How we stack up

Times Staff Writer

HAD I played my cards right, I could have inherited the full china collections of both my grandmothers and my mother. I was an only granddaughter and only daughter. Tradition dictated that I got all the plates from both sides of the family. At three services per lady, this amounted to something like 540 plates, not including formidable stacks of kidney-shaped side dishes.

There were the intensely floral Minton plates, metal-banded Lenox ones and, as one grandmother grew older, a certain number of Franklin Mint commemorative plates. There was porcelain, bone china, stoneware, plastic. There were English plates, French plates, American plates, Mexican plates, Victorian plates, mid-century Modern plates, plates with flowers on them, birds, Christmas trees, scenes of Yale University campus. There was even a plate edged with faded pink flowers that looked European, but whose under-stamp read, “Made in Occupied Japan.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 28, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Photographer’s credit -- The large photo of dishes on the cover of Wednesday’s Food section was credited to the wrong Times staff photographer. It was shot by Anacleto Rapping, not Carlos Chavez.

All I had to do to be eligible for all these plates was to get married in a manner befitting them.


I eloped. My husband and I went to the Conran Shop and bought the most minimalist white porcelain we could find. It was the early 1980s, and we were rebels, we thought. Individualists! Only now is it obvious to me that we were no such thing. Rather, we were so predictable that the ceramics industry could easily have given us a number, say the B-2s or C-4s.

Back then, for example, my cold white plate told buyers that I was artsy and educated, but lacking the great wads of cash driving the bridal trade. They knew that I was interested in the plate as canvas, that I thought about the color of food and probably was trying the fashionable dishes of the day: carrot soup with cilantro, chicken with mango, avocado salad with strawberries and black pepper. So ‘80s! Alas, so me.

When my husband and I split at the end of that food-mad decade, I became another kind of plate shopper. Confused. I experimented with a modern British clay plate with a white glaze sprayed with blue speckles, a pattern called Vogue. I liked it long enough to get the set home, but Vogue, I soon realized, was my rebound pattern. It went under house plants, and whoops, smash, got dropped a lot.

Ironically, the next choice was my mother’s. She had been so irate at my secret wedding, after each of my grandmothers died, she gave away most of my great big plate dowry to my brothers. When she died in 1995, there was only one full set left: hers -- cream-colored porcelain, gold edged, bearing a wheat sheaf motif at the center. Very 1950s, very good taste, very mother. She always regarded them as an antidote to my grandmothers’ stacks of pseudo-Sino-Anglo gaud.

I used the wheat sheaf ones for about four years before realizing that although I had more plates than I needed, I still needed plates. I’d open my cupboard and the white plates reminded me of a divorce, the speckled ones of a regrettable impulse and the formal ones of a dead mother. Yeesh!

The minute I realized why I wanted new crockery, I realized what I wanted the new plates to do: to be cheery and luscious, nothing less.


Stacks of subtext

The search was on but was unexpectedly exhausting, like a sudden case of multiple-personality disorder. Every weekend I’d go to a new kitchenware shop, credit card in pocket. At Crate & Barrel, there were octagonal stoneware plates, ideal for immaculate bachelors who serve artful rolls of sushi. There were Mediterranean plates with tomato and olive motifs. All wonderful for someone else.

At Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma there were the infinitely tasteful French variations on white porcelain, which I would have chosen if I didn’t already have my divorce white.

At Williams-Sonoma, I lingered longingly over the Wedgwood transferware, named Highgrove after Prince Charles’ country pile. I’ve always wanted plates like these, or thought I did, and a country house to go with them. But as I stood there holding a sample, marveling that they were now dishwasher safe, it was irrefutable: I wasn’t Camilla Parker Bowles, and never would be.

At Macy’s, there was plenty of gilded bridal stuff, the fine china. Impressively this is all now dishwasher- and microwave-safe. But I’m a kitchen table type, so I made my way to the kitchenware section. Here was distinctly smart stoneware in a mid-century Modern style, effortlessly chic, perfect for a graphic designer in a studio apartment. This is also the place to find the American classic Fiesta ware. Oh, yes! I love these plates! But basking in their sunny flair, I suddenly realized they were every bit as wrong for me as Highgrove. The owner of Fiesta ware should have a bright retro kitchen with Formica, stainless steel and cook burgers and eat Cheerios.

I’d almost given up when I wandered into Pottery Barn one Saturday. Bang! There were my plates: intensely colored discs in dusky shades of scarlet, coral, moss green, smoky blue, much the same colors as I’d painted the interior of my Craftsman house. The pattern name was one of the less cloying the plate world has to offer: Sausalito. The saturated colors were joyous, but not too bright or too dull, too old or too young. They had large lips and contained centers, perfect for holding sauce and heat. The dinner plates were bigger than I like, the plate equivalent of big hair. But I bought them on the spot.

I rushed home and immediately reorganized my cupboards. The old plates were respectfully shown to seldom-opened cupboards, “Taps” was played, doors were shut. The new plates were set out in glorious ranks. I found myself making frequent visits to that cupboard. Still there, plates? Hello, plates!

I bought them new table mats and napkins. I began cooking more. I’ve given more dinner parties in the last three months than in the last three years. I started seeing my plates everywhere, including TV: There were my mugs on the only show I admit to watching, “This Week,” the Sunday morning political show with George Stephanopoulos.

