When it comes to taking a seat at the table, not all sides are created equal. Architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange considers an underexplored mechanism of control.
From 1959 architect Philip Johnson would lunch at a corner table in the Grill Room, part of the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building he designed. Contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Dreyfuss held court at the Oak Room in New York’s Plaza Hotel. How can Johnson’s decision to make his own Oak Room be interpreted as anything other than a power play? Here everyone had to sit, literally, at his table. Clients, colleagues, supplicants, artists: on his own turf, the architect trumped them all. And the table itself laid bare an unspoken hierarchy, depending on where you sat.
All tables do: choose a seat close to or far away from the seat of power and you reveal your sense of place. Take the seat you’ve been allocated and you find out where others place you. If you don’t like your position you can move, or, if an Arthurian knight, fight. It is more subtle, though, to change the rules of engagement by changing the shape of the board.
But I will thee work a board exceeding fair, that thereat may sit sixteen hundred and more, all turn about, so that none be without; without and within, man against man. And when thou wilt ride, with thee thou mightest it carry, and set it where thou wilt, after thy will; and then thou needest never fear, to the world’s end, that ever any moody knight at thy board may make fight, for there shall the high be even with the low.
— Wace and Layamon, Arthurian Chronicles, translated by Eugene Mason (1912)
In the twelfth-century poem The Chronicle of Britain, the Round Table is a gift to King Arthur from a Cornish craftsman. News has reached the workman from across the sea that knights have fought in London over who is most worthy to sit at the king’s table, each thinking himself better than his neighbour. Design can solve this problem: what Arthur needs is a table ‘exceeding fair’ with places enough for everyone to be worthy. A place at the table, in this account, is not a reward but a right, and the expansiveness of the ‘board’ solves a political problem. Arthur does not need to choose his companions but gains power through exemption from selection; by expanding the pool he increases his followers and wins praise for his ‘doughty’ judgement. His companions, meanwhile, are relieved of the need to compete, and improve in manners. Scarcity had made them wild; abundance now holds them close.
In Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 novel Le Morte D’Arthur, the magician Merlin, who raised Arthur, made the table a flat, round disc. A symbol of the world, the table in this telling becomes a sort of living map, where ‘none [is] alien’ and the kingdoms are, for a moment, in balance. You can read a similar impulse in the table made by local craftsmen for the 2013 G8 Summit held in Northern Ireland, albeit it at a far more intimate scale. Compared to the Round Table in Malory’s tale, designed to seat 140 to 150 knights, the Summit table seated just eight around a wooden board. The central ‘hearth’, an irregular slice through a native elm tree, rooted the world leaders in a sense of place. The contrast between natural variation and contrived geometry in the table’s concentric rings is perhaps a comment on the eternal difficulty of achieving geopolitical balance. The outer ring is a perfect circle. The central slice retains its crude, defensive bark. The parties may achieve the consensus symbolised by the manmade perfect circle. But the discussion seems just as likely to crash on the shores of the irregular island represented by the elm: the stubbornness of human nature is hard to overcome.
In Malory’s tale, fellowship at the Round Table is prized, by some more than kingdom and family. The table is given to Arthur by King Leodegrance as a dowry for marrying his daughter Guinevere. On their wedding day, Arthur installs the table in the great hall at Camelot and speaks of his knights as a fellowship of equals, who help each other as brothers, speak the truth and protect women, the poor and the oppressed. Although at the Round Table the knights are all equals, outside factors can disturb the balance. The marriage of Arthur and Guinevere sows the seeds of the brotherhood’s downfall, because of her forbidden love for the knight Lancelot. Arthur desires balance, equals around a table without top or sides, but in both versions of the story this perfect circle only holds for a short time. The table is a poisoned gift, a symbol of the perfect fellowship: like the perfect marriage, difficult even for kings to achieve. The Round Table is power without selfishness, and always elusive.
