What the best-dressed tables are wearing

Forget the wardrobe - the dinner table is the latest place to show off your designer labels.

SINCE COOKERY has been proclaimed the new rock 'n' roll (okay then, the new easy listening), an increasing number of stores and designers have created tableware ranges to feed the tastes of an ever more sophisticated public. Hip culinary hosts are investing in fashionable new cutlery ranges and personalised crockery, because what you eat with is as important as what you eat.

The rationale is very much the same as for Chanel lipsticks - you might not be able to afford the suit, but you can get something cheaper and still buy into the kudos of a designer name. So places such as the Conran Shop (where a sofa can set you back a couple of thousand pounds) have introduced ranges of cutlery with the Conran logo clearly stamped onto utensils.

At Gucci, Tom Ford designs the salt-shakers along with the stilettos, so that the Gucci design image carries on from bags and shoes to tableware. The Gucci range will be in their Old Bond Street and Sloane Street shops from the beginning of February, when a 12-piece cutlery set hand-crafted in silver and ebony, will set you back around pounds 1,000.

At the Conran Shop, cutlery items are sold individually, ranging from the classic Fifties Fiddle range, in steel and acrylic (around pounds 4.75 a piece), and the more adventurous Twig range (around pounds 12.50 each), to the stainless steel Club collection (cutlery now even sounds like a luggage range), at pounds 10.50 for a knife.

"Producing your own designs for cutlery is a major investment," explains Alex Willcock, buying and marketing director for the Conran Shop Group. "We've made this investment and designed three ranges: the Club and Vitesse, ranges which are in the shops now, and a third range that will be introduced in two months' time." Both ranges are from the Conran Collection and are branded with its logo and name.

The Vitesse range is well-priced (from pounds 4.50 for a spoon), but it's unusual in that the forks have five prongs (there's a convenient tie-in with Conran restaurants - Vitesse is the house cutlery at London's trendy Zinc Bar). The Club, a range of stainless steel, Seventies-inspired cutlery is apparently ground-breaking because the large handles are hollow. The resulting knives and forks balance easily in your hands and are very comfortable to hold.

"There is a greater appreciation of quality, both in design and manufacturing terms," continues Willcock. "People are quite prepared to spend more money on good products for the home. The customer has so much more choice now, and that's a very positive thing. People are a lot more discerning and that can only have a positive effect on everyone. Manufacturers can produce things of higher quality, because customers appreciate it more."

David Mellor, whose cook shops are in London's Sloane Square and Sheffield, has designed and made cutlery ranges all his life. He began as a Sheffield silversmith aged 11 and designed his first cutlery collection at 17. At the end of February he's introducing a new, heavy, traditional cutlery collection with discreet labelling, priced around pounds 85 for a six-piece set. If you're too impatient to wait for those, you can pick up the Cafe collection for pounds 16.50 for a four-piece set, or the English six-piece range, made with silver-plated handles, for pounds 98.

Other designers have jumped on the table-top bandwagon. Fashion name Caroline Charles has turned the first floor of her Beauchamp Place boutique into a home furnishings haven. Among the candlesticks and cushions is an "Old English" cutlery collection with her name engraved on the knives (they cost pounds 15 a throw).

At Liberty, which has always kept an eye out for good design, Michael Aram is the main cutlery designer. A New Yorker who lives and works in India, his tableware is a mixture of ancient and modern. His Santa Fe stainless steel five-piece setting with black handles (pounds 9.95 per piece) keeps the customers coming back for more. "His stuff is really popular," says kitchenware buyer Kerry Daley. "Cutlery is often a major purchase for most customers, and they want to know they can get replacements easily."

Once you've shelled out on your fancy irons, you may not want to serve up your Brit cuisine creations on just any old plates. If you fancy a bit of exclusivity with your endive, you can order your own personalised set of dinner plates at Thomas Goode in Mayfair. The price depends on the design and colourways, but a simple two-colour bespoke 10in plate costs about pounds 100, while a one-colour plate with a simple crest costs about pounds 45 each.

Peter Ting, the in-house designer who has made personalised dinner sets for customers such as Elton John and the late Gianni Versace, needs just a swatch of table cloth, a design, or a Polaroid of your dining room to create a one-off dinner service.

"People are definitely spending more money on their homes," says Ting. "In my latest limited edition for Thomas Goode (a 96-piece dining set which, incidentally, will set you back over pounds 10,000), each shape has a white pattern, because serious foodies want the food to shine through, but you can order gold and platinum shades, or bright coloured patterns.

"People in this country get passionate about china," he continues. "They are going for a more contemporary look in their homes and they want tableware to complement it. Also, people have this renewed optimism, they believe in themselves a lot more and are asserting their tastes more. We are more confident as a nation when it comes to design, so people are more willing to have their own ideas put into practice." Rule Britannia, and pass the caviar.

David Mellor, 4 Sloane Square, London SW1, 0171 730 4259 and The Round Building, Hathersage, nr Sheffield, 01433 650330.

Peter Ting personalised plates can be ordered from Thomas Goode, 19 South Audley Street, London W1, 0171 499 2823. There will also be an exhibition of his latest work from 13-28 February.

Michael Aram's cutlery is available at Liberty, 214 Regent Street, London W1, 0171 734 1234.

Gucci, 32-33 Old Bond Street, London W1, 0171 629 2716 or 18 Sloane Street, London SW1, tel: 0171 235 6707

You are what you eat with: spooky stainless steel cutlery by Alchemy (telephone 0116 282 4824 for stockists)

City range cutlery, pounds 12 for 3-piece set (knife, fork, spoon), Ikea. Cheese napkin, pounds 5.50, the Conran Shop, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3, 0171 589 7401

365+ range cutlery, pounds 29 for a 24-piece set, Ikea. Pudding napkin, pounds 4.95, the Conran Shop, as before

Gingham cutlery, 24-piece set, pounds 43, Designer's Guild, 261-271 Kings Road, London SW3, 0171 243 7300. Pudding napkin, pounds 4.95, The Conran Shop, as before

Sirus cutlery, pounds 6.50 per piece, Habitat, 196 Tottenham Court Road, London W1, 0171 631 3880. Menu napkin, pounds 3.50, the Conran Shop, as before

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