Designing Contemporary Flatware

No single item is more used yet more neglected than flatware. It is used in one form or another by the average person many times a day, not only for eating but also for preparing and serving food. But few people, even those concerned with designing contemporary flatware, give much thought to the design of the flatware they use so often.

John J. Horn, Elite Carving set, stainless steel, 1986. Photo: Randall Tosh

The design potential of flatware, unfortunately, is all but ignored. Most commercial American flatware came into existence no later than the 1950s. Many designs originated in the 19th century, and earlier. If people want to own more contemporary flatware, they must resign themselves to purchasing imported designs. Even individual craftsmen tend to ignore the total design potential of flatware.

Assuming that during the relatively short history of flatware we have developed the ultimate design is as faulty as assuming that the Model T could not be improved. Far from being perfected, flatware design can be expanded and developed with relative ease from its present point of development. But we can’t really blame industry for the lack of exciting flatware designs. Tooling expenses for a set of flatware are quite high and test markets difficult to establish. This makes for a high-risk situation. The individual craftsman, however, does not suffer these restrictions. We all have the ability to produce whatever creative and original flatware design we choose.

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John J. Horn, Five-Piece Place Setting, sterling wire, baked enamel, special flatware prize winner 1984 Sterling Silver Design Competition

O.K., so you’ve got a fantastic new design for flatware? Great! But when does the lip stop bleeding after the first attempt to use it? Maybe this seems like an exaggeration, but it points out an important fact: you can experiment with flatware design but you can’t redesign the human body.

Of course, the metalsmith may opt to design a nonfunctional flatware set for display only. However, I have found that a collector who pays an artist for an original set of flatware enjoys using it. It is great fun to display and use a set of uniquely designed flatware. But in order to make a functional set of flatware, the craftsman must be aware of several important facts.

One of the first things one hears when learning to use chopsticks is to think of the stick as an extension of the fingers. This statement holds true of knife, fork and spoon as well. The utensils one holds literally become an extension of the body for the duration of the metal. It is therefore important to consider how a given design of flatware will function in respect to human physiology.

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(Figure 1) John J. Horn, Silhouette pattern flatware, sterling silver, Delrin, 1984

The most obvious point to note is the width of the human mouth. This is also the most variable aspect of physiology, depending on the individual’s age and facial structure. The width of the adult moth averages 2½ x 3 inches when held as wide open as possible. However, this involves considerable straining of the muscles and is not particularly comfortable nor very flattering, especially while seated at the dining table. The width of the mouth without straining averages between 1¼ x 2 inches. It can therefore be established that the working part of a spoon or fork should not exceed 1½ inches. This dimension has proved out through experience.

The other main physiological feature to be taken into consideration is the articulation of the arm. There are obvious limitations to the capabilities of each joint, and the study of the articulation of the arm allows us to determine the physiological parameters in overall flatware design. We can calculate optimal angles for the axes of flatware and even determine what may or may not be comfortable to hold and use.

(Figure 6) John J. Horn, Chanson patter flatware, silver plate, Delrin, 1986. Photos: the artist

The structure of the hand and arm allows three methods of holding an eating utensil. The first choice is an overhanded fist. This grip necessitates an extreme interior rotation of the forearm when reaching for food at tabletop level with the utensil, which results in a certain degree of discomfort. Clearly, the only utensil normally held in an overhanded fist is the knife, which we will discuss shortly.

The second method, the underhanded fist, proves even less successful in reaching the mouth as it requires an almost impossible outside rotation of the forearm.

The most comfortable manner of holding an eating utensil is the one that we have already adopted. This position proves most comfortable as it allows the forearm to rest a central position with no appreciable degree of interior or exterior rotation. This position does impart and inherent downward angle of approximately 23° between the longitudinal axis of the utensil and the horizontal plane. Empirically it has been found that this angle can either be compensated for in the construction of the piece or it can be ignored altogether with little or no loss of handling comfort. The majority of flatware designs incorporate a compound angling, first downward from the handle, then upward into the working portion of the utensil. (See figure 5f.) However, in straight configurations it appears that this 23° angle can be easily compensated by a slight rotation of the forearm.

