Table manners took a decidedly civilized turn with the use of knives and forks. Now, the flatware itself is undergoing a bit of an evolution, this time focused on bringing style and substance to the table.
Fabricated by artisans and architects alike, flatware patterns today are taking inspiration from nature, whimsy and classical design elements. The curved bowl of a spoon might call to mind a graceful arch, the handle a twig, a leaf frond or the austere look of art deco details.
The handle might be hammered to a rumpled texture or ripple in a gentle, sinuous wave. European influences show up in three-tined forks and exaggerated sizes. Some designs marry form with function so well that little indentations in the handle look artistic but also provide perfect little resting spots for thumb and forefinger.
Bridal registries long have suggested that couples select a flatware pattern in stainless steel for everyday and one in sterling silver for formal affairs. Carol Levy, owner of Material Possessions, home-art boutiques in Chicago, noted that for her clients, that custom is passe.
"A lot of our brides just pick one pattern and use it for all their needs. They look for interesting art sets that are a little esoteric but not weird -- styles they're not likely to find at the department stores," she said.
"Customers feel them, hold them and imagine using the pieces before they decide," she explained. "And the trend is clearly toward pieces that are dishwasher safe and low maintenance."
To these ends, "wood" patterned handles are a fabricated plastic wood that is flawlessly smooth. Anything that requires polishing often is passed over and so, too, are any materials that are not dishwasher-safe.
"It's a whole different lifestyle now," said Paul Highfield, manager of the Frank McIntosh table-top shop in Henri Bendel in Chicago. "People are certainly interested in design but also function and a good price on their flatware."
Bendel's once carried a pattern fashioned in sterling silver. It was retooled in bronze and finally in stainless steel. The look still is sleek and elegant, the price, though, a fraction.
More traditional manufacturers of flatware also are responding to the call for a contemporary look. At the New York Tabletop Show last month, Reed & Barton Silversmiths introduced to its Swid Powell Collection two new stainless flatware patterns designed by architects. Richard Meier used clean linear and geometric shapes, while Robert Venturi looked to the classic order of architecture. The knives, spoons and forks in Mr. Venturi's pattern each sport a different design, each representative of a Doric, Ionic or Corinthian column. They will be available early spring.