Table arts

Young women always make sure their wedding lists include the sort of household finery that they love”, declares Anne Schuhmacher, formerly at Baccarat and now the head of communications at Christofle. “As for decorative pieces and service sets, they tend to go the contemporary style.

France boasts a rich table arts heritage. It might even be said that this is the country that sets the standards - and its history continues to inspire.
The twisted ring designed by Andrée Putman ten years ago still features in all collections, whether of tableware, jewellery or household ornaments. Andrée is an exceptional French designer and has left her imprint on the 21st century. A third of the products sold are artistic creations. One of the most prestigious names at the moment is Ora-Ïto, who’s known as the ‘enfant terrible’ of design!

Way back in the 2nd century, the Gallo-Romans ate breakfast and dinner with objects that they had shaped themwelves: ladles, sigillate dishes, spoons, goblets and so on. In the Middle Ages, the treasure of Coëffort proved that these objects were of the utmost importance – it offers a wonderful array of cutting boards, plates, bowls, ewers. During the Renaissance, French tables were embellished by Italian faience “trivets” (pitchers). Rouen faience also gained renown, and Moustiers followed suit a little later. Dishes tended to be adorned with Biblical décor or hunting scenes, taking inspiration from the Florence painter Antonio Tempesta.

The 17th century spawned individual plates and cutlery, which was then joined by the glass and the fork-knife couplet. In 1615, in Bayonne, hot chocolate arrived. It was imported from South America and Anna of Austria became so enamoured with it that she spread it throughout the royal courts along with the Molina! The Molina is a chocolate pot that looks like a carafe, with a handle on one side. Initially they were made of tin or copper but then people started producing them from silver or fine porcelain. The Mancerina Trembleuse was invented by the Marquis of Mancera, who used to drink hot chocolate in bed every night and wanted a receptacle to ensure none ever spilled on his sheets! His dainty cup was, therefore, given the privilege of being ensconced in the hollow of a saucer, where it was allowed to make itself at home! During the reign of Louis XIV (1680), silver crockery became all the rage, combined with the spoon and fork pair. Floral decoration made for a majestic presence. Table clothes were white damask (textile).

Around 1700, The Rouen faience “great fire” blazed blue and red across dishes, shakers, cruets, ewers and wine-coolers. Teapots from China set our goldsmiths dreaming, their beauty and ingenuity representing delights and a challenge. Those tea pots became common sights at the first country buffets, which were known as ‘Ambigus’. Folks started placing covers on meals to keep them hot and table-top creations soared to dizzying heights: fruit, flower and sugar baskets. At this time the custom was to put cutlery to the right or the left of the plate while the glass was removed from the table to grace the wine-cooler display.

In the 18th century, coffee, tea and chocolate were served from hard Meiseen and Saxe porcelain. Kaolinite, a clay material for making porcelain, was then discovered. Europe, above all the town of Limoges (thanks to the viable deposit in St-Yriex-la-Perche), began to manufacture fine white porcelain. “Tables became extremely elegant!” says Christian Couti, an artist and teacher at the Esprit de Porcelaine institute in Limoges. Visitors from royal courts all over Europe descended on Versailles to marvel at French savoir-faire!

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Sèvres Bleu Celeste? Right up until the end of Louis XVI’s reign décor was extravagant! Crafty suppers with no witnesses were all the rage! Inhibitions were completely cast off: people put stacks crockery on tables and the head of the household would serve meals himself!

By the 19th century French tables were still just as extravagant but in a different way!” says Christian Couti. Military faience enlisted itself, goldsmiths began paying tribute to the House of Odiot for Czar Alexander 1, who laid claim to it and presented in his Paris residence - “Russian-style service”, crystal glassware with a monogram – which were for mouthwash a few years later – not a crumb of it was left on the table! It appeared again in more fantastical form in 1913, with striking accessories, such as fish cutlery sets or, in 1930, ribbon-embroidered table cloths…

Today, the big French houses, with their bountiful artisans, artists and know-how, continue to create, innovate and diversify, remaining surprising, elegant and bold!