The 70’s called…

…and we invited them to stay for dinner.

When I was a young 20something, I found the idea of vintage mixed china rather romantic. I made occasional forays to Goodwill, thinking I would find just the right pieces of Grandma-style dinnerware to create an artsy, eclectic collection of prettiness.

Something like this:

Image via ellerandall @

Or this:

vintage tea plates

Image via highteaforalice on flickr @

Problem was, I never seemed able to find quite what I was looking for.  I bought a few things, but they never looked quite right to me.  Instead of whimsical-charming, my mix usually looked more…well, Goodwill-junky.

Flash-forward a few years…

My taste no longer runs so much to pretty and delicate.  I’m much more drawn to bold and graphic these days.  Which, it turns out, is a good thing–because while I do see the occasional pretty plate at my usual thrift store haunts, I’m much more likely to see plates like these:

collection of 70s dinner plates

Image via Sarah Parrott on flickr @

While I would have thought these pretty ugly 10 years ago, I find I’m grooving on them now. I don’t know if this house has possessed me in some way or if I’m just getting to some age when all things from the era of my childhood are appealing, but most things 70s are feeling just right to us these days.

(OK, not all things: I saw a macrame plant hanger in Goodwill this weekend. It was not speaking to me.)

However, abundance doesn’t resolve all the challenges inherent in creating a great set of mismatched dinnerware. It’s still possible to have a collection that is more Goodwill-junky than cool, vintage-funky.

Once I decided to admit that, yes, I really do like these floral, kitschy plates, I realized that I still couldn’t throw together just any old plates and have a collection that really works, like this one:

retro plate collection

Image via @

So, just as we’ve created some principles to help us design our house, I’ve developed some principles to help steer me clear of that funky-junk look and build a collection I’m starting to really love.

Principle #1:  Color

A common color can make a mismatched set of plates look like they belong together. I’ve been drawn to sunny yellows and golds as our unifying color, and swore up and down that I wouldn’t buy any unless they contained this hue.

This was going great, until I found this beauty:

70s dinner plate with bold graphic and green background

So many things in this plate were calling to me, I had to buy it even though there wasn’t a speck of yellow on it. It does, however, have some brown, which ties it nicely to the previous big-flower plate:

Seeing these plates together helped me realize another element:

Principle #2: Scale

I’m looking for plates that have patterns of similar scale.  I bought that green gem because it’s got a big, bold graphic, with thick lines–just like most of my other plates.

Here’s that same green plate with another mostly-yellow one.  I think they work together because both patterns have big, heavy lines–and, while they don’t share a yellow, both do have green:

70s dinner plates with patterns of similar scale

Here’s another plate paired with the big daisy plate. Its pattern isn’t quite as good a match in terms of scale, but the large bouquet is  a good-enough match, and the colors are bold. In fact, I think it is the strong color that really makes this plate work in the collection–which led me to see my third principle.

Principle #3:  Intensity

When it comes to color, it’s not just about the color itself (its hue). It’s also about the value and saturation of the color. For a design layman such as me, the difference between value and saturation is a little esoteric.  I lump them together in my brain and call it intensity. Think of intensity as shade of color.  Is it deep and dark, or light and pastel?

Here’s a collection from Inspire Bohemia that works because all the plates share hues of the same intensity:

If you look back at all of the collections above, you can see that they are unified not only by color and scale, but also by the intensity of the colors.

Principle #4:  Pattern Repetition

Another element that can hold a collection together is repetition of some pattern element. A pattern element I’m on the lookout for is a strong circle.  I want the big, bold graphic to come in the form of a circle. While the big-flower plate in my first color image is a geometric circle, most of the other plates I’ve found (so far) have a more organic circle shape.

70s dinner plates with similar patterns

While I’d say this is the least-successful pairing of plates I’ve shown, I think it manages to work (especially when these are combined on a table with other plates) because there’s quite a bit of green on the right plate and because both plates have a strong organic circle that dominates the field of the plate.

Contrast these with Sarah Parrott’s images above, and you can see the difference.  Hers are mostly not-circles–the flowers often take a half-moon shape.

Principle # 5:  Mix it up!

When I studied plate collections that work (for me), I realized that the best ones have a healthy mix.  No plates follow all the same principles.  As I’m looking at them (and my beginning collection), I’m realizing that all plates probably need to adhere to at least two of the four principles.  Three is probably better. Maybe. But the most important thing? Don’t sweat it. Because the whole idea is that these plates don’t have to look pretty and perfect.  Here’s the most important principle of all:

Principle #6:  Choose plates you love

That green one wasn’t fitting into my idea of the qualities my plates needed, but I got it anyway.  I just liked it too much to pass it up. And maybe it doesn’t look super-great with the others, but I’m using it anyway.  Just because I like it.

The plate you love that doesn’t fit (right now) might be just the thing to take you in a direction you couldn’t see until it opened up in front of you. (So many things in life are like that, aren’t they?)

table set with 70s dinner plates

Why go the mismatched plate route anyway?

Reason #1:  I love collecting things, but I also love eliminating clutter and living green.
This satisfies those often-conflicting needs.  Rather than buying a bunch of  new things, I buy one or two used things. Plates are something we need and use, and I can buy one or two at a time.

mismatched 70s dinnerware

Reason #2:  It’s practical and easy, especially for a family with kids.
Broken plate?  No problem. Casual lifestyle? Good fit. You might notice from the photos of our table that we also have mismatched silverware. (You can buy bags of them at Goodwill.) I like that I’m not terribly attached to any of the things we eat with or from, and I like the laid-back feel of our informal meals.

Reason #3:  Because life is too short to worry about your table looking perfect.

While I can appreciate a beautiful table as much as anyone, I think there’s a different kind of beauty in our funky-junk table and the meals we’re lucky enough to eat at it.

dining table set with 70s dinnerware

How about you?

Have any great tips for finding and/or mixing vintage dinnerware?  Please share in the comments–we’d love to hear how you set your table.

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Want some more inspiration for less-than-perfect beauty?

I’m linking to The Nester’s celebration of imperfections today.  Please click on over to see others writing about the ways in which our homes don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Or how about some great ideas for green living?

We’re also linking to Sorta Crunchy’s Green Resource roundup.  There you can find all kinds of ideas for accessing your inner Kermit.

Or a whole bunch of ways that others are making Flea Market Transformations?

You can see our project and a whole lotta others at  WhisperWood Cottage.  (Including our coffee/storage table made from a salvaged door.)