Best-dressed tables celebrate nature this year


Looking for inspiration to get set for the holidays? Turn your table into a bountiful harvest of fruits and vegetables. As you search for new twists on old traditions, you'll find everything from rainbow-colored goblets that happen to be lead-free to dinnerware and table linens whose patterns are derived from nature. Ecological concerns are nurturing a healthy appetite for some symbol of the great outdoors. While you are mixing what you have with real leaves or evergreens -- or persimmons, for that matter -- also consider an object made by hand instead of machine. And feel free to gild the lily -- or the pinecone.

The best-dressed tables are celebrating nature, the hand-crafted look and adding a glint of gold, copper or silver.

"In architecture and tableware, people are reacting against a no-decorated look," said Randi Danforth, senior editor of Bon Appetit. "They're looking for more ornament and softness. Details are important: lots of flowers, things from nature, fresh fruits, vegetables, seashells. The look can be quite baroque -- even rococo. It's actually quite romantic."

Interpreted in pattern and color in dinnerware, flatware, glasses and linens as well as centerpieces and other decorations, the details embrace a wide range of styles. Table settings are being enriched by layering, creating a veritable cornucopia of elements.

Ms. Danforth says that what is happening in tabletop design as we approach the end of the millennium parallels what happened at the end of the 19th century.

"There was a reaction against machine-made objects after the Industrial Revolution," explained Ms. Danforth.

Some of the themes and inspirations popular then are playing to a receptive audience today. For example, Pfalzgraff nods to the Arts and Crafts movement and the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Stickley and Roycroft with one of its new patterns. Part of its Century American Bone China collection, "Marquetry" takes its name from the art of inlaying different woods to create a design. The band that circles the plates consists of warm mahogany, ebony and satinwood hues on the white bone china body; several pieces have a center motif with a geometric design. A five-piece place setting sells for $140.

The clean look of "Marquetry" will appeal to those who prefer tailored furnishings. For those who don't mind a little ebullience, there's "Volupte."

"Volupte" is a lush floral design from Gien, a French earthenware maker. Its peonies, muscari hyacinth and tulips are dramatic and sensuous. The life-size scale of the pattern draws you into the garden in Provence that inspired it.

The creamy white dinner plate features a wide border that stops short of full circle; the salad dish is completely abloom. On woven straw place mats or a red-and-white checked tablecloth, the pattern would suit a casual luncheon or summer picnic. With Christofle silver flatware and Baccarat crystal in ruby-hued wine glasses and clear goblets, the dinnerware pattern assumes a surprising elegance. These year-round flowers don't need to be coddled, either; the dinnerware is dishwasher and microwave safe.

Vines and vegetables

Besides flowers and fruits, vines and vegetables also have been enjoying a renaissance of popularity. One especially handsome set of Italian earthenware was spotted recently in the Horchow Collection. This honey-colored dinnerware has a high-relief border of grapes and vines. "Vineyard Harvest" has additional appeal: It's microwave and dishwasher safe, and a five-piece place setting sells for only $29.90.

Organic-related motifs also are capturing a more contemporary-minded audience, with more stylized designs. The central theme of Christofle's "Pergola" pattern was inspired by the lattice of a grape arbor. Its cheerful yellow border is as warm as the sun. The irregular pattern placement and the blue-black combination give the set its unique look. "Pergola" would be a bright addition to a holiday brunch buffet.

Other fruits and vegetables also are popular decorations on cachepots, candlesticks and small vases. Many ceramic pieces feature the hand-painted designs in relief, which makes them look real. The diminutive scale of some pieces adds to their charm. A set of Italian crafted veggie vases from Horchow, for example, are only 5 inches tall. The shapes of vine-ripe tomatoes, eggplant or yellow bell peppers are a fun addition to the table; they also double as garden-fresh candleholders.

Fauna is another inspiration from nature. As a Thanksgiving motif, pheasants have been chosen by some manufacturers to decorate their plates. Artist Lynn Chase is known for more exotic subjects -- her colorful renditions of wildlife. One new design, "Leopard Lazuli," combines an engaging border of faux lapis stone and the arresting images of leopards from the Himalayas. The icy blue-on-white pattern is a striking graphic image. A platter or vase would make a memorable accent to a holiday table.

