Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dishing it Out: The Joy of Decorating with Dishes!

The photo to the right looks almost good enough to eat, doesn't it?  The fruit and sorbet don't look too bad either.  I'll confess: I'm one of those people who believes that the dishware on which our food is placed--whether it's a delicate little work of art or a hearty and bold pop of color--contributes mightily to the overall appearance of the meal.

I've always been something of a "dishaholic".  I think if I had had my way, my baby dishes would have been pink toile bone china (which would've coordinated nicely with the crystal chandelier I would've had hanging over my crib).  But alas, my mother had other ideas, accustomed as she was to the infant's habit of flinging food and dishes all over the floor in a mixture of defiance and glee.

As an adult, I still love beautiful dishware.  And, after all, what's not to love?  Whether simple stoneware found at a yard sale or the finest bone china, dishes are functional works of art.  Dinner plates, bowls, pitchers, teacups and platters can all tell a story just as beautifully as can a piece of framed artwork.

My own feeling is that dishes are way too beautiful to be stacked and hidden away behind cabinet doors when they are not laid out on the dining room table for the occasional dinner party.  It seems we are accustomed to viewing dishes as first and foremost utilitarian items used only for the dinner table, but there is a whole world of decorating options that can and should be explored.  Just because something is "useful" and "functional" does not mean it has to be unimaginative.  Therefore, what follows are some ideas about how to make use of dishware in unexpected but always functional ways (as I am a firm believer that beauty is a function in and of itself). 


Windows and Walls

To my mind, there are way too many different gorgeous patterns of dishes to not enjoy them on a daily basis in our decor, and what better way to display these little beauties than on the walls?  In the photo to the left, a Johnson Brothers "Old Britain Castles" serving platter in red toile looks stunning against the cranberry red wallpaper in the background.  Meanwhile, the gold Martha Stewart "lion claw" plate holder adds an elegant touch of whimsy to the mix, much like the gold earrings that put the finishing touch on a stylish woman's ensemble.

As an alternative, dinner plates (or salad plates) also make for a great wall border.  More interesting than the traditional wallpaper border, dinner plates add three-dimensional interest to a room, whether resting on a plate rail at eye level or hanging from decorative plate hangers (or inexpensive plate hooks) near the ceiling. 

By the same token, dinner plates cleverly arranged on the wall can enhance your window treatments.  For instance, if you have windows where the ceiling height allows it, line decorative plates above the curtain rod.  If your window treatment has no valance (e.g., side panels with a decorative curtain rod), the dishes can act as a visual valance.  If the window treatment does have a fabric valance, the dishes can complement the fabric.  If you have especially high walls, you can even arrange the plates in a "fanlight" or pyramid pattern above the window for added drama. 


Another idea I like to use sometimes is to "stage the house" with dishes.  We're always hearing about how important staging can be to prospective home buyers, in part because adding things like open books on a side table or cut-up limes on the kitchen island makes the house look more inviting and "lived in".  Why not incorporate at least part of this concept into your own home for your own enjoyment?

For example, if you have a dining table that is not used every day (say in your formal dining room), consider "setting the table" with beautiful dishes and chargers.  It's not necessary to go the whole nine yards with glassware and silver, but the dishes themselves can add color and detail to an otherwise bare expanse of wood.  In the photo to the above right, I combined this homeowner's striking blue Wedgwood "Madeleine" dishes with a floral centerpiece that features a Spode oversized bowl.  While the patterns don't match exactly, the blues coordinate and enhance each other nicely.  In fact, this leads to another favorite designing habit of mine, which is mixing and matching dishes, whether in a display case or on a tablescape.

Mixing and Matching

While matching dishware is beautiful in its own right and can have a powerful visual impact, combining different patterns with common theme or color creates a charming, unstudied beauty that is uniquely yours. For example, in the photo to the left, the homeowner's glass-door china cabinet in her kitchen houses a collection of Spode "Woodland" and flea market china; antique "Depression glass" plates and stemware; and dessert plates purchased from a discount department store.  What makes this mismatched collection work is the coordinating pattern (the wildlife pattern on the Spode, the floral and leaf patterns on the remaining dishes) and especially the coordinating brown, green and pink colors. The effect is furthered by the whimsical "bunny rabbit" place card holders that dot the display.

