiors. Once a textile is selected, embellishments are considered. Some of our best ideas come from customers. For example, a client sent us a book of the Montana wildflowers in bloom outside of her window to embroider on new bed linens. We’ve got clients in Little Rock who take turns with friends hosting a monthly white tie dinner. Each member of the group is assigned a Roman Numeral and they commissioned a set of white linen napkins with their number on it to use when their turn to host. Another client returns her Thanksgiving tablecloth to us each year to add the signatures of those who sat at her table. While the tablecloth serves a functional purpose, the personalization makes for a wonderful conversation piece and treasured family heirloom.
Luzanne: When customers come in for a consultation at the store or on one of your circuit tours, you introduce them to the endless possibilities for embellishments: traditional monogram, cutwork, appliqué. Historically, the Portuguese are known for cutwork, Italians for appliqué, Vietnamese for embroidery and hybrids of classic stitching techniques. Assuming that holds true for Léron artisans, what’s the focus of your French workroom?
David: Our French workroom produces an exacting and precise textile art known as point de Beauvais. It is the only one of its kind. They work exclusively on Léron commissions and subsidized by the French government, which seeks to preserve the ancient art form.
Luzanne: What a contrast to a world of mass-produced linens created by a machinist! Do you look down your nose at linens with machine-embroidery?
David: To the contrary, everything has its place. Labor and material for custom is what increases pricing. Digitizing a design and embroidering by a machine allows us to offer something for everybody. Awhile back, I digitized an image of an American flag that I loved and embroidered it on cocktail napkins. It’s an exception to our product catalogue, but I think it’s a nice way for customers to begin their Léron collection.
Luzanne: To what do you attribute Léron’s enduring legacy?
David: Offering a quality product. We’ve never cheapened the product or the brand. My father once said, “All our original customers went down with the Titanic.” Despite the tragedies of the world, our homes are our sources of comfort and stability. I think the desire to cultivate that air is what has aided us in transcending the vicissitudes of life. I remember asking my father over lunch what was the most important thing about Léron, and without skipping a beat, he said, “quality and service.” By “quality,” he meant materials (fabrics) and workmanship. By “service,” he meant giving the customer what she wants in her colors, with her monogram and, in the case of, say, bed linens, in the quality sheeting she prefers.
Luzanne: One hundred years ago, your grandparents’ customers consisted largely of the American gentry and mothers cultivating trousseaus. Modernly, an American gentry is largely anachronistic, and the trousseau is no longer de rigueur. What is your greatest challenge as a business owner in the contemporary world?
David: In my grandparents’ day, sources of wealth were mostly inherited. Our customers grew up in homes where people graciously entertained with beautiful things. Now sources of wealth are so diverse that many lack the exposure to know where to spend it. Of course, some have an eye for excellent craftsmanship, but most need to be educated. The challenge is educating on value without being condescending. We pride ourselves on introducing craft culture to contemporary first world countries. I would add that another challenge today is that we live in an on-demand society, one generally not inclined to wait very long for anything. On the other hand, we see customers today seeking ‘authenticity’ and quality in a wide range of products, including linens. So that’s a good sign.
Patricia on the Art of Linens
Luzanne: When did your formal indoctrination into the world of luxury table linens begin?
Patricia: My mother entertained with the savoir faire associated with any inimitable hostess. In the weeks before a party, I observed Mother engaged in practical considerations like formulating an ideal guest list, placement, and creating a menu par excellence. In the day or so leading up to the party, Mother would sort through her antique linen collection and used the occasion as a teachable moment to illustrate various embellishments and trimmings. She instilled an appreciation for fine linens with exquisite detail. I understood that to be an inimitable hostess in polite society required that I be thoughtful in planning, practiced in the art of conversation, and cultivated in the decorative accoutrement of dining tables.
Luzanne: Do you have any anecdotes from trying to balance Spartan indifference and unpardonable gaucherie prior to becoming an expert on the recherché dinner table?
Patricia: My parents and their friends hosted lovely dinners so I was always knew how it should be done. Even if I hadn’t grown up in that atmosphere, I would’ve been exposed to it while boarding at Marymount on the Paxton Estate. Every day from 6-8th grade, the French nuns hosted le goûter which is France’s answer to Britain’s afternoon tea except le goûter nibbles are always sweet. The nuns insisted on fine linen tablecloths, fine silver. It was as opulent as dining in the finest European French restaurant.
Luzanne: For over a century, Léron has been hailed by the cognoscenti as the purveyor of bespoke table linens. What is it about Léron that earned your personal imprimatur?
My sensibility was my mother’s sensibility. I grew up with cream damask with exquisitely detailed trimmings. When I moved to NYC, I visited all the linen houses along Madison Avenue’s Gold Coast. The old world charm and beauty of Léron appealed to my aesthetic for traditional pieces. The store opened my eyes to linens that coupled high quality and whimsy. Plus, I love things you can’t find anywhere else!
Luzanne: Some of the Old Guard would insist that the sine qua non of a formal dinner table is the white damask tablecloth. Yet you have, on occasion, defied convention by eschewing the tablecloth in favor of custom Léron placemats. How did this controversial decision come to pass?
