COSTA MESA — At Chelsea Passage, an eager saleswoman shows a somewhat wary customer how to set a table using the store's avant-garde housewares.
"We don't believe in conformity," she says, encouraging the young woman to mix and match different colored place mats.
"You're making an assumption. Not everyone is creative," the woman says with a laugh.
"We think they are," insists the clerk.
Indeed, Chelsea Passage, the gift area in Barneys New York in South Coast Plaza, assumes that every customer has a creative bent.
"We like to think everybody's an artist," says Phyllis Pressman, vice president and general merchandise manager of Chelsea Passage in Manhattan and wife of Fred Pressman, president of Barneys New York. She developed the concept for Chelsea Passage 12 years ago.
"I'd go out looking for a special gift for someone and find there was nothing out there but a sea of wooden salad bowls," Pressman says.
At the new store, there's nary a wooden salad bowl in sight. Chelsea Passage carries unusual merchandise--hip housewares that could just as well belong in an art gallery as a kitchen or dining room.
Pressman finds tableware, glassware, linens, stationery and baby gift items made mostly by European artisans to put in her stores.
She purposefully avoids "dull, ho-ho-hum table settings," she says.
There are fun bowls and pitchers painted with polka dots and colorful shoes by Jane Willingale, black-and-white checkered glass bowls by Penelope Wurr, floral teapots with ceramic roses adorning their handles by Mary Rose Young, tall, wavy candleholders made of colorful resin by a group of French artists called En Attendant les Barbares, and linen place mats and napkins with hand-painted borders that resemble Monet's waterlilies by Carole Becker.
Pressman searches all over Europe to find one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted items that one can playfully mix and match.
"We think of them as future collectibles," she says. If any goods achieve wide distribution, she drops them from the inventory.
By keeping on the cutting edge of table settings, Chelsea Passage attracts those tired of the same china, crystal and silverware offered in department stores. Here inventive customers can pick and choose from different patterns and never get bored.
"We give you the paints and canvas and you paint the picture. You could set a table a hundred different ways instead of just one," Pressman says.
A store rule is that there are no rules. Place settings don't have to match, the linens and china need not be uniform, and objects can have multiple uses. Thus, a small heart-shaped dish can serve as an ashtray, a coaster, an hors d'oeuvres plate, a butter dish--anything one can imagine.
"We try not to push sameness. We encourage people to mix and match, to experiment with different colors and textures," says Cecil Widdifield, manager of Chelsea Passage in Costa Mesa. "It's eclectic, functional and fun."
He leads one to a set of tumblers for the bar that come in a rainbow of colors.
"Most people would buy six blue glasses. I try to get them to buy them in six different colors," Widdifield says. "The same goes for place mats. It makes it more fun."
Inside the store, he sets two tables to illustrate the merchandise's many uses. At one table, glass service plates with platinum borders are mixed with black china plates with a 16-sided sunburst shape and glass bowls adorned with black hieroglyphics. A set of geometric-shaped utensils sits by each plate.
"This is fun--really fun," says a dark-haired woman, admiring the setup.
At another table, yellow heart-shaped hors d'oeuvre plates rest atop green entree plates with scalloped edges and colorful Laure Jape "Pimente" service plates festooned with red chili peppers.
One need not reinvent the napkin to liven up the dinner table.
"You can add one touch of whimsy, one funny little thing," and have a creative table setting, Widdifield says.
Unlike the pricey clothes at Barneys, many housewares at Chelsea Passage are inexpensive, starting with the glass stir sticks with colored spirals that make them look like sticks of candy for $5 apiece, or the hand-painted linen napkins, some suitable for framing or turning into pillow covers, for $35.
Still, Chelsea Passage is not exactly Pier 1 Imports. A single hand-carved candleholder of resin costs $275, and assorted crystal vases and candleholders also sell for several hundred dollars.
The Costa Mesa store is one of three 2,000-square-foot Chelsea Passage stores opening this fall, and it is the first such shop in California. Other Chelsea Passage stores are found in Barneys New York in Manhasset, N.Y., Dallas and the flagship store in Manhattan.