The familiar configuration of china, silverware, and glassware that welcomes guests to the table also guides them through the meal. But a place setting doesn't have to be uniform. A host can create a thousand variations by mixing and matching unusual tableware patterns -- including all the odd dishes that are otherwise buried in dark drawers and dusty cabinets.
Adopt elements of a formal table that strike your fancy -- Martha likes to include saltcellars and service plates -- and be creative with the rest. The choices you make say a lot about the meal to come: French porcelain and Waterford crystal send a different message than Depression-era china and glass.
For Martha, a party is a chance to display family china and interesting things found at flea markets and antiques stores. She combines as many styles of flatware, glass, and china as are appropriate for the meal. A rule of thumb: Maintain a single level of formality, and combine different styles, such as Victorian silver and Deco flatware, only if they share the same lines. Make sure each diner has the same combination of tableware as her neighbor -- a silver charger, an ironstone soup bowl, and a bone-handled butter knife, for example.