What kind of table do we need when we go to war? Well, that’s round too. In his set for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, set designer Ken Adam created a vast circle of green baize surrounded by blocky, high-backed chairs, dramatically lit by a suspended ring of light. Giant illuminated maps of the world slant down toward the men at the table, but the room around them is empty and dark. The darkness signals their divorce from the real consequences of their actions: only the circle of men exists as more than an abstraction, and even the men are isolated from one another. Adam’s table highlights the problem with round, because while everyone has an equal seat, the vast distance from one side to the other is disastrous for communication.
While Adam claimed to have no knowledge of real government facilities when he designed the set, its arrangement is not dissimilar from the 1952 United Nations Security Council Chamber.Here, architect Arnstein Arneberg installed a C-shaped table, with two rows of chairs surrounding the outer edge, facing a floor-to-ceiling mural. But the relationships read quite differently when the tabletop is made of blonde wood and the blocky chairs are pale-blue imitation leather. Looking back and forth between Adam and Arneberg’s tables, one starts to imagine other narratives: Dr. Strangelove’s war room is the before to the UN Security Council Chamber’s after. In this narrative, once Kubrick’s annihilating Doomsday Machine is defused, the war room is redecorated, the alienating vastness of the table hollowed out. Natural light and an audience are brought in. It’s morning in international diplomacy. In the mural, painter Per Krohg’s phoenix still rises from the ashes of war, but now covers the maps with its wings.
The Boardroom Table
Now, the Board Room. I have in mind there the same general treatment that is, concept of de-furnishing. The room is planned to seat 30 persons. Instead of providing that horrible monstrosity produced by the Western World – the standard corporation board room table – why don’t we provide for each member a small lacquer tray, about 12 x 16 inches, and on these they could keep a neat rice paper pad and a pencil…I feel confident that you will be sympathetic to this whole approach – after all, you were brought up in California – and California owes so much to the Far East.
— Letter from Eero Saarinen to William A. Hewitt (April 26, 1960)
By 1960, the wood-panelled boardroom with a long conference table was already a solid-gold cliché. As cultural critic Lewis Mumford noted in his 1952 New Yorker review of Lever House, executives got cold feet about modern design when it came to their own quarters. Streamlined desks and eye-shadow lavender were fine for the typing pool, but the executive floor, he observes, retreats into ‘a drab plushness doubtless intended to symbolise solidity, power, and wealth.’ Saarinen was not going to let Hewitt, chairman ofIllinois-based tractor maker Deere & Co, go down that path. Through a combination of flattery and mockery, the architect wanted his client to rethink his leadership, his meetings, and most importantly, his office furniture. When Hewitt sent Saarinen an issue of French magazine Connaissance des Arts with a section on Victorian furniture, tagging a love seat ‘for visiting bankers’, and a high-backed chair ‘for the board chairman’, Saarinen joked back, ‘We have just been working on models of the Executive Area and they show real promise of achieving interiors of the same quality as Katsura…It would be a shame to spoil them with furniture.’ Katsura – the exquisite, Edo-period imperial villa and tea pavilions, set in a perfectly groomed garden outside Kyoto – was a touchstone for modern Western architects travelling to Japan. With this comparison, Saarinen suggests – between the lines – that contemporary corporate life is as ritualised, and perhaps as antediluvian, as Japanese royal practices, with secretaries as updated seen-but-not-heard geisha girls gliding around the edges of the table. Indeed, in Sheryl Sandberg’s recent motivational book Lean In, she suggests that even today women need to be more aggressive about taking a seat at such tables; they should not relegate themselves to an outer ring of chairs with bad sightlines and no pads of paper.
Alone at one end of a table large enough to fill the room, the chairman of the typical postwar corporate board was visibly superior to everyone else. Only he could see everyone’s face; only he could comfortably turn to a neighbour without shunning another. All the democratic manners inherent in the arrangements of the Round Table (any round table) were lost in this set-up, intended – like wood panelling, Victorian furniture and ornate clocks – to suggest that corporate power had aristocratic roots. When American designer Florence Knoll updated the conference table in the 1950s, she improved the situation slightly, bowing out the long sides for better sight lines. But her tables still have a head and a foot, as well as imperious length.