(Figure 7) Nord Bowlen, Contrast pattern flatware, sterling silver, injection-molded Zytel nylon, 1954, Lunt Silversmiths. Photo: Eric Mitchell, courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Figure 1 pictures a set of flatware that I designed along a straight longitudinal axis. I have found the pieces comfortable to use, although there is a slight period of “getting used to,” since they feel different to the hand than conventional designs.

The angle of elbow flexion constantly changes as the elbow is continually moving during a meal. However, the upper arm is found to be most comfortable when it is held in a relaxed position at the side. A flatware design that necessitates elevation of the elbow places additional work on the shoulder, which proves uncomfortable over an extended period of time.

When viewed from above in a relaxed position the utensil is held at a natural, 82° angle to the palm. If the wrist remains centered as the forearm is raised, there is a 25° difference in the longitudinal axis of the utensil and the axis of the mouth when viewed from above. This disparity has been ignored since the inception of flatware, being resolved by flexion of the wrist. Although I can’t prove it, I believe that hits disparity leads, on occasion, to the situation known as missing one’s mouth. It is possible, however, to deal with the difference by building this angle into the flatware design.

A design utilizing this angle is extremely comfortable to use as it allows the wrist to remain in a neutrally centered position while meeting the mouth on a direct axis. However, since it is oriented either to the right or left, difficulties arise due to its lack of interchangeability between right and left hands.

(Figure 2) Robert Davis, Rockaway pattern flatware, sterling silver, lapis lazuli. Photo: Robert Davis

Figure 2 illustrates a wonderfully fluid and clean design executed by Robert Davis that incorporates a slight directional orientation. This play on the longitudinal axis activates the design and gives it an individual and dynamic character. But it may seem distressing to some, depending on which hand is used to eat.

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Much discussion has surrounded this matter. It is still open to question whether the benefits of this design outweigh the drawbacks. But I feel it is a viable design option that has yet to be explored fully.

A close examination of the fingers as they grip gives an indication of potential shapes for flatware handles. Notice that the manner in which the fingers close favors either square or flat shapes. Taken in cross section, round, flat, square, horizontal oval and horizontal rectangle forms are the most comfortable and stable handle forms to use. Least desirable are thin and vertically oriented forms. Through personal experience I have found that designs such as this have the tendency to roll onto one side or the other as the handle seeks a more stable position in the fingers. The general rule is that the longest axis of the cross section tends to the horizontal.

(Figure 3) Hans Appenzeller, Demitasse Spoons, sterling silver, 1983. Photo: Courtesy Hands Appenzeller

Figure 3 shows demitasse spoon designed by Hans Appenzeller. The design is straightforward and elegant, relying on the lines rather than on any superfluous decoration. An added feature of the design is the way the piece lifts itself in a sweeping manner from the tabletop. Although they certainly do function, notice that the handles are vertically oriented and would have the tendency, whether allowed to or not, to roll to a more stable position in the fingers.

Triangular forms for handles, although stable, are only sometimes successful. Simply looking at the finger convergence would seem to indicate that the triangular form would be ideal. However, minor differences in finger shape can make a difference. For some people triangular forms are perfectly comfortable. For others, like me, the end of the thumb tends to ride the top corner of the form proving rather uncomfortable. The best advice is to use triangular forms for handles with discretion.

(Figure 4) Kelly Erbschloe, Fork and Knife, stainless steel, Micarta

The mechanics of knife usage requires separate consideration. Of the three utensils, the knife is the only one held in an overhanded fist. The most comfortable position is with the forearm at full interior rotation and the wrist held on a straight axis. The natural angle formed between the longitudinal axis of the knife and the horizontal plane is about 20°. This angle is of importance primarily with respect to the contact area of the knife blade.

A straight axis blade is the common standard. However, only the front portion of the blade can be used for cutting purposes unless the fist is dragged on the table. If the angle is built into the design, it is possible to have a knife in which the entire cutting surface of the blade is utilized while the arm remains in a comfortable position.

