Finding the wares to put atop the table

By Beth Lee Segal

We had a long, cold, stay-in-the-house winter, but people are finally on the streets again, rollerblading as they window shop. Grilled fish and vegetables are replacing stew as the special of the day, and sturdy houseplants have given way to vases of brightly colored flowers. It’s the perfect time to throw open the windows and invite your friends over for a dinner party. If you discover that three of your best dishes are chipped or that you’re missing several wine glasses, before you venture out to buy new things for your table, take a deep breath and do a bit of research. This is a great opportunity to learn how to create a formal place setting and which items a truly furnished table should have.

The term tableware includes categories like table linens (tablecloths, napkins and placemats), drinking glasses and crystal, cutlery and flatware (stainless to sterling) and dishes (fine bone china, ceramics, pottery, Melamine, etc.) While some people are content with a service for four of plain white dishes from Pottery Barn, others collect antique platters and vintage water goblets and ask 12 friends to come for a serious dining experience. It’s simpler than you think to set a table that rivals the ones you’ve admired in magazines. You’ll need to determine your budget so you’ll know whether to head uptown to Bergdorf Goodman or just up the road to Crate and Barrel. Then flip through shelter magazines and design books to see what pleases your eye. Maybe your favorite restaurant serves their food on the dishes of your dreams — find out who manufactures them. Or perhaps you have a set of dessert plates that your grandmother gave you and you want to build around those.

Even if you favor a traditional style, it’s always fun to find out what’s being introduced in the way of soup or sugar bowls trends. Last month the tabletop industry hosted their semi-annual market week in Lower Manhattan, where store buyers and style editors got a preview of the chic new things we’ll soon find in our best-loved home decor haunts.

This year’s up-to-the-minute tabletop and home accessories are influenced by categories as varied as the Tropics, Folklorica, the Retro-50s and the Pop Art 60s. Color and more color was the unifying element, as people seem to be spending their money where the results will be easily seen. Olive green was hot when working with a dusty, mid-tone palette influenced by vintage fabrics—taupe with a rosy tinge, muted grays and pearly blues. Blues with a green cast were still strong in softened, traditional shapes or square and rectangular pieces, which have become standard silhouettes. Swingin’ London stripes and dots, groovy flowers and wild geometric patterns completely covered plates, in clear hues of yellow, endive, turquoise blue and peach with touches of white for a young look. For those who love Mid-Century Modern and contemporary furnishings, streamlined place settings were available in walnut browns, royal blue and ash purple. Winter white and black are meant to work with almost all these palettes. Colored glass has made a comeback, and the cutlery handles on many brands were also available in a range of hues.

Now that you have an idea of what you’ll find when you venture out, you need to learn where to put the fish fork, or at least why you might want to buy a dozen. I suggest cozying up to “The Art of the Table: A Complete Guide to Table Setting, Table Manners,” and “Tableware” by Suzanne Von Drachenfels (Simon and Schuster, 2000)). This book will teach you how to use tableware correctly and give you serious information about dining etiquette. In chapters ranging from “Decorative Methods and Styles” to “Different Categories of Dinnerware,” Von Drachenfels explains how to select dinnerware, flatware, stemware and table linens, and the proper way to care for them. If you’re a novice to hosting parties, there’s a step-by-step guide that will take you through what could be a harrowing experience. If you’re not sure how to plan a menu, or if you don’t know whether a piece of bread should be buttered in its entirety or as you eat it bite-by-bite, this book’s for you. The experienced party-giver can also use the book as a source of new ideas.

One of the table categories I’ve always found intimidating is crystal. Most of it looks the same to me and is so expensive that I’ve avoided buying any for fear of making a costly mistake. I do love how it brightens up a table, though, especially when candlelight filters through a champagne flute so I checked in with David Cipperman. Along with Josef Schreick, Cipperman owns home, james! the destination tableware and gift shop in East Hampton ( The duo caters to the well known and moneyed (Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and Billy Joel are among their clientele), helping them chose gifts for their friends and place settings of fine china for 18. They also manufacture their own tableware, The home, james! collection and crystal plays a big role in the line. “As with diamonds, color, clarity and cut is of utmost importance. Color should never vary from stem to stem. Clarity refers to just that-crystal should be absolutely clear with no distortion. Lastly, the cut must be precise,” Cipperman says. “The safest way to guarantee that you get the finest quality is to shop in stores that have pre-selected the best lines and are honest.”


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