But even rejuvenated, plate-wise, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had somehow bought an identity as surely as I had bought plates. I suddenly wanted to know who was selling all these plates, who had typecast us as plate buyers, and while I was at it, how they classified me.

To find out, I phoned designers, museum curators, historians and plate buyers for leading stores. I learned that the plate industry not only had my number, it has the number of just about everybody who doesn’t eat off the floor. For starters, before I even decided to shop, the plate industry knew my gender. Plate buyers are female. Women constitute more than 90% of the plate-buying market. (Gentlemen, if you buy, think about or even wash plates, you are a sociological blip.)

We are also incorrigible romantics. It is no accident that patterns have names that sound more like titles of Harlequin romances, or, at the top of the market, Evelyn Waugh novels: Patrician, Jewel, Centurion, Wellesley, Fitzhugh and Gloucester, The Granville, Coupe Savoy and Royal College. Plate marketers correctly surmised that these names sell more plates than more accurate possibilities, such as Oh My God My Mother-in-Law Is Coming for the Holidays. Or, Next Year I Swear We’re Going to the Caribbean.

From the historians, I learned that the dreamy, aspirational quality is far from new. From the time the Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood got his first royal commission in the 1760s, he immediately began marketing his dinnerware as pinky up. He named his everyday cream-colored “Queensware.” It became an instant emblem of respectability and remained so enduring that Martha Stewart still recommends the pattern.

This preference for European plates is nothing new. Our ancestors liked French flowers, Dutch windmills, English game birds, but not so much turkeys and covered wagons. It has to be said that we lacked the craftsmen. But as our potteries established themselves, frustrated American porcelain makers were reduced to using pseudo-British under-stamps to sell their wares at home.

But by the 1870s, American potteries began playing the patriotism card. Ohio potter Homer Laughlin created an under-stamp in which an American Eagle attacked the English Lion. In 1918, New Jersey porcelain works Lenox finally sold its first set to Woodrow Wilson’s White House. This West Wing taste in dinnerware remains current. According to Macy’s dinnerware buyer Karen Luehr, Lenox Federal Platinum is the chain’s most popular formal pattern.

In the 1920s, suffrage and Modernism brought colliding trends from the East and West. Cool Modernism, the sort generally celebrated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, came from Europe while a wave of vibrant, almost euphoric color flooded out of Southern California potteries. These super-vibrant golds, blues and greens broke the color barrier, argues Cleveland Museum of Art’s Charles Venable in his enormous book, “China and Glass in America: 1880-1980” (Dallas Museum of Art, 2000).

As Southern California paved the way for Fiesta ware and irrepressible cheer in crockery, the formal market responded with a torrent of novelty plates, starting with Spode’s 1938 Christmas tree plates. From that time on, says Venable, America had a plate for every occasion: formal, Christmas, poker games, graduation, weekday dinners.

But the No. 1 occasion, and only authentically traditional one, was marriage. In 1935, Marshall Field & Co. opened the first formal bridal registry for fine china. Lenox sponsored table-setting contests in high schools. Girls as young as 12 began collecting wedding china. Still, as the bridal business became more efficient, behind the scenes, says Venable, choice plummeted. Plates were standardized, patterns too. After World War II, Venable charts Lenox’s selection dropping suddenly from 400 patterns to 47.

Is the postwar plate industry in crisis? Invariably, says Bonnie Lilienfeld, the Smithsonian Institution specialist for ceramics in the division for social history. If the plastics industry wasn’t raiding the plate market in the ‘50s, feminism was messing with the bridal trade in the ‘70s. By the ‘90s, brides were as likely to register for video recorders as china.

A plate of one’s own

But not all social upheaval, it seems, is bad for the plate industry. Divorced women like me are returning to china stores. Industry has even given us and other single types a specific title: “self-purchasers.”

Evidently, we’re experimenting, too. “This time, women are buying what they want, not what their mothers wanted,” Venable says. Across the chains, buyers guess that self-purchasers account for the leading selections in patterns and colors, while couples lead the white purchases.

This does not make couples boring. Greg Smith, director of tabletop and entertaining retail merchandizing for Williams-Sonoma, says white porcelain has plenty of personality. It can be accessorized. He likens it to dressing well: “If you own a blue suit, a gray suit and a black suit, you do a lot of things with shirts and ties; the same thing happens with a white dinner plate.”

Bob Coviello, co-founder of the East Coast chain KitchenEtc, says whatever the pattern, all of our plates are getting bigger, going from 10 to 11 to even 12 inches, to the state they are practically platters. “In the 1990s, oversize came in,” he says. “There were big plates, big silverware, oversize wine glasses.” He reckons chefs using all those big white plates in the 1980s restaurant boom to make squiggly patterns with sauces was part of it. Then there’s our gluttony.

What’s the next big trend? The coming novelty plate, guesses Renee Behnke of Sur la Table, will have flamingos on it. They were huge in Paris recently. But our society is running so fast, says KitchenEtc’s Coviello, it’s not clear where we are headed.

It seems the only way I bucked my demographic was preferring pottery over porcelain. I wanted the lustrous glaze that comes with pottery, even if it means they are more likely to chip and break.

I don’t mind if they do. My nieces won’t have to worry about inheriting them.