Setting the Table

PHOTO COURTESY OF MOTTAHEDEH

Fine china and sweet-smelling floral arrangements are essential to the menu. 

By Ilene Dube 

When it seems so much is wrong in the world, and the onslaught of daily news makes you want to shut it all down, it just might be the perfect time to throw a dinner party!

In preparation you might listen to podcasts of The Dinner Party Download, NPR’s “fast and funny hour of culture, food, and conversation: In every episode you’ll learn a joke; bone-up on an odd bit of history, and then wash it down with a themed cocktail recipe…” Hosts Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam, in their new book, Brunch is Hell, tell “How to Save the World by Having a Dinner Party.”

Be sure to invite guests who will bring good spirits, prepare a menu of your favorite indulgences, and set out the flowers and fine china.

Princeton’s Wendy Kvalheim is a strong advocate of using china, not locking it away in cabinets for some ever-elusive special occasion. Even small children are welcome at her table — children who eat off fine china are more likely to learn to treat it with respect  than children who eat off of plastic and disposables. On a recent weekend, at her home just a shot from the fifth fairway at Jasna Polana, Kvalheim was expecting a crowd that would include 15 youngsters ranging in age from 3 to 16. Kvalheim has three dishwashers, and yes, she puts the fine china in the dishwasher.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MOTTAHEDEH

Kvalheim is president/CEO and design director of Mottahedeh, world-renowned as one of the finest manufacturers of high-fire porcelain. Creating fine museum reproductions, Mottahedeh has historic licensing agreements with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Historic Charleston Foundation, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Winterthur Museum and Gardens, Mount Vernon, and the National Trust. The National Geographic Society selected Mottahedeh to launch a line of unique porcelain tableware and gifts showcasing National Geographic’s image archives, and Nancy and Ronald Reagan collected Mottahedeh — their carp tureen sold for more than $6,000 at auction.

The company has been commissioned by the White House, the U.S. State Department, and the Diplomatic Corps to produce collections used in official state capacity.

Last year, Kvalheim, who has headed Mottahedeh for more than 25 years (the company has been in business for more than 90), was honored as a creative icon by Pratt Institute, her alma mater.

The Suffern, N.Y., native met her husband, Grant, after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and education from Mount Holyoke. The couple is very active in the Bahá’í Faith, and frequently holds assemblies and meals in their home.

Through her faith, Kvalheim had known Mildred Mottahedeh since childhood. As collectors of Persian pottery, brass, and antiques, Rafi and Mildred Mottahedeh founded the company to make fine things accessible to all. Knowing of Kvalheim’s talents as an artist — she had done bronze casting at Mount Holyoke, although her family didn’t consider a career in the arts practical — Mildred contacted the Metropolitan Museum to get Kvalheim a job interview in product development.

“My experience was not sufficient, but it made me aware of the possibilities,” says Kvalheim. After she married, Kvalheim’s in-laws funded her second bachelor’s degree in sculpture.

Mildred Mottahedeh gave Kvalheim special projects to work on, such as making a mold for a candlestick or drawing a design for a garden seat. After moving to Princeton, Kvalheim apprenticed in modeling and enlarging at the Johnson Atelier in Hamilton. Her Princeton home displays some of the figures she made using the lost wax method; others are in her Maine home.

In 1992, when Mottahedeh was looking for a new owner, Kvalheim and her husband bought the company, along with another couple who held five percent. Mildred, then 83, stayed on for five years to help Kvalheim learn how to run a business. “It was not easy,” admits Kvalheim.

The corporate office and warehouse for Mottahedeh is in Cranbury, with a showroom at 41 Madison Avenue in New York City.

Although Mottahedeh specializes in reproductions, Kvalheim points out that what they do is not copying but re-interpretation — many details are changed. “We are telling a story and honoring the people who have gone before. We choose the best there is from antique reproductions — these classics have stood the test of time,” she says. “Good design is recognizable in any age.”

She shows the stamp on the back of a plate: “Reproduced from a plate produced in 1735 for the Emperor of China.” The backstamp also includes the place where it was manufactured. Mottahedeh manufactures its wares in England, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and China. The choice “has to fit with the firing cycle of a particular factory,” she says, “and who can understand what we want and do the best job for the best price.”

The ceramics are not thrown by a potter, she explains, but made on a production line with the decoration applied by hand. A single plate may have as many as 25 colors and require three or four firings. The rolled edge that bends around the plate is hand painted.

The tobacco leaf design, with blues, yellows, pinks, orange, and green, is Mottahedeh’s best-selling design. Usually dinner plates have white in the center, “so you can find your food,” Kvalheim says, but the tobacco leaf’s bold design covers the entire plate. Originally a Chinese decoration, it was highly prized in the 18th century. A small phoenix bird perches on the leaves of the flowering Nicotiana (tobacco) plant. Mottahedeh’s reproduction comes from the Metropolitan Museum. “Twenty-seven colors and 22 karat gold make this pattern one of the most technically difficult to reproduce and one of the most lavish,” Kvalheim writes in her book, Mottahedeh: From Drawing Board to Dinner Table (Mottahedeh Company/Publishers, 2003).

