AT THE HOUSEWARES store John Derian Company in Manhattan’s East Village, things are almost never what they seem. The chiles, avocados and striped Sicilian eggplants aren’t real but are vividly rendered in ceramic. The shiny bonbons are crafted not from ganache-filled chocolate but with clay. And a marbled cheese board, with a heart-shaped Camembert atop it, is sculpted entirely from earthenware. “Everyone grabs for the cheese on that board,” says John Derian. “Setting your table with these kinds of things is like setting a table in Alice in Wonderland.”
It isn’t just Derian who’s embracing whimsical trompe l’oeil ceramics of late. These startlingly realistic vessels and objects sculpted or painted (or both) to mimic flora and fauna are seemingly everywhere, whether in the form of vintage pieces, those from traditional manufactories or collections created by a new wave of young makers.
For their tableware line, Gohar World, the New York City-based artists and sisters Laila and Nadia Gohar collaborated with the Milanese atelier Laboratorio Paravicini on plates and bowls hand-painted with spare sprinklings of beans (black, cannellini, Christmas lima and snow cap) so expertly shadowed that one wants to scoop them up with a fork. “I love plating beans around the beans so people have to look twice to figure out what’s real,” says Laila, who is known for her absurdist work with food, from 12-foot topiaries made entirely of cherry tomatoes to strawberry tarts the size of kiddie pools. “Trompe l’oeil feels like magic in real life. You’re bringing humor to the table but in the form of something really well made, which, to me, feels very of the moment.”
SETTING THE TABLE to fool (and dazzle) one’s dinner guests is a concept that originated hundreds of years ago. Before the 18th century, true hard-paste porcelain was made only in Asia, and its formula remained shrouded in mystery in the West. Some believed that the emperors of Japan and China lived in palaces constructed entirely of porcelain; such flamboyant European kings of the early 1700s as Augustus the Strong of Poland and Louis XIV of France had extensive collections of plates imported from Asia that were so coveted in the West that the monarchs mounted them on walls — a practice still found in homes today. Their obsession was such that it was termed porzellankrankheit, maladie de porcelaine or porcelain sickness.
Clockwise from top left: a plate from Gohar World with hand-painted beans; a tomato soup bowl from Houses & Parties; mushroom-shaped salt and pepper shakers from Au Bain Marie; a box in the form of a croissant from Augarten Wien, among the oldest porcelain factories in Europe; and Limoges porcelain confections from Houses & Parties.Credit…Photograph by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi. Set design by Leilin Lopez-Toledo
So determined was Augustus to surpass the splendor of the Palace of Versailles that in 1700 he imprisoned an alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger, who claimed to be able to turn lead into gold. In 1708, Böttger inadvertently discovered the recipe for the luminous, lightweight Asian-style or hard-paste porcelain by firing a mixture of white clays (including kaolin) and alabaster. Just over two years later, Augustus established a manufactory, about 15 miles from his palace in Dresden, from which he ordered scores of grandiose commissions, including, around the 1730s, a menagerie of 478 porcelain animals, some life-size, to decorate his new porzellanschloss. Court sculptors of stone and bronze were recruited to become molders of clay, and together they fired everything from foxes and vultures to elephants and lions, some rendered from zoo animals, others from drawings. Now known as Meissen, the factory is the oldest porcelain house in Europe.
“I think there’s a strong link between trompe l’oeil ceramics and the Meissen menagerie,” says Simon Spier, a curator of 17th- and 18th-century ceramics and glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “And also the general culture of scientific inquiry into nature that flourished in the 18th century.” Starting in the 1740s, mainstream factories mushroomed all over Europe — notably, Chelsea in England and Sèvres in France — crafting ceramics that mimicked flora and fauna, but this time on a smaller scale for the table. To imitate the grandeur of the Rococo French court at Versailles, the English aristocracy began dining à la Française, a service style in which all courses of a meal are delivered to the table at once for guests to serve themselves from. “The presentations were incredibly elaborate. A boar’s head terrine might have boar stew inside, plus lots of vegetable vessels and melon terrines for dessert puddings,” says Carleigh Queenth, Christie’s head of ceramics in New York. “It was a feast for the eyes before you ever picked up your fork and knife.” This new approach to the craft took porcelain off the walls and into people’s hands, where they were able to feel — and marvel at — these feats of form and color up close. “Dining was seen as entertainment,” says Spier.
Today’s iteration of trompe l’oeil ceramics isn’t reserved for banquet halls, of course, but it still provides dinnertime amusement. At Houses & Parties, the online entertaining retailer started by the event and interior designer Rebecca Gardner, vintage Limoges porcelain boxes each in the shape of a different vegetable are photographed on a bed of straw in a picnic basket, and a set of four ceramic soup bowls mimic juicy halved cantaloupes. The designer clothing website Matches now offers a garden’s worth of veggie earthenware from the 139-year-old Portuguese ceramics manufactory Bordallo Pinheiro, including plates that look like ragwort leaves, each affixed with a high relief ladybug. And Moda Operandi, another online fashion retailer, sells porcelain boxes in the form of golden-brown baguettes, bread rolls or croissants from Augarten Wien, one of the oldest porcelain factories in Europe. Another box, in the shape of a lemon, is from the fashion designer Giambattista Valli’s home collection. “I wanted its brilliant hue of yellow, its bigger-than-normal size and rich texture to be as real looking as possible,” says Valli. “I thought about it as a serving case for lemon sorbet, but why give a specific purpose to a box?”
Indeed, the beauty of inviting trompe l’oeil to the table is that you can make your own rules. “I pass around chocolates at a party and, as a joke, mix in fake ceramic ones, too,” says Skye McAlpine, the London- and Venice-based cook and writer. She recently released a line of Italian-made dishware, including what appears to be a stack of 13 pink-edged plates but is actually a box. “I love the element of surprise and just being playful and silly,” says McAlpine. “That’s the secret to being a really good host.”
Set design by Leilin Lopez-Toledo. Photo assistant: Caleb Henderson. Set designer’s assistant: Joseph McCagherty