Patricia: My grandmother, mother and I had tables of varying dimensions and shapes. I have an armoire full of antique, heirloom linens, none of which serve the practical purpose of being able to dress my dining table. I must say that they do make for a beautiful Christmas tree skirt. I’ve always thought placemats were a better fit for a round table and have more panache than a tablecloth. From a practical standpoint, if one person drops something on a tablecloth, you have this huge eyesore all night followed by a major undertaking to clean it. When I’m using placemats, I can just swap it out.
My dining table seats 10 people. It’s too large to drape with a tablecloth. My fine china, silver, crystal provide a striking contrast to the 18th century mahogany burl wood table. You don’t really need a tablecloth.
Luzanne: In The Art of Southern Charm, you cite a visceral dislike for chargers in a table setting. Is there an equivalent dislike in the table linen family?
Patricia: A table runner. I don’t see the point of a table runner unless the point is disrupting the design. I don’t know anyone who uses one. I’ll give you another one, a lazy Susan. They ruin everything.
Luzanne: Is there an under appreciated table linen?
Patricia: Breakfast tray linen. It fits the tray exactly and has a matching napkin. Speaking of, I also object to napkin rings on every level.
Luzanne: Do you design the table around the linens or the linens around the table?
Patricia: When I design a table, I approach it as if I were a set designer. I want it to be beautiful and to create an ambiance reflective of the occasion. I start with the basic setting and linens, then add touches that bring the table to life. For formal dinners, I always use a tablecloth and prefer placemats for informal meals. When using placemats, I lay a custom felt liner beneath to hold them in place. For everyday, I use round rush mats purchased at William-Wayne in New York.
When I dress a table for Southern Charm, I do it for show. I use the finest of everything I own and then camp it up for my own amusement. But, if I were having a serious dinner party, you wouldn’t find alligators fornicating at your place setting.
Luzanne: When Mr. Forster and I were discussing linen care, he mentioned the importance of inspecting linens after use and before bedtime to prevent any rogue stains from setting. If a napkin has been marred, soak it in soapy water overnight and tend to it the following day. In general, OxiClean is the best way to treat stains. The best way to enable the embroidered elements on smaller pieces (e.g. napkins) to stand out is to place them face-down on a soft surface like a towel and iron the reverse side.
Do you have any care tips for linen?
Patricia: My laundress uses a non-abrasive, phosphate-free soap. I agree with David that it’s important to soak stains immediately and resist the urge to scrub. Our process for stain-removal really depends on the source of the stain. Ironing extends the lifespan of the linens. I have a mangle for pressing that enhances the natural sheen of the linen.
Luzanne: How do you store fine linens?
Patricia: Depending on the size of your collection, an antique English chest on chest is ideal.
If that’s infeasible and you’re storing them in any available space, ensure it is cool, dry, not in direct sunlight, and the linens lie flat. Remember that linen is a natural fiber that must breathe. Do not store in or around plastic.
For large collections like mine, organization is key. I keep like items together, sets separated by heavy cardstock, and labeled. The label includes the designer, a brief description, and the number in the set so you don’t have to count them every time you haul them out. Each of my 50+ sets are photographed and catalogued by type – formal whites with family crest, floral, holiday, etc. When I’m hosting a celebration, I pull up the category on my computer and view my options. Since they’re perfectly laundered before storage, all I have to do is retrieve my selection and saves me precious time on the day I’m hosting.
Luzanne: What is the quintessential table linen that modern women building their own trousseaus should purchase?
Patricia: The best starter collection would be large, snowy white linen napkins with your monogram or initials. They’ll go with everything you own or buy in the future, so they’re an excellent investment.
Luzanne: Are there resources that you suggest for the unintroduced to grapple with the etiquette of entertaining and find inspiration for table design?
Patricia: Everyone knows Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, and I like to keep it fun and fresh. Here are some of my go-to resources on entertaining and etiquette:
- How to Do It: The Lively Art of Entertaining by Elsa Maxwell
- Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners (also available online)
- Design & Style: A Constant Thread by Carolyne Roehm
- Julia Reed’s Southern: Spirited Entertaining & High-Style Fun All Year Long
- Nan Kempner RSVP
Thank you Luzanne, David, and Patricia. What a pleasure to learn the rich history of Léron Linens! If you missed the first three weeks of The Glam Pad’s six-part series of guest posts from Luzanne, links to get caught up are below:
- WEEK ONE: INSIDER SECRETS FROM PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S HOUSEGUEST
- WEEK TWO: THE HISTORY OF SILHOUETTES AND AN INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA ALTSCHUL ABOUT HER COLLECTION
- WEEK THREE: THE INSIDE SCOOP FROM PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S BUTLER, MICHAEL KELCOURSE
You might also enjoy A Day in the Life of Southern Charm’s Patricia Altschul by Luzanne Otte for Town & Country, Patricia’s book, The Art of Southern Charm, and past features on Patricia from The Glam Pad:
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S TIPS FOR CREATING A TIMELESS HOME
- 10 OF PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S FAVORITE THINGS
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S HOME IN CHARLESTON HOME + DESIGN
- MARIO BUATTA AND PATRICIA ALTSCHUL EXUDE SOUTHERN CHARM IN CHARLESTON
- SOUTHERN CHARM WITH PATRICIA ALTSCHUL
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S DERBY PARTY IS FULL OF SOUTHERN CHARM
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S MANHATTAN MAISONETTE: DESIGNED BY MARIO BUATTA
And if you would like to add a little Léron to your life, Léron Linens is having a 25% off site-wide sale that ends August 17!