Figure 4 shows a wonderfully creative and playful flatware set by Kelly Erbschloe. Notice that angles have been designed in to the knife as well as the fork that allow the wrists to remain at a neutrally centered position throughout a range of motions. This set radically departs from traditional notions but still remain functional. The angle of the knife blade also allows the full surface of the cutting edge to be utilized.

John Prip, Forged Flatware, prototypes for flatware produced by Reed & Barton, 1948-52. Photo: Courtesy the artist.

An examination of the longitudinal axis from above indicates another limitation. A perfectly straight vertical longitudinal axis gives an even and balanced transference of force form the handle to the tip of the knife. Any oblique angling of the axis from handle to blade transfers the point of force to the intersection of the two-directional axis. As this point is generally not supported by the hand, applied pressure will always cause the utensil to roll sideways in the hand.

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The blade can be placed in an eccentric attitude to the hands as long as it remains parallel with the straight longitudinal axis. (See figure 5d.) The eccentricity of the blade cannot exceed much more than ¼ inch off dead center or it tends to roll as mentioned.

Referring again to figure 1, notice that the blade of the knife has been placed eccentrically to the handle. Since it still observes the ¼ inch maximum dimension, it is perfectly stable in use.

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Figure 5a – Verrtical longitudinal axis, spoon and fork
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Figure 5b – Horizontal longitudinal axis, spoon and fork
Figure 5c – Horizontal longitudinal axis, knife
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Figure 5d – Vertical longitudinal axis, knife
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Figure 5e – Lateral dimensions, spoon and fork
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Figure 5f – Compound angling to achieve upward angle

An accurate picture of optimal angles and dimensions for flatware can now be constructed and appears in figure 5. A top view of the longitudinal axis of the spoon and fork indicates an optimal range of 0° t 25° (figure 5a). The side view of the longitudinal axis (figure 5b) shows a range of 0° to 23°. The side view of the longitudinal axis of the knife (figure 5c) indicates an optimal range between 0° and 20°. And a top view of the knife’s longitudinal axis (figure 5d) shows it must remain at 0°, although there is a slight range of eccentricity, ¼ inch on either side of dead center, allowable to the blade. Lateral dimensions of the spoon and fork should not exceed 1½ inches (figure 5e). Although these angles and dimensions are limitations, they also afford potentials, with innumerable functional design possibilities.

Practical Guidelines

Balance and weight are important concepts to bear in mind when designing flatware. The total weight of an eating utensil can affect the individual’s perception of comfort in the hand, even if the design itself is comfortable to the grip. It is very difficult to define a comfortable weight, as each person’s notion of it is different. Table 1 gives some average weights of mass-produced flatware that are generally accepted as being comfortable. While these are only general guidelines, experience has shown that the limits of comfortable weight should not exceed much more than ½ ounce either way of those listed in the table.

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The hand can be tricked into accepting overly light designs by shifting the balance of the piece to the front of the utensil. It is important to note that this shift of balance should always be to the front and never to the back of the piece. If the balance is shifted to the back, the hand interprets the working end of the utensil as being even lighter than before.

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The ideally balanced piece distributes its weight evenly over its entire length. However, in terms of actual design, this could only be accomplished in something resembling a straight rod or a chopstick. Practically, a well-balanced piece is one that distributes its weight equally on both sides of a fulcrum point. In the case of flatware, this fulcrum point is the third phalanx of the second finger when the utensil is held in normal eating configuration. A shifting of the balance to the front will be interpreted by the hand as added weight. Shifting the balance to the back will make the front seem light and will, with few exceptions, make the piece feel comfortable.

Henning Koppel, Caravel Pattern Cutlery
Sterling silver, stainless steel blades, design introduced 1957

Scale refers to the overall length and width of the utensil. Standards of scale to which flatware conforms were established in the court of Louis XV to keep lace ruffs from being soiled. An average length for flatware according to standards also appears in table 1. Since we no longer wear ruffs, we are free to experiment with these established standard scales.

Possible length may range from very short to very long, within reasonable limits. It is not advisable to design a set of flatware that is so short that the knuckles drag in the food when trying to eat. Nor is it advisable to design a set so long that they tip the water glass over.

