Disrupting the Dishes

Posted May 4, 2018 6:40 p.m. EDT

Of all the rooms in actress Mandy Moore’s midcentury modern house in Pasadena, California, whose recent renovation has been meticulously documented on Instagram Stories to her 2.5 million followers, the kitchen is the crown jewel. It features cabinets painted a subtle shade of sage green with brass fixtures, an expansive white marble island with pronounced gray veining and, on full display in her open shelving, stacks of pink plates and bowls.

Emily Farnham, Moore’s architect, is the one who suggested the dinnerware, as well as matte gold flatware, from Year & Day, a new company in San Francisco. “Typically architects don’t get that involved in selecting dishes,” Farnham said. But the kitchen is meant for entertaining, and so the plates are practically part of the furniture. “This little pop of blush, and the gold that works so well with all the brass, it was an obvious choice,” she said.

As thousands of amateur Martha Stewarts document their home entertaining online, tableware is being ... dishrupted, if you will. Once the domain of wedding registries, it is now more commonly bought after moving to a new home, or after a renovation. Fine porcelain china — whether from China or Europe — used to be the ne plus ultra for U.S. hosts and hostesses, but now rough-hewed materials and unexpected places of origin are also prized.

Many shoppers are no longer buying one set for everyday use and another for special occasions, instead placing orders for a single look that is both casual and elevated, like the crockery version of athleisure. New brands encourage mixing and matching.

Kathryn Duryea, the founder of Year & Day, says that the current options are a stale buffet of bland white basics and too-expensive formal dinnerware, sold en masse in dusty department stores. Duryea, who previously worked in brand management at Tiffany & Co., wants to do for tableware what Warby Parker has done for eyewear or Parachute Home has done for bedding: offer a defined aesthetic at reasonable prices.

Year & Day arrived online in October, selling dishes, serving pieces, glasses and utensils. Its ceramics come in four colors inspired by the California coastline: Daybreak (pink), Midnight (deep navy), Fog (light gray) and Moon (off-white).

Made in Portugal, the pieces have a semi-matte glaze, intended as an antidote to shiny phone and laptop screens. It also photographs better — because, Instagram. Open shelves like Moore’s were top of mind, too; the plates have a slight curve at the edge so they look more attractive when stacked.

“I wanted something I would be proud to use at a dinner party and equally delighted to eat off of for my morning breakfast,” Duryea said.

There are just three finishes of flatware (polished steel, matte black and matte gold) and three styles of glassware (wine, tall, short). “We don’t want to overwhelm our customers with choices,” Duryea said.

Dishes and glasses are sold in sets of four, running $44 for a set of small bowls to $60 for a set of wineglasses. Orders have far exceeded expectations, Duryea said; most of the ceramics and flatware have been sold out for over a month but will be back in stock soon.

This is a booming time for the $2.25 billion tabletop industry, according to Joe Derochowski, a home-industry adviser for NPD Group, a market-research firm. Sales are down slightly in dollars but up in units, suggesting shoppers are gravitating toward more-casual pieces.

More than four out of five meals were prepared and eaten at, or carried from, home in 2016, while Americans ate in another person’s house 38 times, six more than in 2015, according to NPD. Purchases made surrounding a housewarming or kitchen remodel were 50 percent higher than all wedding-related occasions, including showers, for the 12 months ending February 2017. Three or more months after someone buys new appliances, they often shop for tabletop pieces. “It’s the dessert to the meal,” Derochowski said.

Moreover, when people between the ages of 25 and 35 graduate from their Ikea bargain-priced box sets, they don’t feel beholden to the same etiquette standards as their parents, said Andrew Corrie, the founder of Canvas Home, a New York-based home goods retailer. Today’s shoppers are getting their inspiration from Pinterest, not from Emily Post.

“No one really wants to have dinnerware in the cupboard that comes out on the High Holy Days only,” Corrie said. “The world has become a lot less formal.” Eight is the magic number for place settings at Canvas Home, rather than 12.

These shoppers are not casual, however, about eating or entertaining. They care about where their food is sourced and would rather compile a meal from HelloFresh than resort to Chinese takeout, Corrie said. They don’t have any reservations about shopping for dishes online. Rather, they welcome the convenience, instead of having to lug the heavy products home themselves.

So-called influencers have invaded this world, too, with many adding tablescapes to their outfit-of-the-day post rotation. And just as wearing a single brand head to toe has fallen out of fashion, so has a table set precisely with the same cookie-cutter pattern.

Canvas Home’s handmade goods are sold in prescribed sets on wedding registries (say, a dinner plate, a salad plate, a bowl and a mug). But pieces are offered on their own or in sets of four on the Canvas Home site, to allow for creative combinations. The brand has shined a spotlight on “blates” — the bowl-plate hybrid that caters to America’s salad-obsessed, quinoa-loving, pasta-indulging culture. On Zola, a wedding registry and planning site, Canvas Home’s gold Dauville line is the most popular dinnerware collection of the approximately 200 options. The white dishes with a gold rim are hand thrown and “feel elevated without being fussy or prissy,” said Jennifer Spector, Zola’s director of brand. The collection includes additional charcoal-colored bowls, including a snack bowl and a pinch bowl.

Spector herself registered for the Dauville line. “You can use it every night for dinner, and throw pizza on it, but you can also use it for a holiday meal,” she said. New dishes have a way of affirming a new life stage: “You’re married now, you’re a little bit more mature, it feels a little bit more settled.”

Add to the long list of what dishes must do: tell a story. Diners who care about what farm grew their arugula or raised their free-range chicken now want to know more about where their dishes were made. “People want a slightly different, deeper connection with the rest of that dining experience,” said Carly Nance, a founder of the Citizenry, a home-goods website in Dallas.

The Citizenry teams up with artisans in a dozen countries, including weavers in Morocco and glass blowers in Mexico. Like menus at some farm-to-table restaurants, the site offers a “story” section for each of its products to describe where and how it was made. So while sipping free-trade coffee from a Dublin-made Halston ceramic mug, you can think about how it took several days to throw, fire and glaze that mug.

Hey, that’s one way to break the ice at a dinner party! Duryea started her company in part because she likes to entertain but wanted to do so in a way that didn’t require “polishing silver or bringing out family heirlooms,” she said.

On a recent Tuesday evening, she hosted five friends in her home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Four peacock-blue tapered candles encircled a bouquet of white anemones, the centerpiece in a table set with Year & Day Midnight-colored plates.

At her marble island, on an array of Year & Day serving pieces, Duryea plated the food — Vietnamese takeout. Crab noodles were freed from their modest cardboard container and ensconced in a pink Daybreak serving bowl; bok choy was dished with a matte black serving spoon.

“There’s so much less pressure,” Duryea said, as her guests helped themselves. The soundtrack to “Big Little Lies” played softly in the background. “Sit wherever!” she said.

Year & Day recently raised $2.4 million in its first round of funding, led by San Francisco venture capital firm Founders Fund. Over dinner, Duryea told the stories behind the pieces her guests were using: how she mastered the weight of a knife so it was heavy enough to feel substantial but not so heavy that it would fall off the plate, as well as how difficult it was to perfect the deep navy of the Midnight glaze.

During a dessert of fresh berries and a communal chocolate bar, she exhaled with satisfaction. “I wanted people to start caring about their plates again,” she said.