Some of the biggest names in fashion - Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Kate Spade, Calvin Klein - also design tableware. But it's not haute couture that's driving the latest trends in tabletop style; it's the struggling economy, and the fact people are dining at home more.
At-home chefs want to recreate the restaurant experience, so elegant "tablescapes" are in. But at the same time, everyday chefs expect cleanup to be a snap, so fragile, fussy pieces that can't survive the dishwasher have fallen out of fashion - even for special occasions. In fact, 2008 marked the first time that sales of quality casual dinnerware edged out fine china sales during bridal season, a trend that continued in 2009 and is expected to continue in 2010, according to NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., a global provider of consumer and retail market research information.
"Stuffiness is out, but people still want a really beautiful table," says interior designer, Laura Casey, Charlotte, N.C.
The down economy has revolutionized the simple act of setting the table.
Today's brides are much less likely than their mothers and grandmothers to register for two sets of dishes - one for everyday use and one for formal dining. Instead, "they opt for one set of quality casual dinnerware that they can dress up for special occasions," says Kathleen Cella, senior account manager for NPD's housewares and home textiles divisions.
Most people have less disposable income and are doing more picking and choosing, which is causing a shift in the market - particularly with dinnerware. "It used to be that you'd have brands competing with other brands or casual competing with formal," Cella says. "Now, dinnerware competes with other housewares."
Instead of buying a new set of dishes, consumers are snatching up accessories like water pitchers and serving trays to freshen and enhance what they already own. Or they'll purchase select pieces from high-end retailers, and then round out their tableware with flea market finds.
Sales of serving dishes and cookware reflect the fact people are cooking at home more.
"Serving pieces under $50 have been really successful this last quarter," says Linda Nangle, a senior buyer for the Seattle-based retail chain Sur La Table.
Well-made, reasonably priced pieces that have the imprimatur of a famous designer or celebrity chef also are popular. Culinary superstar and Food Network face Giada De Laurentiis unveiled a line of cookware for Target in January, which includes snow-white and ruby-red ceramic bakeware that is elegant and functional.
"Small things like placemats and napkins are another inexpensive way to bring in something trendy," says Casey, owner of Laura Casey Interiors, LLC. She says that turquoise is the "it" color of 2010, and that gold accent pieces are making a comeback. Bamboo and rattan placemats fly off the shelves "because everyone likes natural fibers," she said.
Today's consumer values durability, functionality, convenience and classic styling, Nangle says. Sur La Table's Frutta dinnerware, featuring a bold fruit pattern, "was made to look and feel like an Italian heirloom passed down from nonna," yet it's dishwasher- and microwave-safe, according to its product description.