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Fashion plates Home: Designers have turned their attention to the table -- with colorful results.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLOR-SATURATED DRAMA by Gianni Versace, satin pink flowers by Lacroix, spare black and white shapes by Calvin Klein, traditional silhouettes by Ralph Lauren. We're not talking frocks, my dears, we're talking dinnerware.

Designers have discovered that a table setting makes a strong fashion statement that any hostess of kindred taste can achieve without dieting down to a size 6.

Tabletop collections, as they're called in the crockery industry, are the latest creative outlet for high-profile designers, and new ones are entering the market with each season. Joining the heavy hitters with established lines are Nicole Miller, Cynthia Rowley, Adrienne Vittadini and Tommy Hilfiger. Tommy? The designer who won the hearts of sulky teens with his logo-driven sport clothes, apparently is preparing for the time when they discover table manners and fast-food alternatives.

The new wave of china designs is changing the old way of dressing a table. Brides once went along with the family white and gold-rimmed Haviland or Lenox for special occasions. For everyday they bought cheap and cheerful ironstone. Today the distinction is blurred.

"People today are much more adventurous than we were and they share more meals with friends," says Sonya Cohen, owner of the Gallery 1330 on Reisterstown Road.

"The era of the formal dinner party with perfectly matched settings is gone. People today have a different measure of success. They like to have fun with money," she says, "and that may not mean a matching china, crystal and silver service for 12, but it may mean a collection of unusual and dramatic plates."

You want drama? The Versace collections for Rosenthal are so rich in color and gold as to make food seem incidental to the presentation. There are butterflies flitting through garlands. There is the signature Medusa medallion in deep bas relief. There are naiads, shells and coral twined in gold on sea blue.

Whether this much luxe can exist outside the numerous Versace palazzos is problematic. "People who wear Versace and lead that high-end lifestyle will seek it out, but $395 for a basic place setting pretty much eliminates the everyday user," says Glenn Chandler, china and gift buyer for Nordstrom. "Even customers who can pay the price don't want to bother because high-end dinnerware needs special care -- it needs to be hand-washed because dishwashers damage fine quality."

He sees a better fit between Calvin Klein dishes and today's simpler lifestyle. The tableware, which comes in black and white and shades of gray, is consistent with Klein's minimalist and modern approach to style. "Calvin's basic and good," says Chandler, "and the basic 20-piece starter set at $220 is a good price, but most customers can emulate that clean look at stores like Crate and Barrel at a much better price point."

Between overstated Versace and understated Klein are a variety of designer table lines that are appealingly pretty and even fun.

Ralph Lauren has designs ranging from rugged Western-inspired pottery to fine-boned and genteel floral tea settings.

The maestro of the pouf, Christian Lacroix, has a new collection for Cristofle that has the charm of a dowager auntie's heirloom bits. It's strong on carnations and dusty pastels. "I like the most unusual table settings and decoration and even unmatching pieces," says the man who can mix tweed and lace with aplomb. That deft mismatched look can cost dear, as in $45 for a pin tray.

Designers to the young and trendy have a less precious approach to dishes. Cynthia Rowley spells out a bright alphabet on inexpensive oven-to-table-to-microwave ware. Nicole Miller is playing with nature's patterns of bamboo and tortoise shell.

New choices and patterns are fine and good, but too much fashion statement in dinnerware may have its pitfalls. The good-taste test of china is whether it enhances the food. Wise old dames and restaurateurs know the ideal is a simple plate. Traditional American holiday meals don't fare well on fussy and busy French porcelain.

Clerks at Bloomingdale's china department say Calvin Klein whites are gaining on the bridal registry, so clean does seem to have an edge. Another hint of changing dining styles is the glut of vintage gold-trimmed china in consignment shops and auctions. The now generation doesn't want sparks in the microwave.

Time will decide whether it is the prestigious fashion label or the styling that is creating a boom in designer plates. The Pucci platters of the '60s came and went. Blue willow goes on forever.

Pub Date: 6/15/97

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