No Bull in This China Shop, Just Gorgeous Originals

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Photo credit: Noah Devreaux
Photo credit: Noah Devreaux

All the grooviest china in my cabinet is chipped. I have gorgeous thick white platters, delicate porcelain bud vases, organically shaped plates of various sizes with fine glazes in shades of soft tan and ivory, sky blue and seashell pink, all of them so lovely it matters not a bit that there is a tiny crack or a little bubble of glaze to mar the surfaces.

But it matters to Nathalie Smith, who for 15 years has operated Global Table in SoHo, without question the most sophisticated tableware shop in lower Manhattan. That’s good news for sponges like me, as I head right to a little-known cubby in the back of her store and load up on the items she won’t leave out on the floor.

These marvelous glasses and bowls and tea sets get chipped because customers can’t resist touching them. When Nathalie imports or otherwise buys tableware, how the pieces feel is as important as how they look. “I like clean lines and elegant glazes,” she says, “interesting shapes and surprising finishes.”

Nathalie has arranged platters and dishes and bowls on large tables in tippy stacks, a myriad of sizes and colors and shapes all mixed together. There are treasures to be found here, and the looking is half the fun. Nathalie reaches her arm over a tray of sexy red glasses deeply etched in bold geometrics and lifts out a few Mud Australia porcelain bowls with lips as thin as a potato chip. They are glazed shiny on the inside, but the outside is soft, almost like chalk, and in a variety of colors pale as sorbets. Of course I look at the price tag. The prices are surprisingly reasonable for so much style—more in the range of Pottery Barn than Au Bon Gout. “This stuff is not highbrow,” she says. “It’s just what I like.”

At Global Table, if you like Nathalie’s taste, you are in for a treat. The tiny store on Sullivan Street is quite highbrow, just not obnoxiously pricey or irritatingly precious, and it’s been a trendsetter since it opened in 1996. Nathalie says it was the first tableware-only store in Manhattan, and probably still is, other than its brand-new outpost, slated to open November 3 at 471 Amsterdam Avenue at 82nd Street. There have been many imitators, but none of them seems to survive the city’s periodic recessions.

I’ve known Nathalie since college. We both attended Barnard uptown but lived downtown, me in a crappy TriBeCa loft with my sister, Nathalie in SoHo with the rather notorious food purveyor Giorgio DeLuca. Those were the late ’70s and early ’80s, the days of plastic miniskirts, when there were kosher dairy cafeterias on lower Broadway and Stiv Bators was still alive and puking.

After college Nathalie worked as a stylist for a variety of fashion magazines and in television. Then an idea struck: She noted that when her fashion-business colleagues went to Paris for the shows they brought back huge bags of beautiful, heavy Chinese pottery, and thought she could make a business importing it. Fluent in French (her mother’s family owned a hill in Chalon-sur-Saône in the Jura and produced the vin de paille typical of that region), Nathalie set up shop and became the first importer of Compagnie de L’Orient in the United States. She soon branched out, curating unique tableware from all over the world: work by imaginative potters like Lai Montesca of New York, Alex Marshall of Santa Barbara, Alison Evans of Maine and from exquisite small companies like Middle Kingdom and Studio B; masterful ceramics from Japan; Portuguese glass; fabulous candlesticks (my favorite being the antler candlesticks cast in recycled aluminum from Roost in Sausalito); whimsical patterned plastic plates (I scored a cake plate that looks like a section of tree trunk); teapots and sake vessels of all sorts. SoHo has changed a lot in the years since Nathalie opened her shop. “All the old Italians are gone,” she says. “I used to have regular visits from some of the old-timers who remembered my store when it was an Italian grocery store. They are all pretty much dead now, and the neighborhood is mostly hipsters.” Today the typical customers at Global Table are stylists and designers, food professionals and artists. “Global Table?” says the well-known print food stylist Megan Fawn Schlow. “Nathalie has amazing taste and brings a lot of different eclectic styles together and it all works…fabulously.”

The store is a regular stop for merchandisers researching trends for big houseware chains like Crate & Barrel, and her dishes are constantly featured in magazines and books. It seems like every time I am hanging out near her desk, where all the strange little things are, like horn-handled cheese knives and tiny silver clamshell salt dishes, a stylist from one glossy or another comes in and asks if it is OK to take pictures.

Nathalie obliges with good nature. She doesn’t worry too much about what other people think, and that’s part of the charm of her store. She just selects items that make sense in her home. For example, many dishes are white because, she says, “I think white sets off food best, though I am getting into black.”

I buy lots of holiday gifts at Global Table (as do many; she also has a robust wedding registry business) as well as gifts for my editor and agent when I have a book coming out. Last time around I bought my editor a set of etched botanical Champagne glasses, each with a different pattern, that Nathalie regularly stocks. This fall Nathalie steered me toward a sophisticated set of Studio B platters in the Suzani pattern (inspired by Uzbekistan textiles) for my editor, and for my agent—whose other job is as award-winning cheesemaker at her Vermont dairy Consider Bardwell Farm—a set of golden-hued alabaster plates.

My shopping was done, but on the way out the door I took a quick look in the secret cubby. I found a marvelous egg-shape bowl with a hairline crack in it, the right size for about three quar- ters of a pound of pasta, perfect for a weeknight dinner with my husband and son and marked down scandalously low. That night I made a simple pasta carbonara with guanciale from Biancardi’s on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Say what you will—and Biancardi’s guanciale is pretty fantastic—but I think food tastes better when served in a beautiful bowl.

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