In his designs for Deere, Saarinen started dispensing with all that: transparent and open-plan offices filled the floors so that everyone had access to the view. Secretaries worked at Star Trek-like stations on floating, slimmed-down desks intended to reduce visible paperwork. Executives worked at pedestal tables without the screen of drawers. Getting rid of the furniture enabled employees to create the organisational hierarchies needed to work on a task, rather than those imposed by architecture and interior design. The building highlighted people’s movements, symbolising, in the mid-twentieth century, that a corporation was indeed made up of people. And yet, the headquarters still contained an executive suite and an executive dining room in a style that could be described as high-modernist plush. Saarinen and Hewitt’s exchange suggests a mutual relationship of visual jokes and aesthetic knowledge – the communication of equals – but that relationship didn’t translate into the disappearance of ritual at the highest level. It would take more than a boardroom without a table to change ingrained patterns of corporate behaviour. A man in a glass-walled office can still be king.
The Kitchen Table
In the first season of the television show Mad Men, we get to know Don Draper as a figure behind a desk, the tabletop a mountaintop in an office landscape of Danish modern wood, ochre and brass. But Don isn’t the only Draper who sits behind a table, dispensing cutting remarks: Betty, his unfulfilled, trapped-in-the-suburbs wife, spends many a scene at her kitchen table, also smoking, also watching the door, in a room also wood-panelled (albeit in knotty pine) and wallpapered in masculine brown plaid. This is her territory; the room in the house most definitively her own. It is here that she bullies the children and the help, gossips with her friends and lies in wait for a late-arriving Don.
The table acts for Betty as a shield and a stage. It is shield, in that we most frequently see her at its head, family members along the sides and at the foot. She is the home-ec executive, separated from the food, spills, and flowers on the tablecloth by her ashtray and cigarette pack. She doesn’t eat; she presides. The table acts as stage, in that upon it she performs the rites of good motherhood, providing the food and correcting the manners. Behind her table she is powerful in a way she can’t be when confronting Don in negligee in the bedroom, or being humiliated by him in front of guests at a dinner party.
The postwar kitchen table wasn’t meant to be a battleground. Rather, the eat-in kitchen, with its colourful Formica surfaces, was part of a more democratic vision of family life. In this vision, labour-saving devices freed women from drudgery, new materials made the table multi-purpose, and the family could gather each evening for a small, intimate meal without the formality of a separate dining room. In fact, in the most basic 850-square-foot postwar house – such as those built in Levittown – there was no room for a dining room. The kitchen table replaced rooms and upended interpersonal dynamics, even as it seemed to re-inscribe the woman in her role as chatelaine of the suburban home. There were few spaces that weren’t part of the display of her cooking, her decorating, her housekeeping.
These democratic and technocratic aspects made the postwar kitchen the perfect setting for Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 Kitchen Debate, at an American trade fair in Moscow. A replica of the house at 398 Townline Road in Commack, Long Island was built in Sokolniki Park. It was opened down the middle like a dollhouse, offering Soviet visitors visual access to the splendours of American life.
The journalist and presidential speechwriter William Safire was then a press agent for the manufacturer of the model home. In a 2009 reminiscence, he reported:
Nixon made a beeline to the railing that exposed the kitchen.
Nixon: I want to show you this kitchen. It’s like those of houses in California. See that built-in washing machine?
Khrushchev: We have such things.
Nixon: What we want to do is make more easy the life of our housewives.
Khrushchev: We do not have the capitalist attitude toward women.
In Russia’s post-revolutionary years, the housewife was supposed to be freed from incessant chores by canteens and cafeterias. As the latter went unbuilt, many families ended up sharing kitchens. Food was prepared rapidly and typically eaten elsewhere. The kitchen table was no longer private; it could be neither haven nor a battleground when other families were waiting to use the stove. Betty Draper, perfectly coiffed and desperately unhappy, may subconsciously agree with Khrushchev about the evils of the capitalist attitude toward women. A former model married to an advertising executive, she could have been the star of a broadcast at the exhibition on the American way of life, but her appropriation of the kitchen table as an accessory of power – rather than a levelling agent – suggests an unconscious understanding of the prevailing forces keeping women in the home and men behind their desks.
