WASHINGTON — 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 grandmothers’ flowered formal plates, preferring their own 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 home of the late hostess Marjorie Merriweather Post, thought about this lifestyle shift when they conceived their latest special exhibit. “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 her other estates. If there was one lesson to be learned from Post, it was not to be afraid of your nice things, said Estella Chung, director of collections at Hillwood, the estate that Post bought in 1955 and owned until her death in 1973.
Every few weeks Post 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.”
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 designers behind the exhibit share a few entertaining secrets that might help anyone find ways to incorporate old china into a less formal lifestyle.
Don’t set your table like your grandmother did: “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,” New York designer Alex Papachristidis says. “Throw in an unusual hand-painted glass from a vintage store.”
Never set the table the same way twice: 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, Virginia. If you’re not having fun setting your table, it can seem like just another boring chore. If you have old-fashioned floral china, add glass plates in jewel tones to update the table. Instead of white napkins, collect linen squares in different colors and keep them ironed and ready to go, Dixon says.