For Learning - Keilhauer
For learning

A historical study on tables

For some five thousand years, the form of the table has not essentially changed. Nor, for that matter, has that of the chair. Fundamentally, they remain what they were when the Egyptians began constructing them; flat planes and L-shaped frames that sit on legs, pillars or trestles. It’s the variations in size, shape, embellishment, and materials in these now-ubiquitous pieces that offer telling clues into the differences and similarities of the societies in which they existed.

Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

What is a table?

By Vicky Sanderson

In ancient Egypt, owning tables and chairs of any kind would have inferred status, according to Phyllis Bennett Oates, writing in The Story of Western Furniture. For the many, even a squat stool would have been a luxury, while the more fortunate might have owned low mud benches covered with rush mats or linen. Actual chairs on legs with a back – possibly draped with a cushion or panel – would have belonged only to the well-heeled set. If you were a really big deal, you might have a low, sled-like “carrying chair” – and a servant for conveying it – to relieve you from the tedium of walking.

 

Digital Image © Eckhart Group, Netherlands.

Toward the middle of the 20th century, huge societal shifts were emerging that would affect the design, cost and availability of furniture, and hence, how – and by whom – it was used.

The first tables were merely slabs of stone supported by other slabs of stone – most often used to keep items, including sacrifices for the Gods, off the ground. Dining tables would have been unknown to the Egyptians of that time, says Oates, although later on, tables set against benches affixed to a wall would be used for meals. Eventually, the table would move to middle of the room, and be surrounded by independent seating. Over the next several thousand years, the style and design of tables and chairs continued to telegraph insight into the worlds of their users. While the best examples have always been a comfortable marriage of form and function, the florid curves of a late Baroque dining table speaks, for example, to a different lifestyle and aesthetic sensibility than, say, the satisfying simplicity of a Mission harvest table. Toward the middle of the 20th century, huge societal shifts were emerging that would affect the design, cost and availability of furniture, and hence, how – and by whom – it was used. To name a few influences: women started working in significant numbers, marketing and advertising became potent social forces, and the cult of celebrity was taking root simultaneously with a backlash against the “Establishment.” Conversely, the corporate model came to dominate the global market and exerted a lasting effect on regional and independent players.

Digital Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At the same time, new materials, such as moldable plastics, plywood and fiberglass, polystyrene foam, synthetic textiles, as well as lighter-weight steels and aluminum came on the scene, just as increasingly sophisticated, automatized manufacturing techniques were gaining ground. These innovations, along with the rise of the youth culture, profoundly changed design, writes furniture historian Judith Miller in Mid-Century Modern: Living with Mid-Century Modern Design.

“As countries recovered from World War II, designers seized on the new optimism to create ground-breaking styles and products that were unlike anything that had gone before,” writes Miller, noting that those influences are still felt in our homes and work places.

Furniture remained a symbol of status – especially in the business world. Earlier captains of industry still sat behind huge, ship-like desks, ornamented with intricate carving, massive legs, and expensive inlays. This was true even in 20th century America, where capitalism was supposed to be the great social leveler. Even in the economic melting pot, where working hard and playing by the rules is said to be all that’s needed to realize the American Dream, the Boss still laid claim to the biggest desk and the best chair. In the board room, he (and it was overwhelmingly a he) always sat at the helm of the conference table. Ask the average worker today – especially one under 25 – how they’d feel about a “Boss” getting a special chair or bedazzled work surface. The response would surely be an eye roll.

Digital Image © Trustees of the British Museum
Digital Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

While they may not know it, generations X, Y and Z are all benefiting from the work of social behaviorists and psychologists like Stanley Schachter, who in the 1960s researched group dynamics and looked at ways in which creativity and cohesion is either enhanced or impeded, theorizing that the sum of a team adds up to so much more than its individual human parts. In the 21st century, most companies strive – with varying degrees of success – to create a more equalitarian workplace. They understand that how their people perform in groups affects both productivity and profit. Forward-looking work environments no longer employ an us/them structure, but cultivate a culture of we. Participating in a roundtable sponsored by Adobe that examined how work will be transformed over the next decades, entrepreneur Matt Dorey, co-founder of Factory, which aims to “accelerate humanity by connecting the world’s innovators,” noted that companies must create environments that incubate growth and creativity while offering freedom and flexibility.

The big shift, he says, is that “instead of (people) working for companies, companies are having to work for people.” That includes making sure the design of the physical environment “works”, and thinking about, for example, how simple structures like the table can contribute to a more pleasant, more productive space. Increasingly, companies include large family-dinner-style tables with comfortable seating in public areas to encourage teams to cluster in creative hubs.

Educators got this message decades ago, deciding that children learn and develop best sitting at tables in groups, not in rows like soldiers in formation.

Gathering around a table needn’t always have a measurable goal in mind. Sometimes, the purpose is similar to early-education settings – providing a place for play.

Lower, coffee- or cocktail-style tables scattered throughout public spaces can be magnets for informal, less fettered interaction for smaller groups. Bringing many minds “to the table” is, more and more, the response to a particularly stubborn business problem.

Even so, the workplace table can start off seeming like a sea, a vast stretch between you and the fellow worker, client or customer sitting on the other side. But because – contrary to the popular epigram – every man is to some degree an island, it can also be a sea that connects, a surface on which ideas are set to freely float, sink or sail. Across it, opinions come in waves; sometimes flowing seamlessly together and sometimes crashing like swell on rock. If you’re lucky, the culmination will be a “Eureka!” moment that delivers the team to undiscovered intellectual territory.

Gathering around a table needn’t always have a measurable goal in mind. Sometimes, the purpose is similar to early-education settings – providing a place for play. It’s not uncommon, to find the table used for a conference on Wednesday to be transformed into a maker - or game-space on a Friday afternoon, the idea being that the team that plays together, more often learns and succeeds together. It’s worth considering that the shift of the table from shelf, to alter, to an object designed to facilitate collaboration and connectedness has happened – in terms of human history – in the blink of an eye.

So in another 5,000 years, will contemporary workplace furniture design be seen to reflect – even in a small way – that this was an era in which we began to bridge – once and for all – economic, social, ethnic, racial, and gender-based divides? It’s a heady thought, considering that all we’re really talking about is some flat planes and L–shaped frames that sit on poles.