Place mats with panache

From designer looks to DIY styles, mats an easy, affordable way to dress up dining table, trays, more

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The place mat is a favorite at many dinner tables: The often-whimsical plastic version catches the slip of spaghetti from a youngster's fork, while a nice cotton place mat elevates the dining experience just a little without having to set down a whole tablecloth.

There's something civilized about setting an individual dining place with a frame of sorts. An heirloom set of fine linen place mats are a quick and elegant way to dress the table. For something unusual, mats made of faux or real tropical leaves, lashed bamboo sticks, glitter, pebbles or squares of birch bark create a textural platform for plate and meal.

Place mats are a relatively inexpensive addition to dining-room decor, and can also be used on portable trays or big coffee tables if meals are served unconventionally.

Here are a few new spring options from retailers and designers:

New York designer Sandy Chilewich continues to experiment with her woven vinyl material, producing an array of textured mats in neutrals, metallics and colors. There's a hand-silkscreened, brushed-dot pattern, a delicate filigreed foil mat, faux printed cowhide, and a hip mod croc pattern in red, black and tan. (www.chilewich.com for retail locations.)

There are more woven mats at CB2: a selection of vinyl, basket-weave squares in on-trend hues like carbon, chartreuse, orange and white. Textile designer Liora Manne's signature felting technique of layering and interlocking acrylic fibers is used in two very different place mats. A sophisticated plaid mat in layered grays and lime yellow pops when set with white china. And her laser-cut, geometric Corte mats in peacock and fire engine red pack a playful punch. (www.cb2.com)

Eco-friendly dyes are used to make two pretty, mid-century, patterned place mats at Crate & Barrel. Dax features a digital linear print in teals and greens, while Gus has a starburst pattern in muted sunset hues. For a more feminine look, there's Oona, an organdy and sateen cotton eyelet-patterned place mat, and the delicate Capiz shell mat, a luminous circle. (www.crateandbarrel.com)

San Francisco-based Lian Ng's PopMat paper place mats are inspired by children's popup books. Made of recycled paper, Ng's mats come in packs of 10 and have a spot to write a guest's name. There are many designs that would work well for themed affairs or just for fun -- butterflies, balloons, cakes, trees, even a troupe of safari animals. (www.publiqueshop.com)

At West Elm, find a dramatic graphic place mat inspired by Japanese ink brush art. Also, there's British designer Sarah Campbell's floral-print table linens. A stone trellis design in stone or citron takes the table in a tailored direction, and a denim-y mini stripe heads into farm table territory. (www.westelm.com)

Elizabeth Liberty elevates lowly burlap to simple chic with hand-painted place mats stamped with cows, roosters and flowers. (www.etsy.com/shop/LibertyByDesign)

Zazzle.com has a range of place-mat designs, from vintage flora and fauna to edgy street art. You can contribute your own design if you're creative; most custom mats sell for around $20 each. (www.zazzle.com)

Or make your own place mats using some of the ideas at www.homemadesimple.com. You can cover a favorite fabric with iron-on vinyl using fusible webbing, or decoupage favorite print images on dollar store mats. For a party, use scrapbook paper as place mats; you can toss them in the recycle bin afterwards.