CLUES about changing American lifestyles may be as close as a dining room table.
The design of the tableware itself often signifies trends, reminding us that style even trickles down to eating utensils.
In the United States, informal table-top design has evolved into a style more casual and eclectic than ever before. Not unlike the food served on it, flatware, stoneware, and glassware is showing up in lovely and intriguing designs, sometimes with ethnic touches, but without set-in-stone rules. Absent is the formality that might suggest a strict seven-course meal. In its place is a friendlier feeling of "Let's have some people over" and "So what if I use a pasta bowl for soup?"
Certainly the ranks of people who, on a regular basis, haul out their fine china, silver, and crystal (if they own it at all) are dwindling. But there's still great interest in home entertaining.
"We're still setting the table pretty much the same, but it's more fun," says David Rudert, manager for Pottery Barn on Newbury Street in Boston. If he were to sum up the mood in home decor it would be: "Freedom from tradition, yet keeping with tradition."
Pottery Barn is often thought of as the "T-shirt and jeans of home decoration and table-top," says assistant manager Jeb Taylor. These days their customers are not just newlyweds bypassing the bridal registry, but people of all ages who want different looks for their homes. "You'd be amazed at the number of older people who are really looking to change what they have at home," adds Mr. Rudert.
As Pottery Barn and other affordable homeware retailers can attest, table-top design has become an extension of the fashion world, albeit less flashy. There are seasonal lines, holiday place settings, and hints of trendiness in colors, patterns, and materials. When people are bored with their current collection, they can move on to something else. "Most of table top in general is more disposable than ever," says Rupert.
What's "in" these days?
A lot of color, and "bringing the outdoors in," says Mr. Taylor (see story at left). Some say the trend is in response to the high-tech, black-and-white look of the 1980s.
"There is a simplicity that people are striving for in their lives. Rather than being stark, they're accepting color," says Mary Garthe, a fashion consultant to Design Times magazine in Boston. "In clothing there is trend toward an eclectic look of things. Personal style is the rule, and I see that in table settings as well," says Ms. Garthe.
Garthe also sees a sense of humor present in more table settings. A recent casual luncheon featured a huge bowl of goldfish as a centerpiece. There is leeway on centerpieces, too, rather than flowers it's acceptable to simply pile vegetables in a big clay bowl.
Deanna Lyddy , manager for Pier 1 Imports in Brookline, Mass., says that "This year the jewel-tones - deep bright colors - are big." She advocates the "mix-and-match" method for someone who wants to outfit their table and still have some money left over to put food on it.
Most designers would agree that good table-top design doesn't require spending a lot of money; it allows you to add to what you already have.
"You can make a statement and money has nothing to do with it," says Suzanne Slesin, assistant editor of the Home section of the New York Times and co-author of "New York Style."
"My idea is that it has to have a look, and if I can't make it work with expensive things then I will give it a look with inexpensive things," she says.
Ms. Slesin explains by phone that having an organizing principle is key, such as using the same color in different things or the same item in different colors.
Table fashion can be just like clothes fashion, says Garthe. "You buy your basics, and add your playful touches." Still, she warns, that even with today's casualness, you can go overboard and end up neglecting good taste.
The smart person starting out should pick a pattern that's realistic for their type of home, says Garthe. "Don't buy china if you'll never use it.... Define your lifestyle and be consistent."
Many stores say their bestseller is basic white stoneware (tends to be dishwasher safe, microwaveable). "I have a set of very inexpensive white china for 36 - the best investment I ever made," says Marcia Adams, cookbook author, television host, and entertaining expert. "I can play off of it." Not only does white go with everything, it's easy to replace if something breaks, she adds.
This issue is key to those who are concerned about lines being discontinued. Opting for basics over the more trendy designs, which are only available up to a year or two after purchase, may make breakage a less distressing event.
Ultimately, the aesthetic in any table-top design hinges on how you make it all come together. "Generally, the same principles of design apply no matter what you're doing," says Pamela Leach, A.S.I.D., who is president of the New England chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers.
Once you pull together the elements, placing them together is another adventure. "Unity, rhythm, balance, symmetry - all of those elements would apply in doing table-top design. It means looking at the table top as a whole composition, as an artist would a work of art," says Ms. Leach, who also owns Down East Design Resources Inc. in Gorham, Maine. "The most effective and least expensive tool is color."
Sure, you could copy a store display or a magazine ad, but use your own creativity, suggests Ms. Leach. "People like individuality and creativity. Guests are impressed and pleased to see that element." It could be as simple as buying a variety of napkin rings and giving each guest a different one.
"I encourage people to be themselves in what they do and draw from their resources instead of looking at what someone else has done. Go around the table as you would looking through a camera, get a good composition.... It can be really fun," Leach says.