The Schoolroom Table
What I have in mind is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.
— Letter from Edward Harkness to Lewis Perry (April 9, 1930)
In 1930, philanthropist Edward Harkness wrote to the head of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire about how he would like his US$5.8 million donation to the school to be used. Learning, Harkness thought, should evolve from discussions, questions and statements from all directions, rather than lectures delivered from the front of the room. He wanted American schooling to come closer to the British education system, and to move beyond the rigid system of text books and benches that had allowed a single teacher to run a town school on the American frontier. The Exeter Academy promptly hired more teachers – classes of this format require significantly more personnel – but it took longer to restructure the classrooms around a new piece of purpose-built furniture: a short oval table, made of wood, with twelve ‘slides’ hidden under its protruding lip. The Harkness table, still in production, proved to be a truly disruptive technology for classrooms previously set up in rows facing a standing teacher. Teacher and students were physically at the same level, sharing the same surface. There was a place for everyone at the table, with no bad seats (and no back row in which to hide).
School treasurer Corning Benton was the table’s designer, and it took several prototypes to get it right. His first thought was the round table: non-hierarchical, where everyone was an equal, but set for twelve it also created a vast empty expanse in the middle. It was hard to dust, hard to communicate across, and hard to move around the room. The second version, a long table with curved ends, put the teacher at the head, and, as in the boardroom, made it hard for those on the sides to talk to one another. The final version was a narrower oval, curved all around, no no-man’s-land in the centre and some give on the sides. The slides – flat boards that could be pulled out from under the table – were used for quizzes, the one time when neighbours needed to turn their backs to each other. The first tables, too wide to fit through the doors of the school’s classrooms, had to be built on site.
Harkness later paid for the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey to have the tables. The wooden version was adopted at a number of American schools, but the Harkness method of teaching through discussion had a much greater reach, radiating out from the table but not necessarily including the actual artefact. Subsequent versions, like those commonly used by schools in the 1980s, broke down the oval into other, more movable geometric shapes. Four-sided Formica-topped trapezoid tables enabled multiple configurations: for instruction, three could be sat along the short sides; for discussion, the long sides were joined to form a hexagon (the suggestion of a circle). The tables could also be formed into long lines or larger rings, enabling another lesson about pedagogy and flexibility.
The strength of the Harkness table lies in relinquishing power. In my Quaker education, we all went by our first names, classes occasionally took the form of choose-your-own-adventure games and we learned Greek mythology by acting out the gods. The trapezoid tables provided a flexible platform from which physical, multi-directional learning could spring. Harkness didn’t go that far – how could he in 1930? – but instead spearheaded the notion that ideas could bounce, crisscross and radiate from any point around an oval. Take away the table and you have a drum circle, group therapy or any number of practices in which we speak in turn and not by rote.
In some offices, homes and schoolrooms, the table is now in decline. Meetings today might be held in break-out areas defined by soft furniture, stadium-style steps, or even foam mountains. With low-slung sofas and side tables, such landscaped interior spaces may come closer to Saarinen’s floor-level Katsura ideal, albeit without the elaborate manners and tatami mats. In today’s suburban kitchens, meanwhile, meals are as likely eaten at the counter or on the sofa as at a table. Family dinners have become nothing but a fetish for food writers. As schools embrace technology, communal writing surfaces become less necessary – the laptop is table, pen and pad in one. In each of these new scenarios some freedoms are gained, but chances for conversation are lost. The table gives and it takes away: it can harden hierarchies but also create the space for speech.
The idea of an architect as a fixed physical presence in a city seems quaint today; one imagines them instead in transit, on the phone, or on site. I hardly want architects to return to public life patronising from the corner table, but wouldn’t there be some benefit to watching their design work at work, to staking a claim for architecture’s importance to cities through their physical presence? The history of the table proves its versatility as a symbol for how people are connected to one another. Its disappearance suggests a retreat into individual architectures for eating, working, learning that can’t bode well for diplomats, housewives, students or business.