The stacks of old family china sitting forlornly in sideboards, cabinets and boxes in many homes reflect the state of entertaining today. Many millennials aren’t wild about their grandmother’s flowered formal plates, preferring to stick to their plain white wedding dishes. Gen Xers and boomers, who often gravitate to dining at a kitchen island, rarely bother to pull out the “good stuff” and are already trying to unload it.
The curators at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, the grand Washington home of late hostess Marjorie Merriweather Post, thought about this lifestyle shift when they conceived their latest special exhibit, which opened Feb. 17. “The Artistic Table: Contemporary Tastemakers Present Inspired Table Settings” highlights Post’s collections of Russian imperial and 18th-century French porcelain and other luxurious tableware from her years of entertaining. Curators asked a group of interior designers to combine Post’s formal porcelains, glassware and silver with contemporary pieces, to showcase new ideas for table settings.
Post entertained lavishly at Hillwood and her other estates, which include Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., now owned by President Trump, and Camp Topridge, an Adirondack lodge. If there was one lesson to be learned from Post, it was not to be afraid of your nice things, according to Estella M. Chung, director of collections at Hillwood, the estate that Post bought in 1955 and owned until her death in 1973. Every few weeks she would host a formal dinner, garden party or tea, pulling out her silver lobster forks, 18th-century Russian goblets and gold jelly spoons. She was eager to preserve her collections and lifestyle for future generations. “She knew an era was ending,” Chung says. “Her house was the American version of a European country house, and she knew that style of entertaining and staffing was coming to an end.” Just imagine: All of her dishes were always washed by hand, by her trained staff.
In this exhibit, Post’s historic tableware is displayed throughout the mansion, from a formal dinner featuring seven Russian services in the dining room to a breakfast tray with violet-sprigged dishes in her bedroom. “We always have china on display, but in this exhibition, we wanted to present even more pieces in a new way and show this is relevant to contemporary life,” says Wilfried Zeisler, Hillwood’s chief curator.
The six designer tables, along with a seventh formally set round table that re-creates one of Post’s 1960s dinners, are displayed in the dacha building. We asked the designers behind the exhibit to share a few entertaining secrets that might help anyone find ways to incorporate old china into a less formal lifestyle.
When New York designer Alex Papachristidis decorated the silver-and-gold dining room at the Kips Bay show house a couple of years ago, people came up to him and said, ‘My kids don’t want my china.’ ” He has tried to give them advice on ways to make table setting more approachable yet still elegant.
“Play with what you have. If you have antique dishes, find a bold colored solid dish that looks nice with it and some funky modern flatware,” Papachristidis says. “Throw in an unusual hand-painted glass from a vintage store.”
One of his go-tos: durable Caspari wipe-clean place mats, available in designs including a green leaf and blue-and-white chinoiserie. “They look so chic,” he says, “yet they are so practical.”
Use something unexpected, such as a leopard-print tablecloth. One way to keep cloths looking fresh is to spray them with Scotchgard so you can wipe off spills. And if you want to protect them further, layer a smaller machine-washable tablecloth on top of them to soak up any stains.
If you pull out the same dishes, glassware and tablecloth for every event, it’s time to change it up, says designer Barry Dixon of Warrenton, Va. If you’re not having fun setting your table, it can seem like just another boring chore.
Think of accessorizing a table as you do your wardrobe. Whether you are using basic white Ikea buffet plates or your mother-in-law’s vintage pink-and-brown Noritake, you can give them a new look by adding color or pattern elsewhere on the table, Dixon says.
If you have old-fashioned floral china, add glass plates in jewel tones to the table to update it. Instead of white napkins, collect linen squares in different colors and keep them ironed and ready to go, Dixon says. If you have an extra yard of fabric from curtains or pillows, use it to make napkins that tie your table to the interiors. Dixon is always on the lookout for interesting tableware. “I love driving down Virginia’s Interstate 81,” Dixon says. “Any place you turn off, you might find a small shop or flea market with some amazing new find.”
Designer Timothy Corrigan kept hearing from clients and friends that they ate on their best china only on holidays because it was so much work to hand-wash it. Corrigan, who has offices in Los Angeles and Paris, uses his family and vintage porcelain collection on a daily basis and loads it all into the dishwasher. (Many dishwashers have a gentler “china” setting.) “I believe that every day is special,” he says. “Use your china. Don’t save it for an important day. Today is the day.” From a French antique porcelain dealer, he once learned some interesting statistics that might calm those worried about dulling the gold trim on their plates: Most gold on china can withstand 600 to 800 dishwasher washes before it really fades.
To reinforce his philosophy of using the good stuff frequently, he developed his own china pattern — Jardin Français for Royal Limoges. The pattern is created using a new technology that makes gold accents microwave- and dishwasher-safe.
He also sticks his antique German sterling flatware in the dishwasher, a no-no in some circles, but he says that “using it all the time keeps it looking good; you don’t have to polish it.” But don’t stick your fragile crystal in the dishwasher — that’s better off being washed by hand.
New York designer Charlotte Moss is distressed that many families rarely eat dinner together at a table set for a meal. “Everyone is on their laptops around a coffee table or a counter grabbing something,” Moss says.
Families would benefit from an old ritual: the Sunday night dinner. “End your weekend and start your week with a little bit of civilization,” Moss says. Everyone helps, and kids can learn basic table-setting skills and manners. “It doesn’t have to be formal,” Moss says. “Arrange fruit as a centerpiece.” Tell your kids the story of your china.
Being familiar with table manners makes you comfortable and confident in many situations, Moss says. Your kids will appreciate the experience later, when they get invited to a special someone’s house to meet the family or whe navigating business lunches.
“Whether your china is your grandmother’s formal porcelain or your mother’s castoffs, you should use it,” says Moss, whose 10th book, “Charlotte Moss Entertains,” is due out in April. “Don’t be afraid.”
Some people have a fear of entertaining because they really don’t enjoy or feel confident about cooking. That is no excuse for not using your good china, says Hutton Wilkinson, president of Los Angeles-based Tony Duquette. “It’s really more about the presentation. But of course, it helps if the food tastes good, too.”
Washington designer Josh Hildreth, who collaborated with Wilkinson, says a table set with your best things shows family and friends how much you appreciate them. “Putting out plates and setting a nice table creates a different experience for guests,” Hildreth says.
“Buy china not because you eat off it, but because it’s beautiful,” Wilkinson says. The two designers like to decorate their tables with curiosities such as crystal frogs or bejeweled starfish napkin rings.
Wilkinson says people are meeting in restaurants because they are too busy to cook. But there are alternatives. He recalls a glamorous hostess who sent out for buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken before a party and piled it onto her Georgian silver platters. Says Wilkinson, “It’s all about the presentation.”
Yes, you can have a formal dinner without using a white tablecloth, says P. Gaye Tapp, a North Carolina-based designer. Years ago, white linen tablecloths and napkins were the only choice for fancy meals. Not anymore.
Tapp says people whose dishes are gathering dust should consider bringing them out and coming up with a plan to match them to a modern textile pattern. You can pick out colors in your china and look for fabric to set it off. She loves the look of vintage batik napkins paired with a bold tablecloth made out of a tree-of-life Indian pattern in indigo and cream.
“If you use a formal white tablecloth, like many people do, it just makes everything seem more formal,” Tapp says. The same china settings, whether floral or gold-edged, put against a more contemporary fabric look fresh and different.
IF YOU GO: “The Artistic Table: Contemporary Tastemakers Present Inspired Table Settings” at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens at 4155 Linnean Ave. NW in Washington will be open through June 10. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $18. For information, go to hillwoodmuseum.org.