At times of economic crisis, the first and most obvious casualty is often eating in restaurants. So if we are likely to see a rise in entertaining at home, then perhaps we will see a rebirth of what the French call les arts de la table, a wonderfully swanky way of alluding to cutlery, crockery, stemware and all the other bits and pieces that find their way onto the dining table.
I was pondering this the other day as I was touring the Meissen factory in the eponymous medieval town near Dresden. Meissen, which celebrates its tercentenary next year, was the first European porcelain maker to crack the puzzle of making porcelain the Asian way, back in early-18th-century Europe, when a craze for an exotic foreign stimulant had swept the continent. Called coffee, it was drunk out of porcelain cups imported from Asia, since the Europeans had not yet mastered the technique of making the "white gold." Augustus the Strong, who ruled Saxony and Poland at the time, was a porcelain nut; he admitted that he was "sick" for it. So he assembled a crack team of scientists, who used the smelting expertise of Saxony's mineral industry to create kilns capable of achieving immense temperatures.
The first pieces emerged from the kilns in 1709, and soon after, Augustus the Strong decreed that the manufacture of white porcelain should be practiced in secrecy. Nevertheless, in 1719 the secret was smuggled to Vienna, and thereafter royal porcelain factories proliferated around Europe, with each monarch regarding the ability to manufacture his own porcelain as one of the divine rights of kingship.
I rather like the idea of these upwardly mobile 18th-century monarchs trying to outdo each other with their porcelain factories. For instance, Charles the Bourbon king of Naples was so protective of the secrets of his Capodimonte factory that when he acceded to the throne of Spain he took all his workmen with him and demolished it.
Saxony's Count Bruhl was the talk of 18th-century Europe for his 2,000-piece—yes, that's right—dinner service.
Of course, this is not exactly credit-crunch chic. Consequently it would appear that even such hallowed names as England's Wedgwood are feeling the effects of the global economic crisis: the firm went into administration at the beginning of the year. And what might have been right in the time of Carême and Escoffier is not necessarily appropriate in the age of Gordon Ramsay and Nobu Matsuhisa.
However, les arts de la table are not dead; they're just misunderstood. "People think it is what they see on the shelf rather than thinking, 'Let's create something new'," says William Asprey, proprietor of London's William & Son. "Dining is very personal, and if you can create something which fits in with your life, then the results can be rather wonderful." So Asprey has decided to show what can be done by creating an exclusive range of china in partnership with the Indian fashion house Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla.
Indeed, the last 10 years or so have seen fashion linking itself more closely with old, respected tableware companies. The Italian porcelain maker Richard Ginori has worked with Missoni and Oscar de la Renta. In England, Jasper Conran designs for Wedgwood, and Royal Doulton features a Zandra Rhodes range. Paul Smith was an early adopter, linking up a decade ago with the respected Mayfair porcelain shop Thomas Goode.
I have to confess a secret passion for Thomas Goode, a marvelous china emporium of the old school; there is something sepulchral about it that makes one tread across its threshold with a little more respect than is usual when entering a shop today. It has the slight feel of a museum, and I for one would not change this. Besides, it would not do to confuse a quiet shop with an idle one: buying china at this level is a true luxury, and there are private rooms to receive bespoke clients. After all, it's an investment one will be reminded of every night at dinner.