An extended scale design of my own is pictured in figure 6. This design is well balanced and comfortable to the hand. It was made very slender to keep the weight within reasonable limits. Consequently, the proportion gives the set a sleek and elegant look.

Dan Feldman, Flatware Prototype
Bronze, stainless steel, silver plate, black finish

Proportion refers to the ratio of length to width. This is integrally tied with scale and materials used. Proportion affects not only the weight of the piece but also the esthetic perception of it.

A very long and narrow proportion tends to indicate elegance and lightness. A short and wide proportion will give the piece the effect of bulkiness. Short and narrow designs indicate extreme lightness and portability, while a long, wide design gives the effect of heaviness. These perceptions may be utilized to enhance the desired effect of the overall design or to compensate for other difficulties that may be present in the design.

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It is important to consider the materials used when dealing with scale and proportion. A long and wide design will utilize more material than a short and narrow design. The type of material used must be carefully chosen in order to maintain an acceptable weight and balance.

Reid Mendenhall, Flatware pattern, 1987

Referring again to figure 6, the handles are quite long and taper into small utensils. If the handles were rendered in metal, the overall weight would be much too heavy, as well as throwing the balance to the rear of the piece. The use of Delrin plastic keeps the weight at an acceptable limit in addition to putting the center of balance very near the middle of the piece.

The structural limitations of the material must also be taken into account. Materials chosen must be able to withstand an extremely broad temperature range. They should also be able to withstand common household detergents and chemicals, as well as repeated immersions in water. Careful consideration should be given to the placement of a given material in a design, making sure that the tensile strength of the material will withstand the rigors of its placement in the design.

In figures 7 and 8 the intelligent placement of materials in a design is graphically shown. Figure 7, a timeless design by Nord Bowlen, shows the use of Zytel nylon handles on sterling utensils. Not only is the contrast of the materials most striking but also chances are that the strong and durable plastic handles will outlast the silver utensils themselves.

Dan Feldman, Spoon, bronze, 1987
Photos: courtesy the artist

In figure 8 Henning Koppel turns this idea completely around, using the plastic for the utensils and metal for the handles. Being salad servers these utensils undergo little stress, which makes the thinner plastic a perfectly acceptable choice for this application. Note also that the handles are tubular, thereby balancing the weight of the piece.

One aspect of flatware design that is almost entirely for bowl, tines and blade. Obviously, there are standard forms for these utensils. However, there appears no strict reason for retaining these standards other than for the sake of preserving tradition. Spoons with lozenge, square, triangular or diamond-shaped bowls are just as functional as the standard oval. Forks can range from the traditional four tines to as few as two. They may have exaggerated tine bases or no tine bases at all. Figure 9 even has a circular tine configuration rather than a flat one. Knives may be blunted or pointed, straight or curved. The above illustrations demonstrate that as long as the design respects and does not hinder the functional intention, it is virtually unlimited.

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Studio Obi, Cylindrical Bar Set, stainless steel, manufactured by Cini and Nils, Milan, Italy
Photo: Will Brown, courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Clearly, it is possible to create any number of original designs. And don’t restrict yourself to knife, fork and spoon. Chopsticks, bar sets and serving pieces are all fair game for the ambitious and creative flatware designer, but close consideration must be paid to the limitations, particularly the physiological limitations. Some pieces I have designed will function but, due to problems with physiological limitations, either do not function well or are not particularly comfortable. Remember, careful planning before construction begins will result in a creative and fresh as well as functional design.

  1. For a history of flatware, see Katherine Pearson, “The Knife, Fork, and Spoon: A History,” Metalsmith, Fall 1981.

John Horn received his MFA in jewelry and metalsmithing from the University of Iowa in 1986 and is currently working for the University of Iowa in the metalsmithing department. In 1984 he was presented the Special Flatware Design Award in the National Student Sterling Silver Design Competition sponsored by the Sterling Silversmith’s Guild of America. Since then his flatware designs have been exhibited widely

By John J. Horn
Metalsmith Magazine - 1988 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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