Ariel Davis was taking an evening run in Brooklyn, New York, when she literally stumbled over a pile of 75 pieces of china set out in the street.
"Someone had left their beautiful Franciscan Desert Rose set out next to their trash," says Davis, 32, who happens to adore old china. "I had to rescue it."
This unexpected find led Davis to pick up a drill press last year and start the Brooklyn Teacup, a business that takes vintage plates and teacups and upcycles them into tiered cake stands.
Her designs are popular with younger consumers who are often space-strapped and might not otherwise go for the flowery dish sets of past generations. Formal china isn't a staple in many homes anymore. According to Jeffra Trumpower, a senior creative director at WeddingWire, "Entertaining has become much more casual. Couples are registering for things to make that experience more their own instead of the things that used to define fine dining or entertaining."
What to do with stacks of dinnerware is a hot issue in many households. The topic swirls through family holiday meal discussions and decluttering forays. Between guilt and sentimentality, many households have trouble releasing their heirloom china.
"I was just at a house today where the woman had nine sets of china," says Libby Kinkead of Potomac Concierge, which offers downsizing and moving services. When clients protest that they are keeping all of this "in honor of Granny," Kinkead says she asks them: "How are you honoring your grandmother's memory by keeping your china sitting in a box in the attic? That's not honoring anything."
So what else can you do with heirloom plates and cups? You could take a hammer to them and make the broken pieces into jewelry or a pique assiette mosaic mirror. But that might be too disturbing. Here are five other ideas.
1. Create a plate wall
Georgia designer James Farmer is a big fan of hanging plates in an arrangement on the wall. "If you can't use your plates every day, they can become art," Farmer says. "It's a beautiful way to celebrate your heritage." He suggests starting with a larger piece, such as a platter, in the middle as inspiration and hanging the rest around it. He mixes patterns, shapes and sizes and sometimes adds in art for more of a gallery wall look.
Farmer's method is usually to first arrange plates on the floor or on a tabletop until he is pleased with the look. He takes a photo of the final placement for reference, then puts up the nails and hangs the plates, which he has secured with old-fashioned wire plate hangers. His favorites are Tripar brass-coated plate hangers from Ace Hardware.Sometimes he adds a bit of Collectors Hold Museum Putty to anchor them, especially if plates are hanging near a doorway.
"A lot of people think this is part of a Southern tradition, but it's very French and English," Farmer says. "When you're watching a Jane Austen movie, check out the walls. They are adorned with plates that have been hanging there for hundreds of years."
2. Use dishes to deliver a gift
If you must divest yourself of a set of china and you want to feel as though it is going to a good home, take matters into your own hands. Start making host or hostess gift plates, says Kinkead: plates you fill with homemade cookies or bars and bring to your friends and family when you are invited over. Use the cups and saucers to fill with a selection of nice teas, and gift those to your nearest and dearest. If you feel inclined, write a charming note on a gift card describing the provenance of the china.
This can work for presents for housewarmings, baby showers or birthdays. Be creative. If you're drowning in Spode Christmas Tree plates, give them away during December when others can make use of them as appetizer serving plates.
3. Have china upcycled
The Brooklyn Teacup sells ready-made tiered stands made of vintage plates that Davis finds in thrift shops or on Facebook Marketplace. She also does custom design for customers who provide her with their china. Davis can take several-size plates and a teacup and create a stand, in whatever arrangement you like. A custom three-tier stand costs about $50 between the hardware and the drilling; she has a minimum order of $250, which will get you about five stands you can share with family. Then you can de-accession the rest of the set without feeling guilty.
Sadie Horton of Brooklyn Heights was a recent customer. "It's all about finding new ways to use old things," says Horton, who uses hers for fruit in her kitchen. "This is a great way to repurpose something that you would really hate to just put out in recycling."
4. Repurpose pieces as planters
Don't feel guilty about breaking up a china set: Soup tureens and teacups can be repurposed as beautiful containers for plants. Sell or donate the rest.
Cynthia Nouri, owner of the luxury gift registry Sasha Nicholas, often counsels couples on how to refresh and repurpose old china and posts ideas on her popular Instagram feed. You can fill a flower-bedecked Herend serving bowl full of orchid plants or plant herbs in a row of Wedgwood teacups you keep on a windowsill. "An interesting soup tureen with the matching platter underneath filled with plants can make a beautiful centerpiece," Nouri says. "Looking at these pieces reminds you of sitting at the table with old friends and past generations."
She suggests putting small pebbles at the bottom for drainage. "I've seen tea cups used with cute fresh flower arrangements on a table or as an accent in a powder room," Nouri says. "There are so many ways to use these pieces. You don't need to keep the whole set to remind you of its history."
5. Give it one last party
You've concluded that you just can't keep the china you inherited from your great-aunt. If you've emailed every distant relative and canvassed your friends and can't find anyone who wants the Noritake Nanarosa, it's time to party. "Unwrap it all and set your table, invite your friends and have one last great time with your china," Kinkead says. Take lots of photos and post them on Instagram. Then, get over it and kiss the china goodbye.
If you can't find a consignment shop, give it away on Craigslist, Freecycle or your neighborhood email group. You could call a local church and see if they have a family who might like some china for the holidays. Your conscience can then be clear. Your basement and attic will be liberated, your kitchen cabinets will have more space for food, and your sideboard can be filled with pieces you really like and use. "Then it's your memories you hold on to," Kinkead says, "not all that stuff."
This article was written by Jura Koncius, a reporter for The Washington Post.