Drinking in the colors

Even stemware is taking on colors from nature. Amber, cranberry and spruce green or natural gemstone hues such as sapphire and amethyst are among those you'll find. Because of concern about lead content as a possible health hazard (a certain percentage of lead is required for fine crystal), Villeroy & Boch has designed an assortment of lead-free glasses, bowls and decorative accessories. Its Calypso group includes champagne flutes, water and wine goblets that feature different combinations of gold, red and green for each part of the glass -- bowl, stem and stepped base. The glasses sell for $29 apiece. An unusual napkin flute, which resembles a horn, is designed to rest on a plate. It also can be filled with sorbet.

Those same colors as well as others from the earth also are influencing the design of table linens. Single-hued linens or damasks that introduce pattern with tone-on-tone, light-on-dark color, sometimes with foliage grape vine patterns, are favored as a foil for multi-patterned dinnerware. Tapestries still are appealing and, no surprise here, fruits and vegetables are dominant themes.

Some still prefer the crispness of white linens. Bon Appetit's Randi Danforth says: "Mixing different whites, cremes, off-whites and parchments is very subtle and can be lovely, extremely elegant." A variety of white flowers, ivy, Granny Smith apples and pears is a favorite combination for some designers who like such greening of the table for the ecological connection it brings.

And, of course, some can't resist white linens that have been embellished with some sort of metallic decoration -- embroidered, appliqued, woven into the fabric or hand-painted silver, copper or gold. Some white linens are edged in gold, such as napkins and place mats hemstitched with hand-painted borders. Among the most festive table linens we've seen are bronze doupioni silk napkins (a pebbly silk that's washable) teamed with a crinkled silk-gauze place mat, also available from Horchow. The 14-by-19-inch mats cost $22 apiece. The 22-inch-square napkins are sold as a set with a twisted and knotted matching napkin ring for $24.

Gold-limned plaid

Not everyone is comfortable with so much glitter, yet for those who like the effect of metallic elements, there are other options. One of the most unusual table linen patterns mixes two different tartan plaids with the designs separated by a fancy gold scrolled border. It's a neat effect -- a traditionally casual pattern combined with a baroque motif. The on-the-diagonal navy-and-green plaid has a woodsy feeling of fir and spruce trees. The smaller-scaled red-and-white plaid is a playful companion. The cloth is smashing with gold napkin ties and glass plates rimmed with 24-carat gold.

The cloth is made of machine-washable cotton; prices range from $16.90 to $32.90, depending on size. A set of six napkins (17 by 17 inches) costs $17.90.

Actually, the mixing of seemingly disparate elements, such as plaids and scrolls, follows an overall tabletop trend that has been in place for the last few years. Martha Stewart has been a leading muse for such eclecticism. She's shown us how to mix new with old, the good china with flea market finds, informal baskets with crystal bowls, and the traditional with the unexpected, such as gilded pinecones, a Stewart signature that has become as much a holiday fixture as boughs of holly.

"People are mixing styles and materials, colors and patterns," says Emily Parker, a vice president for Horchow and divisional merchandise manager for home furnishings. "All of these different components make table setting more fun."

Indeed, layering dishes and serving pieces that complement one another rather than match is an effective way to bring a spark to the holiday table. You might simply add a set of salad dishes or soup bowls, for example, to coordinate with pieces you already own. Choose a solid color that picks up one of your pattern's hues. Or mix patterns such as plaid with a floral, using color as the common denominator.


* Chase Ltd., 38C Grove St., Ridgefield, Conn. 06877; (203) 438-9655.

* Christofle, 680 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10021; (212) 308-9390.

* Gien, in care of Baccarat Inc., 11 E. 26th St., New York, N.Y. 10010; (212) 696-1440.

* The Horchow Collection, P.O. Box 620048, Dallas, Texas 75262; (800) 456-7000.

* The Pfalzgraff Co., 140 E. Market St., York, Pa. 17401; (717) 848-5500.

* Villeroy & Boch, 41 Madison Ave., 41st Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010; (212) 683-1747.

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