Perhaps because it must compete with a surrounding palette of colourful flora, or perhaps just because there's something about being in the sunshine that suits bright tones so well, dinnerware for the outdoors looks absolutely right in bold patterns and unapologetically loud colours. While indoors we often prefer to lay our tables with a more restrained approach (white, anyone?), when it comes to the garden, anything goes, and the more rainbow-hued, it seems, the better.
"When it comes to outdoor dining, I love, love, love colour," says Jonathan Adler, whose outdoor dinnerware collection is nothing if not colourful. The flamboyant designer from New Jersey is adamant that "minimalism is a bummer" and that "colours can't clash". His collection of melamine plates, bowls and serving dishes includes the Acapulco range, which, while giving a nod to classical porcelain with its royal blue and white colours, is a riot of bunnies, birds, fish and flowers. It is perfect for a Mediterranean mood and ideal for sunny days on the patio.
"How can you feel sad if you are eating your cereal out of a bright, orange bowl?" he says. "I use orange as a punctuation mark in my decorating. An orange lacquer tray, an orange side table, or an orange ceramic bowl instantly makes a space feel hip and alive." While advocating bold colours, he says colour shouldn't be used without a plan. "I like to choose a very specific palette. "If you show some restraint in a basic scheme, you are free to dollop in little tiny punches of colour as contrast. I've never said no to a splash of lemon yellow or orange and pink."
His stripes collection includes yellow patterns and is also made from melamine - a material ideally suited to outdoor dinnerware. While melamine was most recently infamous as a toxic addition to baby foods in China, the compound, composed of nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen, is a perfectly safe material for making plates and bowls. Invented in the 1830s by a German scientist, it is extremely flexible, and when cooled, virtually unbreakable. Popular in 1950s America as a "modern" material, it is enjoying a revival, especially with designers who favour a retro style.
"Melamine is ideal for outdoor dining," agrees Jackie Shapiro of French Bull. "It's ideal for placing food on top of, because it doesn't absorb the juices from foods, and its tolerance to heat makes it easy to care for. Melamine accepts hundreds of colours on its surface, which is ideal for our patterns, in addition to achieving the high-gloss finish that we love." Shapiro launched French Bull in 2002 with an all-melamine range of kitchenware, giving a pop culture twist to the classic design material.
"Accenting the dining table made a lot of sense to us when creating the company," she says. "The economy was on shaky ground and people were starting to entertain at home much more. Our patterns are cheerful and optimistic and our brand wants to put a smile on people's faces." French Bull's range is typified by bright colours and bold, cheerful patterns. It also has an all-in-one melamine picnic set, which comes in a handy, zip-up hold-all and includes plates, cups and cutlery with handles finished in rainbow colours.
The company's signature pattern features a 1960s-style polka dot motif, a best-selling pattern that can be accessorised with other patterns such as the girly pink-and-pastel paisley, or a monochrome "Felix" style of black hexagons. "Design has become so personalised that individual statement is what really rules. We design and produce several patterns with varied points of view and are always excited to see how our customers put things together on the table."
Nicole Kelly of Zara Home adds: "It's good to have different sets to create varied moods and atmosphere." When it comes to plastic and melamine, most people really can afford to go one more than a "best" and "everyday" set. Porcelain and china are affordable, but plastic is always cheaper. Experimenting with new styles to match the theme of your event can be done quite cheaply. Best sellers at Zara Home are plastic glasses, multicoloured with geometric texture or plain with a modern design of raised squares.
The One sells a range of melamine plates, jugs and goblets from the Jamie Oliver range. With plates and bowls starting at Dh29, budding table dressers can afford to get it wrong - although if our experts are to be believed, that's unlikely to happen. "There are no rules about outdoor plates," says Shapiro. "If you have confidence in your style then anything goes!" Contacts: Jonathan Adler, www.jonathanadler.com; French Bull, www.frenchbull.com; Zara Home, Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi, 02 681 5560; The One, www.theoneplanet.com