In praise of nest­ing ta­bles

The Buffalo News - - SCOREBOARD - By Julie Lasky NEW YORK TIMES

In the spirit of Marie Kondo, the home-or­ga­ni­za­tion guru who says we should limit our posses­sions to those that “spark joy,” I am tak­ing an ap­pre­ci­a­tion tour of my apart­ment.

And so I say, thank you, im­mer­sion blender, even with your scary naked blade, for mak­ing me feel su­pe­rior when­ever the recipe says, “Puree in batches.” And thank you, mag­i­cal desk lamp, for turn­ing on and off with a fin­ger tap. You’re a mite over­sen­si­tive, but who am I to judge?

Above all, thank you, neat quar­tet of nest­ing ta­bles. You sit qui­etly in your liv­ing room niche, one on top of an­other, yet are al­ways ready to leap out and spread like SWAT mem­bers when com­pany ar­rives.

Nest­ing ta­bles are like can­di­dates that keep their prom­ises. They swear faith­fully to be com­pact, un­ob­tru­sive and ver­sa­tile, and – mirabile dictu – they are. They shoul­der hors d’oeu­vres trays, take part in covert TV-watch­ing-at-meal­time op­er­a­tions and of­fer dis­creet slots in their tow­ers for tuck­ing away loose mag­a­zines.

What is more, nest­ing ta­bles lib­er­ate the space in front of a sofa, where a cof­fee ta­ble would oth­er­wise squat, al­low­ing legs to stretch and blood to cir­cu­late.

We have evolved to func­tion at many dif­fer­ent lev­els: loung­ing, typ­ing er­gonom­i­cally, chop­ping veg­eta­bles, tend­ing house­plants, tend­ing bar. Lat­i­tu­di­nally speak­ing, we want it all. That is where nest­ing ta­bles come in handy. When chil­dren need to be fed away from the grown-ups, when a backgam-


mon chal­lenge is ten­dered, when we have bought a printer but for­got­ten all about a printer stand, we have ta­bles sized for our needs.

Most space-sav­ing fur­ni­ture de­mands com­pro­mise. The con­vert­ible couch is rarely as com­fort­able as a bed or sofa. The fold­ing chair lurks in a closet. Not so with nest­ing ta­bles. In the an­nals of fur­ni­ture, nest­ing ta­bles are fairly new. The Bri­tish cab­i­net­maker Thomas Sher­a­ton is cred­ited with pub­lish­ing the first draw­ings (a group of four spindly­legged ta­bles la­beled Quar­tetto) in his book “The Cabi­net Dic­tio­nary,” pub­lished in 1803.

But Sarah Cof­fin, a cu­ra­tor at Cooper He­witt, Smith­so­nian De­sign Mu­seum, sus­pects that Sher­a­ton was merely cod­i­fy­ing a de­sign that had emerged some years ear­lier. In the 18th cen­tury, peo­ple com­monly ar­ranged fur­ni­ture for tea drink­ing, needle­work and check­ers, later re­turn­ing it to its place against the walls. Leav­ing fur­ni­ture in the cen­ter of a room, Cof­fin said, “would have been con­sid­ered messy or way too in­for­mal.”

She pointed out that in many Euro­pean languages, the word for “fur­ni­ture” is de­rived from the idea of mo­bil­ity, as in the French “meu­ble” or Ger­man “mo­bel.”

Cof­fin spec­u­lates that nest­ing ta­bles would not have shown up be­fore the 1740s, when straight or ta­per­ing legs re­placed a fash­ion for curved ones. Legs with flat outer sides are needed to move the ta­bles in and out of their stacks.

My own nest­ing ta­bles were de­signed in the late 1920s by Ger­man artist Josef Al­bers, when he taught at the Bauhaus. They are shiny, col­or­ful rec­tan­gles on thin oaken legs. In de­scend­ing or­der of size, the tops are pale minty green, gold­en­rod yel­low, semiburnt or­ange and ce­les­tial blue.

Al­bers wasn’t the only one mak­ing nest­ing ta­bles at the Bauhaus. At about the same time, Mar­cel Breuer, his friend and fel­low in­struc­tor, came up with a set in tubu­lar steel with a sim­i­lar color scheme. The ta­bles fit the school’s pop­ulist ethos and the needs of a so­ci­ety that, like ours, had be­gun to rel­ish small liv­ing. Af­ter World War II, an ex­plo­sion of mod­est ranch houses with open plans and tele­vi­sion sets made nest­ing ta­bles a com­mon fea­ture in Amer­i­can decor.

It wasn’t un­til 2004 that the Ger­man fur­ni­ture com­pany Vi­tra put Al­bers’ de­sign into pro­duc­tion, us­ing tinted fiber­glass in place of the artist’s painted glass tops. I picked up my set a cou­ple of years later on sale at Vi­tra’s New York show­room. They are be­ing pro­duced through a part­ner­ship between the Josef and Anni Al­bers Foun­da­tion in Bethany, Conn., and the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art De­sign Store.

Eames Demetrios, an artist who is the grand­son of the de­signer Charles Eames, is a great ad­mirer of my nest­ing ta­bles. He con­nects them to “Homage to the Square,” Al­bers’ art se­ries be­gun in 1949 that grew into more than 1,000 vari­a­tions on con­cen­tric patches of color. “There’s poetry in those choices,” Demetrios says of the ta­bles’ not-quitepri­mary hues. “Some­how it comes to­gether just great.”

Which is why Lucy Swift We­ber has turned down re­quests from man­u­fac­tur­ers to sell the Al­bers ta­bles in­di­vid­u­ally.

We­ber, who leads the li­cens­ing and prod­uct depart­ment at the Al­bers Foun­da­tion, said she “even got into a lit­tle bit of an ar­gu­ment” with some of her col­leagues, who ac­cused her of stand­ing in the way of com­merce. We­ber in­sisted that break­ing up the set was not in the spirit of its cre­ator.

She is so right. In Al­bers’ 1963 book, “In­ter­ac­tion of Color,” he wrote, “a set of four colors is to be con­sid­ered – singly as ‘ac­tors,’ to­gether as ‘cast.’ ”

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