Author Laura Lippman Wonders Why We Never Use the Good China
After three years of looking at, but rarely touching, a flatware set she had to have, Laura Lippman considers the contradictions and meaning in the items we covet.
I have to have this.
It was 2016, not even two weeks after what I think everyone can agree was a rather dramatic election. I was in a department store in Denmark, staring covetously at a set of Georg Jensen flatware. Hygge was just starting to have its moment, and I was in Illums Bolighus in Copenhagen, hygge central. This flatware would change my life, make me the person I had not yet managed to become—put together, polished, but not to a sheen.
I have to have this.
How many times has that sentence ricocheted around my brain, a magical pinball promising that a material possession would change my life, materially? That I would be a better, smarter, more admirable person if I could just have this one thing.
When I was 15, the transformative object was a maroon cardigan. When I was in my 20s, it was vintage Fiestaware collected at Texas flea markets. The year I turned 31, the object of desire was a house, a modest blue duplex in North Baltimore. My circumstances changed, improved, but there was always another talisman that held out the promise of a better version of myself.
Now it was flatware. Definitely, flatware was going to do it.
I can be strategic about my desires. Rather than buying the flatware in Copenhagen, which would have weighed down my already loaded luggage and necessitated paying duty tax, I returned to the U.S. and commenced sleuthing. I found the set I wanted, six five-piece settings of "Manhattan," on multiple websites. I then tracked them, waiting for a price drop. On Cyber Monday, the official Georg Jensen website had a 20 percent off sale, and I clicked Buy.
But after more than three years, I still hardly ever use them. I default to the random Dansk pieces the Georg Jensen set was supposed to replace. Every day, I open my silverware drawer, glance at the beautiful Georg Jensen forks, knives, and spoons nestled in the cutlery tray, and grab the Dansk rattling around on the side. Every day, I wonder at my reluctance to use these things I had to have.
I confessed my problem to a friend, a woman who lives life with more gusto than anyone I know. "Laura," she said with cheerful sternness, "I am ordering you to go home and use that flatware."
Sometimes I do. But rarely. I seldom entertain—that's another misconception I have about myself, that one day I will transform into a person who entertains, fabulously and effortlessly. I've had guests in my house once in the past six months. For a postmatch potluck with my tennis partner's family, I put the good forks out. I counted the pieces covertly as they went into the dishwasher, and again when I returned them to the cutlery drawer.
Good stuff has a way of disappearing in my house. My family has never met a set of Laguiole steak knives it hasn't immediately made incomplete. Me, I specialize in breakage. I can't even have the "cheap" Riedel glasses. You know the old saying "If you have to ask, you can't afford it"? My motto: If you can't afford to break it, you shouldn't own it.
Yet there are other beautiful, not inexpensive items in my home that I use all the time. In Italy, I've shopped at a small housewares store in Siena that sells Bertozzi linens. After three separate visits, I have napkins, tablecloths, and dish towels that see almost daily use. These linens become more beautiful over time. They survive the worst stains (my 9-year-old has been wiping her mouth on the napkins for almost five years now) and are easy to care for. Given my unfashionable aesthetic—best described as "Fiestaware meets outsider art, gets drunk, and searches for milk glass on Etsy"—the vivid oranges, blues, greens, and yellows are perfect for my table.
My table itself suggests a certain bravery. Well, not the table so much as the chairs. The table is a sturdy piece of crap, "distressed" white-painted wood that has now known 17 years of actual distress. It is covered with water rings, scratches, and marks from various art projects. Luckily, a Bertozzi tablecloth covers this multitude of sins.
The chairs are white leather, an indefensible purchase made in a flush moment a year ago. Yes, I, a woman who's reluctant to use her too-good-for-the-likes-of-her flatware, dropped serious cash for white leather dining room chairs. I was paranoid about them for a month or two, then stopped worrying. They are shockingly resistant to stains.
I wish I could say the same about the Georg Jensen flatware, which tends to develop spots. The material is "dishwashable," as the website notes charmingly. I know stainless-steel flatware does better if you remove it promptly from the dishwasher, as a salesman once told me, but what kind of person lives a life in which they're present when the dishwasher stops running? The beautiful matte handles are a little scratched too, though I like that effect. They look as if they might have been passed down to me from a very hip aunt or uncle, someone who lived in Marin County circa 1975.
Last year, my husband's job required him to be away from home almost every weeknight for an eight-month stretch. I tried to cook for myself and my daughter four out of the five nights. My daughter requested we have themed meals: Pasta Monday, Tenderloin Tuesday, Breakfast-for-Dinner Wednesday, Around-the-World Thursday, Freaky Friday. One Monday, I made pesto with pistachios and served it with fusilli and grape tomatoes, took a deep breath, and set the table with the good flatware.
The next day, a fork was missing. As of this writing, it is still missing. Maybe I'll find it among the long-gone Laguiole steak knives. (Three disappeared, one broke.)
Or perhaps I will never find it, which means that if I set the table for more than five people, one of the Dansk forks will be forced into service. My tables have always been mismatched affairs, jumbles of Fiestaware, Bakelite napkin rings, Russel Wright Melmac, and the aforementioned linens. This disorder complements my serving style, which is pretty slapdash.
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Maybe the problem with the Georg Jensen flatware is that it's not me. It's someone I aspired to be in a moment of confusion, when I found the world unfathomable and the future terrifying. (I still find the world unfathomable and the future terrifying. I've just accepted that this is the status quo.) The flatware is sleek, cool, and minimalist, whereas I am muscular, hot, and maximalist.
My transformative objects were acquired during times of change. That maroon sweater would be my ticket to popularity in a new school. (Spoiler: It didn't work.) The Fiestaware was my way of telling Waco, Texas, that this newly arrived Yankee was a free spirit. Turns out Texas didn't care, but the bright, mismatched dishes reflected my personality, which is why I still use them daily almost 40 years later in my house in Baltimore.
Recently, I found myself prowling Etsy for vintage quilts, but before hitting Buy, I stopped, pressed firmly on my slippery little id, and asked what I was really chasing. Yes, the seasons had changed, and I could use some new bedding, but I was pursuing a memory, a dream of a family heirloom that was given to my sister when we were young. Suddenly, the need for a quilt seemed much less urgent. Instead of buying something, I went to the basement and began making piles of objects to give away, noting as I worked how many identities I've tried on in my lifetime—and wondering how many more there are to come.
Every day, I glance at the Georg Jensen flatware and grab the Dansk. Every day, I wonder at my reluctance to use these things I had to have.
Crime writer Laura Lippman is the author of the Tess Monaghan series, a short-story collection, and 11 novels, including her most recent, Lady in the Lake ($18, amazon.com; $16, bookshop.org). Her first book of essays, My Life as a Villainess ($28, amazon.com; $26, bookshop.org), will be available August 4. She lives in Baltimore.