Mixing and matching is also a great way to supplement your existing china patterns if you find yourself "short" when expecting a larger crowd than usual.  I sometimes like to place the "matching" china in the side place settings and place coordinating plates at the head and foot of the table (which are often already differentiated with arm chairs).  In the photo to the above right, for instance, this place setting combines Lenox "Mattonella" dinner and salad plates (from the "Mosaico D'Italia" Collection) with a "Woodland" cereal bowl, all resting on a coordinating green leaf charger.  You can really combine these dishes any way you wish.  The matching green chargers for all the place settings further help to make the look cohesive.   

Aside from being more creative, one of the added benefits of mixing and matching your dishware is the cost savings. While purchasing a service for four, eight, twelve or even more in a matching pattern can get very expensive, you can often find one or two random plates at yard sales or flea markets at a much more reasonable price. Whether in a display cabinet like the one above, on your wall, or set out on your dinner table, give it a try and have some fun.



  • Plate racks are a great way to display dishes that you don't use for everyday dining.
  • Use a small plate (such as a butter dish or a saucer) as a decorative soap dish for a master bath or guest bathroom to hold bar soaps or a pump soap dispenser.  Also consider using pretty crystal or cut glassware or porcelain (e.g., water glasses or "biscuit" jars) to hold everyday items like toothbrushes, cotton balls and decorative soaps.
  • Use a small plate or rectangular dish as a perfume or cosmetic tray on your vanity.  In a similar vein, a pretty little flea market find like the one in the photo to the above and right makes itself useful as a jewelry tray on a bedside table.

  • Set dishes, soup tureens or bowls on a built-in shelf over a doorway.  In the photo to the left, the homeowner's collection of antique mixing bowls add interest to the space above the French doors leading into her dining room.

  • Use decorative bowls to hold floral arrangements or mounds of colorful fruit.  Or, as an alternative to a large central arrangement on the table, try filling pretty little teacups or coffee mugs with fresh flowers at each place setting (see photo to the right).

  • Pitchers and bowls add a romantic element to today's modern bedrooms.  Once used for practical purposes in the days before indoor plumbing, beauties like the Victorian style seen in the photo below need serve no further purpose than to add old world beauty to modern-day life.


The purpose of this article has been to provide some ideas for "thinking outside the box" and letting your dishes out of the cabinet for viewing.  Hopefully you've been inspired to come up with some more of your own ideas.

As a final thought, remember that you are thinking outside the box by decorating with dishware, so don't limit yourself to the "expected" kitchen and dining room options.  Bedrooms, hallways, family rooms, home offices and even bathrooms--any room where you would use any other type of artwork--are all suitable locales to set your imagination free. 


It's been mentioned here that you can find interesting pieces at yard sales, flea markets, discount department stores and antique stores.  If you are looking to add to your current collection(s), another good source is the website for Replacements Ltd.

Replacements Ltd. is a resource for over 300,000 patterns of old and new dinnerware (including china, crystal, stoneware, silver and stainless).  It's a great place to look if you are seeking to supplement your existing collections and is especially helpful if your china patterns have been discontinued by the manufacturer.

Replacements Ltd. gets their inventory from department stores, estate sales, auctions, manufacturers and individual sellers. However, bear in mind that this website does not allow you to specify that you want "new" versus "pre-owned" inventory.  That said, Replacements Ltd. does "grade" its inventory and charges lesser amounts for inventory with imperfections (which are identified as such on their website).  They also have a 30-day return policy on all purchases.  I myself have used this resource to purchase additional Mikasa wine glasses in a pattern that had been discontinued.  Even if your pattern is still active, though, this website might be worth checking out because you might find better prices than you would elsewhere.
Copyright 2011 - All rights reserved - Pamela Yeaton

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