Table setting from yesterday to today with Hillwood's Estella Chung - Home Front

Estella Chung
Feb 22, 2018

Estella Chung is director of collections at Washington's Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. She is a historian and a curator of Post, the noted hostess and collector whose Russian and French porcelains and formal table settings were legendary. Currently an exhibit The Artistic Table displays vignettes by six interior design groups that show how to combine Post's antique china and tableware with new pieces. Meant to inspire today's generations, the settings speak to how important it is to use your fine things and enjoy them.

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Estella M. Chung is director of collections at Washington's Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens. The museum just opened a new exhibit The Artistic Table where top interior designers used historic china belonging to Marjorie Merriweather Post in modern table settings that will be on exhibit until June 10.  For over a decade, as historian and a curator, Chung has combed photographic archives, documents, and the not-so-ordinary artifacts that share the life story of Post. She wrote the book Living Artfully: At Home with Marjorie Merriweather Post. She is an alumnus of the Attingham Summer School for the study of country houses, and is trained in American Studies and Museum Studies. Let's chat with her about Hillwood and using and caring for your china.  

Good morning from beautiful Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens.  I'm taking inspiration from our founder, hostess Marjorie Post, and brought-in a cup and saucer from my best wedding china - for my morning office cup of coffee.

I loved your article about using the fancy china. I just inherited two sets of Wedgewood from my parents and will inherit a third set from my in-laws. Although I'm a bit concerned about storage, I'm excited to start using them. And then there's the two sets of silver flatware. I actually wrote a poem about why we should use the good china. ;)

How exciting to inherit such lovely pieces.  Marjorie Post did not concern herself with storage, and not all of her pieces were kept on display or in constant use. But, they were her treasures. Enjoy!

I enjoyed reading about Marjorie Post's collection and how it can inspire people to pull out their older pieces to entertain with today. I wonder, with so many residences where she entertained, was she moving her table ware from place to place? How much porcelain and glassware did she actually have? How did she move it and store it?

Marjorie Post entertained at Hillwood in Washington DC, Camp Topridge (near Lake Placid, NY), and at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach.  Each home had its own porcelain and glassware, with Hillwood as the most formal.  Hillwood's collection today is about 616 settings.  That is 40 tables for 12 guests and 34 tables for 4 guests.

I inherited an almost complete set (for 12!) of Limoges china. It has everything from 2 inch individual butter dishes to oval serving dishes big enough to serve a turkey on. They are white with swags of pink roses and gold accents with a "Strawbridge and Clothier" marking on the bottom. What are some of the ways that they can be used? I have the butter dishes under my salt, pepper, and spice grinders to catch stray bits. A fruit dish holds tomatoes. A casserole dish holds pears. Bread plates are under my orchids to catch overflow. I want to use these beautiful dishes more, but how? I am not a fan of "plate on the wall" decor.

Marjorie Post's collection includes "ice cups" and other pieces that do not line-up with contemporary entertaining. While she did use some pieces aligned with there intended use, she did not hesitate to make them useful to her way of hosting. For example, as a director of General Foods, she was proud of Jell-O and did serve it on silver platter. It sounds like you already have this sensibility.  Have you thought about floral arrangements in your pieces?  Marjorie Post always had fresh flowers, and used a multitude of containers.

Is there really such a thing. I have my Mother's thick gold rimmed china. Is it really possible to put it in the dishwasher on the china setting and not ruin it?

In Jura Koncius's article today, about The Artistic Table exhibition at Hillwood, designer Timothy Corrigan revealed he uses his vintage porcelain collection daily and puts it in the dishwasher. He has a good point that "everyday is special."  And Marjorie Post would agree not to be afraid to use your most lovely items. Hillwood, remodeled to Post's liking from 1955-57 had the top kitchen technology of the time, and she did have two dishwashers, staff members that washed everything by hand.

Post Points code is: HF4784

There are a lot of varying opinions about how to best care for fine china. With such an important collection, how to Marjorie Post care for her pieces?

A highlight of coming to dinner at Hillwood was dining off Marjorie Post's art collection, the fine porcelain and glassware.  Post did hire extra catering help to serve meals. To use, and still protect the porcelain, the caterers served food onto the plates, but it was Post's staff that physically moved the dishes from the dining room into the butler's pantry for washing.

I'm not sure about that. A friend put her Wedgewood china in the dishwasher every day and after 20 years, the pattern has completely worn off. Perhaps if your dishwasher has a "china" setting it might be okay, but otherwise, I'd advise against that.

