The holiday feast is as much a visual as a gustatory treat, a time for extra fussing to make the table festive. We are inspired not only by the pleasure of gathering family and friends around the table, but by feelings of stability and warmth.
No matter what your favorite style for a holiday table, a little tradition is a necessary ingredient. It can be present in a ritual carried on from one generation to the next; in the china, silver, glasses, linens or tabletop decorations inherited from loved ones or chosen during travels to favorite places; or in dinnerware whose patterns boast some sort of history.
Indeed, patterns with a past have been big news in the table-top industry, especially in the last year, and no doubt the trend will continue in 1992.
"We have seen many looks inspired by motifs rooted in antiquity," says Amy Stavis, editor and associate publisher of China, Glass and Tableware, a trade magazine for the table-top industry. "Greek and Roman architecture, tapestries and mosaics are among the inspirations."
The Old World art of mosaic-making, for example, is one theme that a number of dinnerware manufacturers are enthusiastically embracing. Echoing a presence seen in fash- ion (the marvelous multihued knits of Missoni, for example) and in home furnishings (tiles, rugs, furniture, fabric), designers use tiny colorful pieces of china, glass or tile to replicate a picture or design on dishes, covered casseroles and platters.
In addition to mosaics, there are other dinnerware designs that recall earlier times. Some of them have specific references.
Rosenthal's "Sais" pattern was inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics and is detailed with stylized birds, trees and flowers. Ancient architecture also is celebrated, as in Villeroy & Boch's "Via Appia," which depicts buildings from ancient Rome.
Architectural references are showing up in accessories, too: candlesticks and glassware stems in the form of classic columns, and flatware handles that suggest the capitals of columns.
Accessories can also reflect ancient design elements. They can be very simple, yet dramatic, such as the sand-cast brass spiral napkin rings (set of four, $18), carried at the Pottery Barn through its mail-order catalog and in stores (including the new store at Towson Town Center).
Old World motifs are being woven into table linens, place mats and napkins. One example is a tablecloth printed with a bounteous assortment of fruits, reminiscent of a Renaissance style. Its modern fabric is easy-care polyester and cotton. A 58-inch-by-84-inch cloth costs $24, a set of four napkins $12.
Food and home magazines seem to like these inspirations from the past. In December's Bon Appetit, senior editor Randi Danforth chose a Renaissance theme for one setting.
"To me the Renaissance says the abundance of natural decorations such as evergreen boughs, fruits and rich colors such as azure and claret in table linens, inspired by tapestries and Florentine paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries. The plates we used were hand-painted in Italy in the style of an actual Renaissance design."
Sponging and other fancy finishes such as marbleizing have been popular for some time in home decor because they evoke an era when such ornamentation flourished. So it's not surprising that the popular paint finishes have been applied to tableware as well. The look is a happy medium between very plain, simply bordered dishes and the floral patterns that dominate dinnerware design.
Besides faux marble, other stones and surfaces are being mimicked in trompe l'oeil (fool-the-eye) techniques, such as Christian Dior's elegant "Malachite," which is accented with gold bands, and Fitz & Floyd's "Plume d'Or Teal Green," whose borders look like they've been lifted from old Florentine bookbinding. Fitz & Floyd also recently introduced "Shagreen," which emulates the ancient craft of applying sharkskin -- an exotic material once the prize of kings -- to furniture.
Some of the painted looks have their counterparts in fabric as well. Sponged and marbleized looks are available by the yard and imprinted on bedsheets, which make it possible to create tablecloths and napkins. It's a nice alternative to a solid-colored cloth and provides an illusion of texture and depth.
In addition, antique embroidery techniques are being revived with new technology that makes them more affordable. At Pottery Barn, a cotton handkerchief cloth is embellished with shimmery golden threads and weighted at each corner
with a gold tassel. The 54-inch piece sells for a fraction of what it would cost if it had been crafted by hand.
It's the handcrafted look, after all, that appeals to those who admire antiques and fine reproductions. Mottahedeh is one company that has carved out a reputation for reproducing exquisite pieces and patterns. And the Noritake Co. has an entire line of bone china that draws its influence from thousands of years of Japanese royal tradition.