DE­SIGN­ING FOR DIN­ING

Mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion hon­ours ‘ta­blescapes’ from Napoleon un­til to­day

Ottawa Citizen - - HOMELIFE - KATHER­INE ROTH The As­so­ci­ated Press

From the age of Napoleon to De­pres­sion-era Amer­ica and be­yond, of­ten-un­sung de­sign­ers have brought life to the din­ing-room ta­ble.

“I thought all table­cloths a bore — par­tic­u­larly white,” wrote Mar­guerita Mer­gen­time, who gained renown for her table­cloth de­signs dur­ing the De­pres­sion. “What peo­ple needed, I de­cided, was bold dash­ing colour on the ta­ble, a new kind of de­sign that you couldn’t re­sist.”

She was hardly alone in her quest to cre­ate “ta­blescapes” with a bit of piz­zazz, ac­cord­ing to a new ex­hibit at the Cooper He­witt Smith­so­nian De­sign Mu­seum that ex­plores the im­pact of de­sign on the rit­u­als and cus­toms of din­ing. Ta­blescapes: De­signs for Din­ing opened Oct. 5 and will re­main on view through April 14, 2019.

The high­light of the show is an elab­o­rate “surtout de ta­ble” cen­tre­piece de­signed for Napoleon Bon­a­parte, who is be­lieved to have com­mis­sioned it as a wed­ding gift for his step­son. On view for the first time in 30 years and newly con­served, it ex­em­pli­fies how din­ing at the high­est lev­els of wealth and power in 19th-cen­tury France was a the­atri­cal per­for­mance, bring­ing ar­chi­tec­ture to the table­top in elab­o­rate ves­sels for food.

At the op­po­site end of the de­sign spec­trum are Mer­gen­time’s ca­sual, De­pres­sion-era ta­ble linens, fea­tur­ing bold colours and a fas­ci­na­tion with ty­pog­ra­phy and Amer­i­can his­tory.

Then there’s a fu­tur­is­tic work com­mis­sioned by 2017 Na­tional De­sign Award win­ners Joe Doucet and Mary Ping that en­vi­sions a table­top in a world where pop­u­la­tion growth has put a premium on space in kitchens and din­ing areas, and sus­tain­abil­ity is cru­cial.

“From awe-in­spir­ing grandeur to ver­nac­u­lar wit to an em­pha­sis on sus­tain­abil­ity, the ex­hi­bi­tion pro­vokes a spir­ited con­ver­sa­tion around de­sign’s role in the evo­lu­tion of a uni­ver­sal rit­ual,” says Caro­line Bau­mann, di­rec­tor of the mu­seum.

Matilda McQuaid, deputy cu­ra­to­rial di­rec­tor, adds, “We wanted to show how much has changed over time, but also how some as­pects have stayed the same.”

The show, di­vided into three gal­leries, be­gins with Doucet and Ping’s work, The Con­cen­tric and De­cen­tric Ta­bles and Seat­ing.

The mov­able struc­ture fea­tures two Lazy Su­sans and built-in stools that can be folded in to seat a small group, or ex­panded out to ac­com­mo­date eight peo­ple. The ter­razzo-pat­terned sur­face, rem­i­nis­cent of stone, is made from re­cy­cled food pack­ag­ing. On the amoeba-shaped din­ing sur­faces, Doucet de­signed sleek, multi-func­tional dishes meant to go di­rectly from stove­top to table­top to fridge, along with a sleek set of cut­lery (in­clud­ing match­ing chop­sticks). All his pieces are 3D-printed for greater cus­tomiza­tion.

“The fu­ture doesn’t have to be dystopian,” Ping says.

In the next gallery is the French cen­tre­piece, cre­ated in 1805 by Pierre-Philippe Thomire, a Parisian sculp­tor known for cre­at­ing gilded-bronze ob­jects. Made in sec­tions to ac­com­mo­date a va­ri­ety of ta­ble sizes, the cen­tre­piece is raised slightly above the din­ing sur­face and cov­ered in gold with a mir­rored base. It re­sem­bles a sort of Ver­sailles gar­den for the ta­ble, com­plete with el­e­gant stat­uettes and foun­tain-like tow­ers meant to hold beau­ti­fully ar­ranged treats.

The mir­rored plateau and gilded-bronze sur­faces would have re­flected can­dle­light, and an ac­tual

The ex­hi­bi­tion pro­vokes a spir­ited con­ver­sa­tion around de­sign’s role in the evo­lu­tion of a uni­ver­sal rit­ual.

au­di­ence seated along­side the ta­ble watched as din­ers ate. The cen­tre­piece is put in con­text by other works in the gallery, in­clud­ing a draw­ing of a late 18th-cen­tury cen­tre­piece in­spired by the ru­ins of Pom­peii, and an or­nate, black­ened bronze clock of the era.

The ex­hibit then shifts to­ward equally ex­u­ber­ant but de­cid­edly more hum­ble ta­ble decor with Mer­gen­time’s work. The Amer­i­can de­signer is best known for her bright modernist table­cloths and nap­kins from 1934 un­til her death in 1941. They were high­lighted in pop­u­lar mag­a­zines of the time and sold in up­scale depart­ment stores.

“They are re­ally about the com­mu­nal side of din­ing, and many of them are de­signed to be con­ver­sa­tion starters,” McQuaid says.

Stylish and witty, many of Mer­gen­time’s pieces fea­ture quizzes or other con­ver­sa­tion starters. The 1939 table­cloth Food Quiz, for ex­am­ple, in­cludes the printed phrase: “Do you dish the dirt be­fore you dish the soup?”

MATT FLYNN/COOPER HE­WITT, SMITH­SO­NIAN DE­SIGN MU­SEUM

Surtout de Ta­ble (ta­ble cen­tre­piece) de­signed for Napoleon Bon­a­parte, who is be­lieved to have com­mis­sioned it as a wed­ding gift for his step­son. It is made of cast and gilded bronze with hand en­grav­ing, cut glass and sil­vered-mir­rored glass.

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