As the way we live changes, flitting from formal to informal, crowded to couple-y, so does the way in which we entertain - and the way we set our tables. But what's a set table? Is it formal, informal? Is it not just simply functional?
As with so much today, the boundaries are blurred. But while interest in table-setting has surged, says Kristina Klockner, of the French kitchen maestros Villeroy & Boch, now based in Germany, that no longer means a necessary interest in a full service set of cutlery or obsessive matching across courses - and yet, tableware goes further than the merely functional more than ever.
"There's a new consciousness of one's own cultural heritage and origins, a return to traditional, trusted values," Klockner explains. "With this awareness in mind, we see the return of formal tableware, where people again value the time they spend with their family while eating, they value the food and are conscious of what they eat."
Tejinder Jhutti, the manager of Table Art in Dubai Mall, agrees. "Dubai and the UAE are such a social and a cosmopolitan hub, and people are always entertaining at home. Therefore, there is a definite interest from our customers now in the various etiquettes of laying out a table and the correct way of going about it in terms of cutlery and barware placement."
For Dubai-based Christophe Zucchini, of the lively French kitchenware brand Geneviève Lethu, how we lay our table reflects not just how we eat now but what we eat.
He advocates serving starters in traditional French verrine glasses - usually a small, rounded glass layered with several ingredients within, such as tuna and avocado or a mushroom galette with mushroom purée and parsley scattered on top. It's a kind of oversized amuse-gueule, something Zucchini is seeing more and more of, he says, and which he thinks reflects a healthier attitude towards food consumption, with an emphasis on selected and seasonal ingredients. More casual than a traditional starter, he says, it can still be a very stylish, and fun, presentation.
"Our consumption habits have changed," he adds. As an example, he points to that reliable standard of dining habits - the wedding list. "The usual wedding list with a 144-piece dinner service is no longer required - or desired. For both fashionable and daily use, consumers now buy combined dinner sets reflecting their personalities and interiors - and not what they think they should buy." Crucially, says Zucchini, a setting should be adapted to the event: the guests, the location, the season, the menu. It is still nothing, if not functional.
But that does not mean it needs to be dull or non-decorative. At Table Art, which stocks Herend, Riedel, Robbe and Berking, Atlantis, Kosta Boda, Falken porcelain, Greggio and Gien, Tejinder Jhutti meets people keen to make their dining table "different". It's not just about dinnerware, barware and cutlery, she says: people want accessories, centrepieces and all manner of decorative items for their tables and homes.
A trend Jhutti sees frequently is tableware being used informally and appropriated for other uses, such as soup served in a pretty espresso cup - perhaps non-matching, with a different style for each guest? - and fries served from a couple of coffee pots in the centre of the table.
Home accessories are perennially popular gift items for certain festivals or occasions - one of the most popular aims of Table Art's customers, says Jhutti.
"For weddings, people give our hand-cut champagne glasses from Atlantis Portugal, or our serving dishes or dinnerware to help the newlyweds to set up their home - while some prefer our modern contemporary vases and art pieces from Kosta Boda, also popular for house-warming gifts."
"Some of our customers have a desire to create dinner sets that are exclusive and unique to them only. Dibbern has introduced the concept of compiling different collections together so that the customer can choose from their gold or 'platine' variations to create a set that is their very own," she says. "We also work with customers' own brief and design, which we then forward on to brands like Herend who customise the design to meet the customer's wants." Branding of logos, initials, names onto tableware is another service at Table Art that is popular among customers.
But monogrammed plates? Isn't that a little, well, old-school?
"We are seeing a return to traditional, trusted values in terms of shapes and décors," says Klockner. But that's not to say it's fusty - there's a new fun afoot, too. There is also the desire for something special, even quirky, Klockner says.
"To fulfil this, Villeroy & Boch have designed unusual tableware items, such as Urban Nature - designed as an emphatically, unpretentious white tableware, but on top of which can be added unusual or witty items that make the difference on a laid table. But at the same time, we see a trend using decorative elements of various cultures," she notes.
Villeroy & Boch's new Samarkand line combines both of these trends, with classically round lines reminiscent of the 1950s and even retro elements of Art Deco, rejuvenated with motifs that refer to Oriental folklore.
There's a third trend in tableware this year, says Klockner, that she identifies with the new desire for a slower, simple way of living, in which nature is key: simple, clear shapes and timely, floral decors with botanical or rural themes.
And what about cutlery itself - let's take, for instance, the case of the disappearing dessert fork? Even the most extended dessert buffets in the UAE don't often offer the delicate little fork of days gone by.
Should you want a dessert fork now, they aren't that easy to find, although Zara Home has great vintage-style dessert forks with clear Perspex handles (Mafalda) and black lacquer (Sienna). As an alternative, Bloomingdale's has antique-effect silvered cake tongs that will look both stylishly ancient and modern all at once on almost any table that will have them.
The dessert fork might be a relic from the past that's often forgotten, but table-laying etiquette is not, says Jhutti. The standard on tableware, according to the celebrated etiquette expert Emily Post, has always been that a dessert fork and spoon (fork with tines to the left, spoon with bowl towards the right) can be placed above the plate.
Alternatively, the fork can be brought in on the dessert plate, Post noted.
Jhutti has frequently seen customers drop by "to get tips or advice on how to lay the table for a special occasion, with questions from how do we set up the cutlery, to which fork goes where and how do we lay out the centre of the table?"
Other dilemmas Jhutti has seen include: "My menu is fish-based - what cutlery would I need and how do I serve this?" While formal advice is provided, the idea behind a stylish table is to firstly lay the table to complement your menu and then, secondly, to use your imagination with the decor of the table to focus on the theme of the event."
It sounds basic but cutlery, dishes and table settings should always have a crucial and direct link to the menu being served, says Jhutti - and most important of all is to complement the two and make it comfortable for your guests or family when eating.
As for the fish dilemma: eating fish with a regular knife is possible but using a fish knife makes it easier and more comfortable for anyone, Jhutti points out.
It comes down to comfort, she says: "tableware items have to be easy to use, developed with the emphasis on practical use."