Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Table Dressing

Two great tastes don’t always taste great together. The same can be true for design collaborations. Heath Ceramics are beautiful. Alabama Chanin textiles are beautiful. Their respective designers, Catherine Bailey and Natalie Chanin, are friends. But could the twain meet?

First attempts were not promising. Alabama Chanin clothes and linens deploy embroidery and appliqué in a modern, layered, bohemian way. The embellishments are frequently mapped out with a stencil, and Bailey initially thought they might use the stencils on her company’s classic Coupe dinnerware.“Natalie transfers graphical images by making a stencil and spraying paint on it, but when we stenciled the plates it didn’t look crafted,” Bailey says. “It looked like spray-painted graphics.” Bailey quickly realized she needed a better way to translate the exacting techniques used by Chanin’s cast of local talent in and around Florence, Ala.

The final product had to be made by hand, line by line, just as Chanin’s textiles are produced stitch by careful stitch. Bailey calls the process “etching,” but it is closely related to the sgraffito technique used to decorate walls since the Classical era. In architecture, two layers of tinted plaster are applied to the wall, and then a craftsman scrapes through the top coat to reveal the color beneath. For the new ceramics, a white glaze is sprayed over a base coat of blue, red or gray and an artist then scratches through the top layer with a metal point, exposing the color below. There are no templates: the maker has to look at an example plate and recreate it as best as he or she can, just like Chanin’s stitchers. “The spacing of the marks, depth of the etching and overall feel of the pattern are all expressed by the maker of each piece,” Bailey says.

The collection, which also includes organic cotton tablecloths, place mats and napkins designed by Chanin, is available online and at Heath stores. Among the etched pieces are a shallow bowl, a dinner plate and a bread and butter plate with one of three different traditional embroidery motifs: small suns, called buttonhole eyelets; small stars, called whip-stitched eyelets; and free-form dots, which look like bubbles on the surface of the plate. The line also features unpatterned pieces in similar colored glazes. Bailey describes the blue as “denimy.” Chanin says: “It feels like it has a lot of history to it, like a blue you might find on a worn porch in the South.” The red, on the other hand, is the color of the Alabama soil Emmylou Harris was referring to in “Red Dirt Girl”: an earthy maroon.

The new colors and patterns are integrated with classic Heath shades like Opaque White, from the company founder Edith Heath’s original palette. “It’s not an exercise in matching, but in layering,” Bailey says. “You can’t get bowls and plates in the same pattern, so ideally you could layer three different colors.”

That’s how Chanin plans to use the collection in her own kitchen, currently undergoing a renovation and expansion that employs Heath’s white half-matte, half-gloss tile. “Food is an important part of who I am in my life, and Cathy and I talked about that as part of our collaboration,” she says. Her first two books (the third, “Alabama Studio Sewing & Design,” will be available in spring 2012) included recipes alongside the sewing projects. “It feels right that we should work on the tabletop.”

Originally published in New York Times Magazine