Tableware & Textiles For the Discerning Eye

On a dream shopping spree in London, an arts writer assembles an elegant table setting

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SO what's wrong with imagining? You wake up one bright morning rich enough to buy a brand new set of dining-room tableware, top-of-the-range, the best. You fly to London.

Your taste is immaculate. You shun the merely opulent-looking. Conspicuous display is beneath you. No excess of gold-leaf. No pricy kitsch. No passe nostalgia.

You want design so superbly simple, so elegantly balancing appearance and function, that the only word for it is "classic." So quintessential will your spoons, plates, and glasses be that in 50 years they will look and feel just as good as they do now.

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Cut to the "real world." We tracked down items that might be just what you imagined:

First, your Wedgwood Fine Bone China. On display in Harrods is "Shape 225." It stands out from the surrounding welter of floriferous patterns, reproductions, and eclectic granny-ware in its cool translucent white, crisp contours, and fluent lines. This is "Solar."

Clearly modern, Solar has that indefinably English quality (though designed by the American studio, Gould Associates), which Wedgwood at its best has achieved for more than 225 years. It was in 1984 that Shape 225 was introduced to celebrate Wedgwood's anniversary. And there is another version of Solar called "Lunar," the same shape but made in black basalt. A limited number of items - a sauce boat, a salad bowl, and a coffeepot, for example - are made in the black. Fine so far.

Now to ask a salesperson. "We have Solar in stock," he says. You can buy all 29 items in the range, or a 25-piece dinner set (cost: about $564, or 366.50 British pounds).

"But Lunar, I'm sorry, we don't have in stock." This means a wait of "between four and six months." Further inquiries to Wedgwood confirm this. Lunar is not, in fact, stocked in any British store. It is "special order" only. "It is very popular in Italy," we are told. Ordering the china of your dreams requires patience - or a trip to Italy.

And there are other possible hurdles. How long will you be able to add to Solar and Lunar - or replace broken items? At Wedgwood there are rumors of discontinuance, maybe in January 1993.

But the fact is that demand alone keeps Wedgwood designs in production. There is no guarantee except in terms of the "matchings list," which means a line is being phased out and that special orders will be met for a two-year period only.

Then we chose German glasses by Villeroy and Boch.

V and B's fine lead crystal glassware appeals to the discerning eye. It rates simple elegance highly; it avoids the overwrought. It proves that crystal does not need every inch cut and faceted to be highly desirable.

The design we chose is "Milano." A classic shape, beautifully made in pristine crystal. We asked for the pitcher and tumbler featured on the brochure. Popular items, presumably.

But no, these are both only "available to special order." You have to "wait for a production run ... when they can slot it in." This way the customer is pressured to change their choice to an available design. Harrods predicts a wait of "up to four months."

Jenners in Edinburgh says up to a year. Mr. Marc Boutet, an export manager for V and B in Germany admits "Milano is not our top-selling pattern."

But further investigation reveals that the Villeroy and Boch store at 76th Street and Madison Ave. in New York has both pitcher (at $199; 120 British pounds) and tumbler (at $37; 22 British pounds) in stock! Tastes differ by country.

With "Milano" continued production is guaranteed to the end of 1995.

For cutlery, the kind we selected is not sold anywhere in the United States: "Pride" silverplate by British designer David Mellor. It is quickly available at the two David Mellor shops in London. As for any future guarantee, David Mellor - whose company in Sheffield produces "Pride" - needs only to point to the fact that since he designed it in 1954, "Pride" has never lost its popularity. Mellor says: "There is absolutely no chance of `Pride' being discontinued. Another half century at least!"

What has made this refined cutlery such a classic? Claire Catterall, of London's Design Museum, says: "It's actually very difficult to find cutlery that feels right in your hand, and that works well, that is simple, and isn't really fashionable at all." She believes Mellor's "Pride," coming out of a British appreciation of Scandinavian design in the post-war period, is modern without being "modernist," and that it hasn't dated because, like "the whole Scandinavian aesthetic - it is based on modernism, bu t with the injection of a human element, taking into account human concerns and comforts."

There is a choice regarding the knife handles in "Pride" - either silverplate or a (dishwasher-safe) white nylon, which is cheaper. But it doesn't look cheaper, this plastic substitute for traditional bone handles, so a saving can be made without loss of quality: an all-silverplate canteen of 88 pieces, making twelve places, costs $2189 (1422.55 British pounds). The same with plastic knife handles costs $1916 (1242.55 British pounds).

We topped off our premier selection with a Danish sterling silver candleholder of exquisite form. Its designer was the son of Georg Jensen, the Dane who revolutionized silverware design this century. Soren G. Jensen (1917 to 1982) is as well known in Denmark for his massive post-Cubist stone sculpture as his work in home design. But his candleholder (identified as "1087") is a consummate achievement, balanced, strong, standing well, an enhancement to any table. And it, too, is a classic, remaining in pro duction from 1960 (when it won a silver medal at the Triennale in Milan) until today.

The Georg Jensen shop in London (15 New Bond Street) has one of these candleholders ready for you. The shop in New York could also get one. "Unless," says the salesman, "there isn't one in the States, in which case we would have to order it from Denmark, and it could take a year or more."

There is no question of this expensive item becoming obsolete. All you need is some $8640 (5,664 British pounds), and maybe more patience. Unless, of course, you are happy to go to Copenhagen and visit the Georg Jensen Museum. Its curator, Michael von Essen, has a second-hand Number 1087 for sale at $6560 (4,300 British pounds). But does second-hand sound a little down-market? It shouldn't! As Mr. von Essen likes to say, "All it means is that the candleholder is `pre-loved."'

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