As the days grow shorter, it's time to brighten up your home and welcome friends for a meal. With inspiration and ingenuity, you can make your dining table entertaining and inviting for any kind of occasion, without spending a lot of money.

Today, we share festive table-design ideas gleaned from the 2013 Dining by Design fundraiser sponsored by Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, held last week in San Francisco at the Metreon:

Use everyday materials in unusual ways: Rather than fighting a crowd of shoppers and stretching your budget to buy china or linens, consider using materials you already have or can find at a hardware or grocery store.

Utensils are presented in a glass in the CLIMB Real Estate & Wayne Costa table designed by Designlimited’s Donald Dewsnup at the Design for Dining
Utensils are presented in a glass in the CLIMB Real Estate & Wayne Costa table designed by Designlimited's Donald Dewsnup at the Design for Dining event in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Artist Cristobal Valecillos and designer Stuart Gilchrist put together an eye-catching table by doing just that. Valecillos created fantastical chairs and an oversize Tiffany-inspired lamp from cardboard and then covered the table with brown paper, topped with a white paper-towel runner.

"Thinking outside the holiday-decorating box by avoiding red," Gilchrist said he added white china and turquoise-blue glassware from CB2 and Crate & Barrel. He finished the settings with crumpled craft-paper napkins.

"We tried a sleek folded paper napkin at first, but it was too dull," said Gilchrist. "When we crumpled the paper, it added the same welcome texture that naturally wrinkled linen napkins do (when you have) five minutes until your guests arrive and no time to iron."

Another creative use of found materials came from a Tahoe-ready installation by Pottery Barn. Birch log rings with drilled holes held silverware upright at each place setting, an easy DIY project for anyone so inclined.

Add layers: Holiday entertaining can take many forms, but this is the season to switch up your game with creative centerpieces, name cards or written conversation starters placed amid layers of dinnerware.

"Undoing the layers is part of the experience," said designer Donald Dewsnup about his contemporary table setting. "You don't want to bore your guests."

Pairing wood and leather chairs with a sleek marble table, Dewsnup used blue and white pieces with red accents, designed by Italian architect Paola Navone for Crate & Barrel.

Another way to add complexity to a design is incorporating objects with multiple finishes. Designer John Anderson said his modern tablescape was meant to be an "expression of contrasts. Using both shiny and matte dinnerware from Crate & Barrel and West Elm made for a much more interesting table."

Carnival masks are part of the Design   Consignment Gallery table decoration for the Design for Dining event in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Oct. 29,
Carnival masks are part of the Design Consignment Gallery table decoration for the Design for Dining event in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Be playful: Involve your inner child in the party planning, as designer Tyler Bradford did by creating a toylike tabletop out of interlocking wooden gears. The gears could be turned using a raised center wheel at a guest's whims.

Students at the San Francisco Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising created placemats out of Plexiglas frames filled with hard candy, and deployed matching candy centerpieces.

Designer Raul Cabrera III of Design Plus Consignment placed two fish bowls, each containing a beautifully colored Japanese betta fish, at the end of each table to hold the interest of guests. "They live in regular water and are easy to keep," said Cabrera.

Mix it up or tone it down: Cabrera chose affordable, luxury consignment furniture, lighting and dishware in a wide range of styles and periods for his two installations. "Don't be afraid of mixing styles," he said. "I love cookies, but I'm not a fan of cookie-cutter style."

Conversely, if you limit your dining table to a single color, you can provide a calming oasis amid the holiday craziness. All-white flowers, linens and china at the table by Westfield communicated a peaceful elegance, while an all-black tablescape by Design Within Reach set a sophisticated backdrop for food and conversation.

The pop-up lodging supplier Shelter Co. produced an outdoor lounge area with a tent and seating at the Dining by Design event in San Francisco.
The pop-up lodging supplier Shelter Co. produced an outdoor lounge area with a tent and seating at the Dining by Design event in San Francisco. (Kathryn Pritchett)

Pay attention to lighting: For the fundraising event, Anderson fashioned a dramatic fixture out of 30 strands of rope lights, which cascaded from the ceiling down through the center of his custom table. Though this creation would have been too large for most residential spaces, Anderson pointed out that the decorative metal bowls on the table, placed to reflect the light, would work for a fixture of any size.

"Layering your light sources creates warmth and brings life to the party," said Anderson. "Candles make such a difference -- they're so much more than just lights."

Convey a sense of sanctuary: The pop-up lodging supplier Shelter Co. produced both an indoor table inspired by vintage safaris and an outdoor lounge area with tents and seating around a campfire.

Shelter Co. owner Kelsey Sheofsky said outdoor entertaining needn't hibernate this season. "As long as you provide light and warmth for your guests, it's magical to entertain outdoors in the winter," he said.

Sheofsky recommended fire pits, outdoor heaters and colorful throws, as well as vintage oil lamps or battery-powered lights to make guests feel comfortable. "People will stay outside if they're warm," he said. "Make sure to invest in lanterns or pillar candles so people can see the table decorations (and) what they're eating. ... If they're completely in the dark, they won't linger."

Dining by Design is presented each year by Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS to raise and grant funds to organizations fighting HIV/AIDS. Annie Luetkemeyer of UC San Francisco spoke at the event about the great strides made in AIDS treatment over the past 20 years.

"HIV used to be a death sentence, but now we can help patients live a long, normal life," she said. "Nevertheless, there are still 50,000 new infections per year in the United States, and we must do more work on education, prevention and outreach as we work toward a cure." See more on the organization at http://diffa.org.

Kathryn Loosli Pritchett writes about design at www.thingselemental.com. Contact her there or at features@bayareanewsgroup.com.