PHOTO COURTESY OF MOTTAHEDEH

Another popular design, Merian, derives from 17th-century botanical illustrator and scientist Maria Sibylla Merian, whom Kvalheim describes as a Renaissance woman. A self-styled entomologist, Merian took home flowers and plants and drew the changes she noticed in the insects living on the plants. Her botanical illustrations were full of bugs and a leaf or flower with a chewed-off part. Her book of illustrations and the scientific information it contained traveled to China where it was used as inspiration for porcelain design. Kvalheim’s first design project at Mottahedeh was to develop this into a dinner pattern, with tulip, thistle, petunia, iris, rose, lily, and carnation, eliminating the caterpillar but keeping the butterflies.

Mottahedeh develops its products to withstand dishwasher and oven use without fading. “You can have an elegant or a casual meal as long as no one is intimidated by what you’re serving it on,” says Kvalheim. “Mrs. Mottahedeh would say, ‘there’s eating and then there’s dining. Dining elevates the experience and includes good conversation and bonds with family.’”

Because of her love for plants, birds, and butterflies, and to make those available to future generations — Kvalheim has two grandchildren — she serves as a board member for D&R Greenway Land Trust. “The extreme deer population shows how our ecology is out of balance,” she says.

ALSO BRING NATURE TO THE TABLE

Michael Piccioni’s company, Wildflowers of Princeton Junction, does the floral arrangements for many of Princeton’s fine dining establishments, as well as Princeton University graduations and Sunday services at congregations up and down Nassau Street. Until recently, Wildflowers did the floral arrangements for the Peacock Inn, both inside and outside.

At Forrestal Village, back in the 1990s, Wildflowers decorated and lit the Christmas tree as well as holiday decorations for corporations along the U.S. 1 corridor. Main Street restaurant was once a customer, and its former owner, Sue Simpkins, now in Florida, is still a customer. “She opened Main Street a year before we opened, and we did her flower arrangements,” says Piccioni. “She was the Martha Stewart of Princeton.”

Tucked into a little shop behind a horse farm, the 34-year-old business, jokes Piccioni, is the best-kept secret in the area. Upon entering, a visitor experiences an olfactory high — there are orchids and hydrangeas, gladiolas and yellow roses, and white and pink and lilac everywhere. Dried flowers suspend from the rafters of this old farm building, once a cider house.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF WILDFLOWERS

Piccioni was recovering from Mother’s Day, his busiest day of the year — 300 arrangements delivered and 60 pickups — by giving his staff the day off. “Your florist knows everything about you,” he says — if you’re in love, if you’re expecting a baby, if you’re mourning or divorced, if you’re having an affair — all by whom you send flowers to, and what you say in the card. A recent customer requested flowers be sent to his favorite bartender.”

Having grown up working for his family’s flower businesses in Pennsylvania, Piccioni earned a degree in horticulture from Penn State. He used to grow his own flowers, but now gets them from various sources in New York, South America, and locally. One of his staff members grows dahlias and other cut flowers in fields nearby. A large, dark, stone refrigerated room in the back of the shop keeps everything fresh.

“The flower industry is changing dramatically,” Piccioni says. “We’re among a handful of mom-and-pop stores left.” Piccioni’s partner, Ed Getty, works with him, as well as a small staff. After the team creates the arrangements, they are loaded into the van and delivered.

“With Costco and ShopRite doing weddings and McCaffrey’s doing proms, it’s harder for a mom-and-pop to survive,” Piccioni says. But Wildflowers has loyal customers who have ordered steadily over the years. “We come to people’s homes. We provide more choices, and offer one-on-one service.”

PHOTOS COURTESY OF WILDFLOWERS

And those loyal customers offer another generation of customers: Piccioni often does the baby showers and proms of the children whose parents once used him for their wedding.

Because of the boom-and-bust cycle of holidays throughout the year, not to mention fluctuations in the economy that impact a customer’s ability to send flowers, it is hard to maintain a staff that is large enough to handle occasional weddings. “I have a network of friends and family members I can call, but I’d rather do smaller weddings,” says Piccioni.
“I prefer to do quality work.”

In the early days of the business, Wildflowers would deliver flowers to 25 other stores. And then Getty, who worked for CVS, arranged to have Wildflowers sell Valentine’s and Mother’s Day bouquets to 100 CVS stores in New Jersey. They were kept busy.

With a second home in Cape Cod (Piccioni and Getty live in a house on the farm), the couple is now doing weddings up and down the East Coast. “A lot of the people around here spend time on Cape Cod and ask us to do their weddings there.”

Although Wildflowers keeps up with the usual digital marketing methods, much of the business comes from word-of-mouth. There’s little let-up in the flow of customers, some have been known to show up at midnight.

“We like it here,” says Getty. “People find us and they come.”

PHOTOS COURTESY OF WILDFLOWERS