Dish Obsession

Like many women of her generation, my mom (she’s 85) has a small collection of plates displayed on a rail that my dad made for her many years ago. The plates are mostly souvenir plates, one with the capitol of Connecticut, another with a black and white drawing of an old church in town, one with a lattice rim and fruit in the center that she bought just because she thought it was pretty. She also has a set of “good” dishes, special brown Thanksgiving plates with a rural scene that we used only for Thanksgiving and Christmas when holidays were still at her house. These dishes were never, ever used any other day of the year. More seriously, she has a collection of flow blue in a glass front oak cupboard, but I do not recall any flow blue plates.

She was never a genuine collector. She did not have “malaldie de porcelain, or ‘porcelain sickness,’ an overweening desire to acquire more and more pieces…” the disease of moral turpitude that Shax Riegler writes about in his new book, Dishes: 813 Colorful, Wonderful Dinner Plates.

Riegler began collecting fifteen years ago, beginning with a near complete service for twelve, called Babina. Working on a PhD in Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, he is the features editor at House Beautiful. I would think the book itself would earn him his PhD. It is a sweeping meditation on plates with a timeline beginning with the 1454 entry for Isacco del Dondi of Pauda who ordered “a service of tin-glazed earthenware, including forty-eight plates, decorated with his family’s coat of arms,” and ending with the commemorative plates made in honor of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton. Most of the plates are factory made, but he does include forty-one plates from contemporary potters. I l am drawn to Kristen Wicklund’s stoneware hummus plates with high sides and earthy tones.

I never particularly liked my mom’s fancy plates, and as an uppity teenager, developed a bit of snobbery against the gilt edges of a few of her pieces. Yet her small collection did make me think about how a plate should look. And the notion of special dishes for special occasions still makes an impression on me, though except for family nostalgia, I would not set a table with the Thanksgiving plates.

Plates can be made primarily to show off the food served on them, or they can be decorative and look best on a nicely set table before the food is brought out. Many plates, though functional, are never meant to be used but rather, like my mom’s, are kept on plate rails or hung with special hangers much like paintings. The challenge for a working potter is to make a plate that both looks good with food on it and looks good on its own. We each have our own ideas about this.

Perusing the book, I look at the chintz—patterned plates made by Royal Winton and, though they might look nice on an outdoor table with a white tablecloth, I cannot think of a single food that would look good on them. But there are plenty of plates that would enhance a meal, including a deep red from Red Wing Pottery and a green and brown from McCoy’s. Two plates that are particularly intriguing are about the pottery process itself and are meant for display. One is, surprisingly, a Fiesta plate from the 1939 World’s Fair depicting a potter throwing a large jar. The other, far more valuable, is from 1520 and shows a maiolica painter at work.

What’s so useful and interesting about Dish is the opportunity to look at so many plates one after another and think about them. Robert Bean’s photos are excellent.

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