Too Much Porcelain

You’ve probably got a beautiful china collection. The problem is, it’s as a big as China.

You inherited two sets from your mom, another from your grandmother, and another from your husband’s aunt. You also found an amazing set on sale that you absolutely could not pass up, and even though that was 1984 you’re still attached to it. Then there are all of those mismatched pieces that your picked up at antique shows or got as loving gifts from good friends. Of course, you’d never know it’s mismatched since most of it is zipped into quilted china keepers and you haven’t actually seen the patterns in years.

So, it’s probably time to ask some hard questions about your porcelain.

How many patterns do I need?

Well, how much storage do you have? There’s no shame in having several patterns if you have a place to put it and the occasions to use it. Some patterns look better in spring, and some better in fall, and then there’s the set of Christmas china, and a super-formal pattern, and your everyday china. But you’ve probably used that kind of thinking to justify several hutches worth of porcelain, so I’m not really helping.

Even if you entertain a lot, you can reduce the number of patterns you need by making sure your sets are complementary. That way, you can mix and match a bit, bringing in extra pieces from similar sets (no one needs six gravy boats), and cut down on your total number. A white set, for instance, can be mixed with lots of other patterns.

Also, not every set needs to be service for 12. Smaller sets are fun for more intimate parties, and for a set of 6 or 8 you can go for a more unique pattern — something showy on a small table that would be overpowering at a big table. These livelier plates (six of one, a half dozen of the other) can also be used as salad plates on top of your more elegant set of 12, or for dessert service.

But what about all those big serving pieces?

Those large serving pieces are the hardest to find storage for, and so they are what I find most frustrating. There’s no reason for them to match your china set at all — think of them more as table decoration. Most important is having a variety of sizes. You can also skip the big china pieces entirely and go with silver.

In general, big serving pieces are for buffet-style or family-style meals, and that usually means just Thanksgiving and Christmas unless you like to entertain that way all the time. On the sideboard, nothing needs to match. If you’ve got a chef or catering crew working in the kitchen, they’ll do all the plating right from the pots and pans, leaving you with a less crowded table anyway.

If your grandmother’s set has gravy boats or tureens, then you should use them as she intended — or fill them with flowers for the centerpiece. She’d be happy either way.

What about pieces that don’t match anything?

Use them as accent pieces or conversation pieces, depending on how good the story is. Large platters or bowls that really don’t match another set can always be put with that white set as accent pieces. You can also use them to dress up your everyday dishes, or use them outside the kitchen as décor or useful objects. A great bowl will look even better holding lemons and limes than holding mashed potatoes once a year. A favorite odd saucer will hold your rings on the bedroom dresser and give you good memories every time you get dressed.

What MUST I have to throw a dinner party?

This is another “it depends” answer, but it’s all about how you like to entertain. For a standard dinner party, you’re going to need:

  • 12 dinner plates and 12 salad plates (which may or may not be of the same pattern). Desert plates can come from another set entirely, but don’t use the Christmas china at Easter dinner.
  • 12 bowls. You’re going to serve soup, or a big messy salad, or a pasta course somewhere down the line. Try to find a bowl that will work for all those recipes and you won’t need two sets (no one wants to eat linguine out of cereal bowl).
  • 12 cups and saucers. They don’t have to match at all, even each other. Mismatched china for coffee and small dessert service is very in right now, so concentrate on the beauty of individual pieces.
  • 0 bread and butter plates. If you’re having a formal dinner with a bread basket then maybe you need these, but everyone I know seems to be on a low-carb diet and these just clutter the table.

Now that everything fits in my cabinet, what do I do with these leftover pieces?

The goal of this exercise is to have only things you like in your home, so if there’s something you don’t like, just get rid of it. Piece it out if it’s valuable, and sell or donate it if it isn’t.

If it’s pretty and you love it, then use it. You can always dress down the tablecloth and flowers and for a more informal gathering. Remember that if it gets broken in everyday rotation, you aren’t allowed to cry.

I have bought and sold more sets of china than I dare to admit. I was in New York once and found an eggplant-colored plate that I HAD TO HAVE. I used them for several years, and the color mixed with lots of other china patterns. One day a young woman stayed with Sammy and Lily while we were out of town, and she commented on how much she loved those plates. Instantly, I knew it was time for them to find a new home, and I packed them up for her and she was thrilled.

So was I, knowing those plates were going to see a lot more parties at her house. They’d certainly done their duty here.

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