Setting the Tone

With her rental company, China Dolls, Nancy Spencer makes mismatched china the life of the party.

Photo by Briana Brough

Nancy Spencer didn’t grow up here, but she spent every summer of her young life in North Carolina visiting family – “my mother’s older sister and my grandmother and my uncle and my Aunt Gladys” – and she remembers that for all of the hubub and fun that comes with getting everyone together, the three sets of china they owned among them almost always stayed in the china cabinet, untouched.

“I think we did use it sometimes,” she says, trying to recall exactly when, “but what I do remember was them saying, ‘This will be yours someday.’ I just became very attached to it. It’s still very special.”

Childhood awe and excitement are often easily rekindled, as it was for Nancy four years ago in Boone, when she met a friend of a friend who was renting mismatched china. “It was funky 1970s china, like mushrooms and funky flowers,” she says, “but I thought it was such a great idea.”

In 2011, Nancy, by then retired from special education administration, wanted to bring that concept to Durham, but exclusively with fine china. A partnership with her friend Leslie Rowe turned out to be a perfect fit. “I had gotten married right around the time Nancy approached me about it,” says Leslie, “and I had really wanted mismatched china for my wedding but couldn’t find a vendor for it. It was exactly what I had been thinking about!” Recently, as Leslie’s responsibilities at her primary job have increased, she’s had to step away from what has become their company, China Dolls, but on mutually great terms. “She’s wonderful,” Nancy says of Leslie, “and I will miss her for sure!”

One of the features Nancy prizes in a teacup is a stunning design on the inside, not just because it’s beautiful, but also bbecause it’s unexpected. // Photo by Briana Brough

Curating the Collection
When China Dolls began, the two focused on stocking up – buying whole sets to increase inventory. But after three years, Nancy’s focus has shifted. She admits, “It’s not like I need a lot of china at this point.”

That said, she’s taking me shopping anyway at a few of her favorite consignment and thrift shops, determined to give some fine china a life that it might not otherwise get to have.

We stop first at Once and Again, where she picks up a teacup and says, “These days, I just want stunning!” And what, exactly, makes a teacup stunning? She tips the cup towards us and peers into it. “Sometimes they have a beautiful design inside,” she whispers. “I just bought some teacups because they were just as beautiful on the inside as they were on the outside.”

We continue our thrifting trek north through Durham, making our way to Everything but Grannies Panties, a spectacular, tightly packed mashup of high-end finds and sweet steals. An example of both: a small, perfectly intact stack of Noritake dessert plates – at an incredible price point. Nancy is in. A score like this is a win for everyone: The plates are a gorgeous addition to the China Dolls collection, and the great deal keeps rentals – and replacements – affordable. Nancy explains, “If I buy [this] for two or three dollars and somebody breaks it, it doesn’t break anyone’s heart.”

Only the most impressive china will do for China Dolls owner Nancy Spencer, and she frequents shops like Everything but Grannies Panties to find outstanding tableware. // Photo by Briana Brough

For the Big Day
One of the things that comes across during our morning of shopping is how fond Nancy is of “her brides.” She knows her clients well, both in the sense that she gets to know them, and in that she knows the kinds of couples who would want the look of her china. “Most of the time, my brides are more likely to be doing it themselves,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of outdoor weddings, farm weddings, those kinds of less-formal events.”

A farm wedding was just what her client Sarah Horton-Campbell wanted. “In my mind, I pictured an outdoor fall wedding,” Sarah says. “We created so many things ourselves in a DIY, rustic style, and Nancy’s china balanced it out, creating the polished yet fun look that we were going for.” Sarah notes that the china was especially a hit. “My friends were Instagramming their empty plates!”

When asked what she hopes for the future, Nancy’s response is measured and humble. “I just want China Dolls to continue to be a part of the options in Durham for doing something different for events or weddings. I want people to know that it’s affordable. It’s for every woman, every couple, not just people who have money. Everyone should be able to have a beautiful wedding, and china should be a part of it.”

A Coordinated Effort

Want to try the mismatched look at home? Nancy shares her secrets.

• Just try it. Once you start actually pairing pieces, you’ll realize combinations you thought wouldn’t work really look pretty together. “More works than doesn’t,” notes Nancy.

• As you build the setting, with each layer, ask yourself if you want to choose something simpler or more elaborately decorated. And remember that “simpler” is always relative!

• Even if they’re gorgeous, designs in the center of a plate are going to be covered up either by another dish or by food. Instead, choose pieces with lovely rims and edges.

• Don’t be afraid of darker colors. They add drama to a setting and are great choices for wintertime events.

View the original piece here.