Fork on the Left, Knife on the Floor

Designers reinvent the table setting

By Michele Foley

In 21st-century America, we set the table with a fork, knife, and spoon, and they always go on the left, right, and right, respectively. But 200 years ago, if somebody invited you to dinner, it was BYOC—that is, bring your own cutlery. People carried their knives (spoons weren’t widely used until the 19th century) in little travel cases around their necks. Forks were considered effeminate.

The basic American place setting was established in the 1800s, and it hasn’t changed much since. After visiting the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s “Feeding Desire” exhibition of cutlery throughout history earlier this year, we found ourselves wondering why. We asked four up-and-coming designers and one design-store owner how they’d set the table if given free rein. We told them to use anything they wanted, even forgoing the plate or utensils if so moved; let us photograph it; and then explain what they were going for. Our only stipulation was that the project be more about concepts than specific products. We hope the designs will inspire new ideas of your own about setting the table.


Prague, Czech Republic

Qubus is a one-stop design shop working in fashion, photographic, interior, graphic, and product design. The studio’s projects have included ceramic cups designed to look like plastic pop bottles, and pink parachute pants with inflatable air bag fins on the legs. Qubus’s work often comments on consumer culture and its excesses.

At left, Qubus’s original tableware designs were inspired by traditional Czech porcelain but given a whimsical twist. If Grandma’s fancy china isn’t your style, try painting patterns on it with nontoxic paint. Random thrift-store tchochkes as centerpieces show you mean to be ironic.

At right is the anti-table setting. Who needs bread plates or multiple utensils? Let stains become the decoration on your table linens. There’s beauty in chaos.

Jason Miller

Brooklyn, New York

Mention the Brooklyn design movement, and the name Jason Miller will undoubtedly come up. After working under heavies like Jeff Koons and Karim Rashid, Miller went independent in 2001. He designs furniture, interiors, and products for the home. Miller is best known for his (now) iconic Superordinate Antler Lamps: deer antlers cast in ceramic with light bulbs on the tips. As Miller says, “They are nature made better.”

“Disparate items thrown together are always more interesting than items … that match,” says Miller. All the tableware shown came from a thrift store. The takeaway? Don’t relegate decorative objectives to the centerpiece. Add toys or figurines to individual place settings to make your table dynamic and fun.

Chris Kabel

Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Chris Kabel belongs to the next wave of Dutch designers following in the footsteps of big names like Tord Boontje. Kabel is known for designing mundane, everyday objects to be visually surprising and sometimes humorous—for example, an umbrella made of lace that looks as if it would soak through but is actually waterproof.

Although Kabel thinks dishes and cutlery should be “plain” and “normal” so as not to distract from the food, he suggests populating the rest of the table with “conversation pieces.” In this case, Kabel created a tablecloth printed with a diagram of a table setting he found in an old book on U.S. Navy etiquette. His sugar box is made entirely of sugar cubes, the napkin is cut into a lacelike pattern with a laser, and the vase is pierced in places you wouldn’t expect.

Dave Alhadeff

Brooklyn, New York

Alhadeff had an e-commerce start-up during the dot-com boom, and sold it. With almost no formal design training, the Washington state native opened The Future Perfect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2003. His idea was to create a space where lesser-known designers had a place to sell their work. He’s earned the reputation of finding the next up-and-coming designers.

“When someone dresses a table as a collection of beautiful objects, it has a life that matches their own personality,” says Alhadeff. Those pieces don’t all have to match. However, in Alhadeff’s setting, dishes are unified with the same pretty silverware and filigree cutout placemats made of felt. Repeating colors (turquoise and candy apple green) at opposite ends of the table anchor it and create a feeling of balance.

Nana Kikuchi

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo native Nana Kikuchi designs clothes for her label Futuristic Poppy, writes and edits design articles, and is a member of the Ribbon Project, an experiment begun in 2002 with four other designers to create furniture and interior products using ribbon as the main material. The placemats shown are made from a giant piece of ribbon.

Though she normally eats with chopsticks, Kikuchi was inspired by the “over-the-top” amount of cutlery she’s seen at French table settings. Obviously there is no cutlery here (only the ghostly suggestion), and none is needed to eat the fast-food hamburger. But the place setting evokes a luxurious multicourse meal. Even the most mundane meal can have a sense of ritual and beauty through the presence of a certain object—a placemat, a candle—on the table.

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