Bringing figurine collections off the shelves and onto the table

Table-setting designers urge figurine collectors, whether their tastes run from Royal Copenhagen to Royal Doulton or M. I. Hummel, not to consign their collections just to cabinets and shelves, but to circulate them and use and enjoy them in a much fuller way.

''Put them out on the dining table,'' says porcelain expert Aaron Ritz, former export manager of Bing & Grondahl and now a maker of fine porcelain in Copenhagen, ''because well-placed figurines can keep the conversation flowing. The host or hostess can always describe where the figurines came from, who made them, and what inspired their first acquisition. They can speak of the sentiment attached to special figures or the memories they evoke.''

Mr. Ritz, a self-appointed ''ambassador for porcelain,'' finds figurines to be one of the most satisfying collectibles. He and his wife, Henny, own 40 or so figurines, ''so we have a good time choosing those we want to put together. Then we make up our own stories about them. Sometimes we use mirrors in the middle of the table to reflect the figures, and sometimes we add porcelain animals to the scene, such as swans and ducks, field mice and cats. We always complete our centerpieces with fresh flowers and candles.

''Porcelain figurines are very popular with the Danish people,'' the expert says. ''Many families will save for years to buy a collection and then hand it down as an heirloom to their children. We love creating centerpieces with them for special parties and holidays. We love giving them as gifts to commemorate such family events as weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays.''

In Denmark, he points out, ''we use figurines to decorate ceiling beams, ledges, tops of fireplaces, or bookshelves. In short, we live with our collections and use them a lot and move them around and show them off. Sometimes , for fun, we also trade figurines with each other.''

A porcelain figurine, he says, has shape, luster, translucency, and personality. ''The method I use for judging a genuine piece,'' he explains, ''is with the eye, the hand, and the heart. If a piece doesn't make me feel something , I forget about it.''

For proper care of figurines, he advises: ''If you want your figurines to survive, take them out of cabinets or down from shelves yourself, wash each one separately, using a pad in the bottom of the sink, and put them back again yourself. Do not depend on maids or children to do this job. And never, ever, put a figurine in a dishwasher.''

Goebel of West Germany, manufacturers of M. I. Hummel figurines of children, eight years ago became the first sponsor of a figurine collector's club that has its own annual conventions. The club now has 81 chapters in the United States and Canada and almost 200,000 members.

Esther Mares of La Grange, Ill., (named the club's 1984 Member of the Year), says, ''I like to combine figurines with fresh-cut flowers when I entertain. And it's easy to do if you place the figurine in the center and work the arrangement around it.''

She often chooses a figurine that matches the interest of the guest or guests , whether it be sewing or music or photography. She enjoys her figurine collection, she says, all over the house - dressing up plants with them and placing them atop the piano and on her homemade cakes.

During the Christmas holidays she sets individual angel figurines among small arrangements of greens and places them on tables, ledges, mantels, and shelves.

''Almost everyone has a collection of something,'' says designer Michael Cannarozzi, who put together the informal setting using Hummel figurines shown here. ''The trick is to show it off without having it overwhelm the house.'' His advice is to provide relief by interspersing figurine collections with accents such as dried flowers, books, or plants.

Incorporating favorite figurines into table settings, the designer says, is a good way of sharing what you enjoy with the friends you entertain.

To make the centerpiece shown here, Mr. Cannarozzi filled an ordinary oblong bread basket with styrofoam blocks, varying the heights so that the center figurines would be tallest. The Hummels he chose are, from left to right, ''A Stitch in Time, ''To Market,'' and ''Village Boy.''

To make it a centerpiece that would last through the holidays and beyond, he anchored dried straw flowers and statice in the styrofoam blocks. A new look, he says, could be achieved simply by changing the set of figurines sitting on the styrofoam blocks.

In his own home, Larry Laslo, designer for such tabletop companies as Towle Silversmiths, Arabia in Finland, and Mikasa in Japan, likes to use little Venetian glass figurines that vary in size for his holiday table settings.

''I scatter the figurines on the table and then, between them, I place small glass vials of fresh flowers,'' he explains. ''Sometimes I tie ribbon bows around the vials of flowers. The ribbon I select pulls together the colors of china, linen, and flowers.''

Mr. Laslo also likes to put small individual gifts at each place setting, with the name on the gift card also serving as the place card. ''I personally choose the gifts for each person. It takes a bit of time and thought, but the effort is worth it.''

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