Tools of the table
We used to prize our cutlery, even taking it around with us. Now, like crockery, it’s just another mass-produced item. A new show reminds us that tableware can be anything but ordinary, writes GEMMA TIPTON
CAN CUTLERY HAVE character? Is it possible to get excited about a fork? With their whiff of danger, knives are probably the most memorable occupants of the utensil drawer, and spoons perhaps the least. In TS Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock the narrator ruefully wonders whether he will ever “dare to disturb the universe” while realising that he has measured out his life “with coffee spoons”, the implication being that you can’t get much more boring than that.
Cutlery used to be more exciting, more special – so special, in fact, that people brought theirs with them, in personal pouches or boxes, when they went to dinner. Perhaps the downgrading of cutlery to the ordinary came with mass production, though its last hurrah as an object of fascination was with the advent of the dishwasher. While saving untold washing-up hours, dishwashers also relegated anything silver, or with a bone or wooden handle, to the dark and seldom-disturbed realms of Only for Best, with the result that our special things are no longer part of the everyday.
Like most everyday things, though, cutlery tells us a great deal about ourselves and about how we lived. The humble fork was once at the centre of a religious controversy: in the 12th century Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the few English people to use a fork, having returned from exile in Italy with the habit. Becket explained to King Henry II that the fork’s advantage was that it could be washed. “But so can your hands,” the king is said to have replied.
Later, clergymen began to argue against the use of the fork, claiming that only human fingers, created by God, should touch the food that God had provided. In France, Cardinal Richelieu had the ends of table knives blunted to discourage their use as toothpicks. A generation later, King Louis XIV banned sharp knives at the dinner table to prevent guests from stabbing one another.
If you’re ready to step out of the ordinary and see cutlery and other tableware anew, an exhibition at the National Craft Gallery, in Kilkenny, should provide plenty of food for thought. The objects in Utensil are anything but utilitarian, as the show’s curator, Angela O’Kelly, has invited craftspeople, artists and product designers to explore the form, function and fascination of what we daily put in our mouths. In the exhibition, artists and makers explore both the shape and structure of tableware and examine the way things can take on and reflect back emotional content through use. “I wanted people to go home and look at their own spoons again, and get out their plates and glasses, the ones that never get used,” says O’Kelly.
Some of the makers, such as David Clarke, have taken pieces of old silverware and re-created them as objects that make you wonder about what they once meant to us and how we have used them. Others, such as Kirsty Eaglesfield, make pieces that are simply beautiful. But people will bring their own histories and personal connections to the objects in Utensil, and if you’re not already feeling guilty about locking your best tableware away, Sharon Blakey and Ismini Samanidou’s Spoon with Shadow is a haunting homage to a set of spoons shut in a drawer for more than 50 years.
There is nothing humble or boring about the spoon in this exhibition, as the German silversmith Wiebke Meurer describes it as “an everyday object, always found in the same spot, picked up and handled over and over again. A ritual that lasts for many generations. The life and thoughts of the spoon’s owners merge with the object itself. The spoon becomes a storyteller.”