What's New in Foodservice from The Homer Laughlin China Company

 

A Different Shade of Green

By KELLY ALEXANDER - November 30, 2002  NEW YORK TIMES

Say goodbye to yellow. It was a great color while it lasted, a cross between butternut squash and a Post-it note. But come December, it will be put down like apricot and lilac before it. Fiestaware hasn't changed the design of its hallmark Art Deco china in 66 years, but Homer Laughlin China Company, which puts out Fiestaware, banks the brand on a strategic rollout of new hues. Each time Fiestaware discontinues one or adds another to its current 11-color line, some collectors frantically bid on eBay for plates in a discontinued shade while others scramble to be the first to buy place settings in the latest. In June at the Gourmet Products Show in San Francisco, it was announced that shamrock would be the new thing. By November, more than 1,000 place settings in the yellowish English-pea-green glaze had been presold on Amazon.com -- months before the china will be available to the public.

If it seems improbable that plates, salad bowls, salt shakers and coffee creamers can inspire frenzy, consider this: Fiestaware is the most collected brand of china in the United States. It's also the No. 1 selection for casual dinnerware in American bridal registries. And it's only becoming more popular, because most engaged couples these days eschew fine china, which is hard to care for. (Many patterns have gold-leaf details so delicate that the china can't be put in the dishwasher.) Besides, not many young people trot out their bone china when entertaining friends. Fiestaware epitomizes the concept of ''everyday china.'' It manages to be utilitarian and fun, but unlike the plates at stores like Crate & Barrel and Pier One Imports, it has a tradition.

Since its inception, in 1871, Homer Laughlin has always produced a sizable share of the dinnerware made in America, but Fiestaware, introduced in 1936, is what put the company on the map. In the late 20's, the company hired the noted English potter Frederick Rhead. He eventually came up with Fiestaware's pattern of concentric circles, imprinted on every item, that gives pieces the look of having been handcrafted on a pottery wheel and then hand-fired in a kiln. But Rhead's stroke of genius came when he decided to glaze his china in brilliant color -- a departure from the English all-white tradition. Until 1972, the color lineup changed only five times. Then things started to change, and since the mid-80's, Fiestaware has retired 7 colors and introduced 18. David Conley, Homer Laughlin's director of retail sales and marketing, says that rotating the available colors insures that the brand features a few hues that are attracting notice in home decor and some that come straight off fashion runways.

The company gets Bloomingdale's buyers to tell them what colors they're seeing in furniture showcases and on catwalks. Then Joe Wells III, the president of Homer Laughlin, and Conley meet with Fiestaware's art director and chief ceramic engineer to discuss the pros (which colors are cheap) and cons (which glazes don't fire as consistently) of each shade under consideration. Conley says that blue and orange have come up for next year, but he declines to describe the tint -- are we talking a burnt orange? a bright aqua? -- because the process is continuing. Once the color is chosen, finding the right name for it can take weeks. ''It's not just green,'' Wells says of shamrock. ''You have to try to find the name that describes the color. We had an awful time.'' Fiestaware executives considered calling this year's debut ''fairway,'' but Wells never liked it and eventually dreamed up shamrock.

At the annual Fiestaware convention, Conley holds a question-and-answer session during which a hundred or so fans try to influence future color selection. Collectors also badger Conley for the return of discontinued items like a sectional relish tray. You can get one for about $300 to $400 online. In October, a turquoise onion-soup bowl -- a piece that hasn't been made in more than 50 years -- sold for $8,800 on eBay. But to Conley's knowledge, the biggest transaction was recently made through an antiques dealer. Two mixing bowl lids went to one ardent fan for $35,000. In the original seven-piece set, the bowls had lids, a fact not even many collectors know, so there aren't a lot of them in circulation.

It takes intense devotion to lobby a china company into reissuing a relish tray. It takes effort. It takes a certain kind of temperament. A surprisingly large number of people have what it takes: nearly 4,000 people are members of mediumgreen.com, a Web site operated by a Fiestaware collector and computer consultant named Matthew Whalen, based in Arlington, Va. (He describes his favorite hue, introduced in 1959 and retired in 1965, as ''the same color as spearmint TicTac candies or John Deere tractors.'') Plum, the 2002 debut shade, had the best introduction of any Fiestaware color so far. This might change when shamrock hits the shelves, of course, but if that doesn't prove to be a sensation, there's always next year. Say hello to tangerine?
 

Kelly Alexander is senior editor at Saveur magazine.