Well, my answer to this is she enjoyed it for 20 years on a daily basis and it was worth it. And yes, today's dishwashers have a much lighter setting for washing fine china. Also some experts suggest you not use the heated dry and just open the door of the dishwasher slightly to let them air dry after the wash and rinse cycles are over.

Flower arrangements are an excellent idea... thank you! (especially for those demitasse that we NEVER use!). A friend gave me a pretty cup and saucer that she'd made into a candle... won't destroy the cup and will give it an alternate use! (I use cut crystal ash trays for my plant pots..quite pretty and very inexpensive at consignment shops!)

Good for you!

I was surprised that several of your tables have large flower arrangements which prohibit seeing the person opposite you. I thought this was a No No.

Inside the Artistic Table exhibition are stunning and striking tables by leading designers to inspire all of us, and push our thinking on how to delight our guests. Star fish, larger floral arrangements as you mentioned, even taxidermy is shown to help us take a new look at the possibilities.  Marjorie Post used large floral arrangements with thin vases that did not block the view across the table, and with the bulk of the blooms so high, they would be taller than the seated guests.

I'm so afraid of putting my glassware in the dishwasher due to the fear of getting that cloudy baked on look on the glasses. Has anyone ever figured out how to get that cloudy stuff off their glassware?

Sending this one out to the crowd. I have heard that using granular dishwashing powder is better than using the gels or liquids. And probably the real granular stuff - not the tabs.

I am always picking up fun little one-off pieces of silver at auctions and other sales. When I was in back in England last year, I saw antiques dealers putting small plants, like daffodils and grape hyacinths, in odd pieces of silver. I duplicated it this year for a present for my 93-year old mother on Valentines Day. Link:

Lovely idea!

I loved reading in the comments of today's article by Jura Koncius on the Artistic Table exhibition, that "guests notice the effort" of setting a lovely table.  Marjorie Post had guests that were entertained often and well, but they appreciated Post's extra effort.  A highlight was Post's single color tables, we have recreated one for the exhibition.  It features the color blue: glassware, linens, and porcelain.

From the beautiful photos in the article, it looks like one way to freshen up older pieces is with an interesting tablecloth. Did Marjorie Merriweather Post mostly use more formal white, lace tablecloths, or did she find ways to mix it up?

Marjorie Post kept a linen book with snapshots of her linens with measurements, an example is on display in the Hillwood mansion.  The book was used to select linens and it shows her taste for lace, embroidery, and even popping colors, such as blue and yellow.

It might be a simple matter of using finishing rinse. \

It could help.

I've used a Mr Clean Magic really works to get rid of that cloudy film.

Wow. Who knew.

I've had good luck with rubbing alcohol, but why should you have to run the glasses through the dishwasher and then wash them again with alcohol??

Good question.

Never, for me. Thankfully I am not entertaining crowds of 600, so I would rather wash my gold-rimmed crystal and china by hand. Possibly the next morning, admittedly, but still.

I hear you.

How did Marjorie employ candles on her tables? Traditional candlesticks and/or candelabras? Did the designers in your exhibition use candleholders to give a more modern spin to the older pieces?

Designer Timothy Corrigan used a historic Tiffany candelabra from the Hillwood collection in the context of his table. Other designers used their contemporary lighting elements, all addressing the importance of shedding beautiful light on your guests, and the table.

for the fine china, and then just giving the pieces a quick wash with mild detergent in a towel-lined sink? The rinse cycle would soak off food, and there's really no need for the sterilization that so many people seem to think is necessary for washing everything these days.

More interesting ideas...

What an excellent article, thank you! I have pre-WWII Czech porcelain. and 40 years ago, we found the dishwasher washed the gold rims off... have dishwashers improved enough to use on older china? BTW: I do put silver plate and sterling in the dishwasher... just have to use GRANULAR soaps... the liquid soaps leave a white haze after the third washing or so. Although I've read that older knives should not be subjected to the dry heat cycle.

I do think dishwashers have improved and have more setting selections. And not using heated dry is probably a good idea.

The best if found is Cascade Platinum 15x..even glassware that was previously clouded is sparkling clean now.

Thanks for your recommendation. Putting it on my shopping list.

Estella: it was wonderful having you on the chat. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us on china and entertaining and the new Hillwood exhibit. Meanwhile, next week we are onto crafts and DIY with Rachel Mae Smith, author of the popular blog The Crafted Life as my guest. Until then...

This was fun!  I hope to see you at Hillwood for the Artistic Table exhibition, and gain inspiration as I do from Marjorie Post and our guest designers.

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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