A great time can be had by all at a dinner party where the seating is random and loose. Games where you switch seats after each course, or draw numbers out of a hat to determine your place are spontaneous and help you to meet new people. But not every occasion calls for an informal seating plan.
The horror story: A young girl attends a wedding for her boyfriend's cousin. She has never met his extended family before, but feels quite at home. The reception has a buffet and no seating plan. After she has served herself, she wanders outside to find seats. As she sits, she smiles warmly and introduces herself to the people at her table. They say nothing back, but look past her... where The Bride is standing. And The Bride taps her on the shoulder and says "Excuse me, but you are in my seat!" The young girl is incredibly embarrassed. She has sat down with the wedding party, and taken The Bride's seat! She replaces her napkin, picks up her plate and slinks away. ((This is a true story from yours truly)) So there are certainly occasions for stationary on your table.
There are several different elements to consider when setting your table. They can be handmade or engraved, funky or elegant, creative or traditional; and each element serves its own purpose.
Escort cards seem to be a thing of the past, from when ladies always entered rooms on the arm of a man. A gentleman's name will be written on a small envelope and inside is a small card with the name of the lady he will escort.
Table cards are much more common and serve to direct people to the correct table, which is crucial at banquets and wedding parties. Could you imagine people circling every table looking for their place card? Here, there is another small envelope or folded card. The person or couples' name is written on the outside of the envelope, and inside is their table number. Sometimes favorite cities or restaurants replace table numbers, but regardless each table should then be marked.
A place card is left at each person's seat. It should have their title and last name on the card, for instance 'Ms. Wachnicki' or 'Mr. Blomberg'. All the table stationary can be printed or handwritten, or calligraphed if you can afford it.
Finally, some hosts include menu cards for the table. These can be shared with two people, a table, or given individually. If different wines are being served with each course, then they should be listed alongside the dish.
If your host has gone through all the trouble (and it is nothing but trouble) to arrange seating, then it is seen as very bad form to ignore her efforts and choose your own seat. This act sets off a chain reaction of confused guests who are unable to find their seats!