The design of a table poses some simple questions. Identified the primary function - the conviviality of meals, study, intellectual or manual work, the role at the service of conversation or reading, or other personal or group ritual -, the number of users who can use it simultaneously and the size of the space in which it will be inserted, its height, depth, length and geometry can be established, and the range of materials most suitable for satisfying its purposes can be identified.
From the point of view of ergonomics, a table must guarantee the satisfaction of performances less complex than those of other furnishings such as chairs or cabinets. The table fulfils its function thanks to the flatness of the top surface, stability and robustness. Since this can be guaranteed by the use of a central pedestal, three or four legs to support a sufficiently rigid floor, in the design of a table most of the creative effort is usually directed towards the design of the base, while the search for organic unity between the base and top remains limited to a few exemplary cases.
The structural behaviour of a table is very different from that of a seat. Borrowing the terminology of constructions, we could say that in the tables it is the permanent load - the top - that represents the greatest stress of the structure, while in the chairs it is the accidental load - the user -. This explains, at least in part, the fact that on the table the visual and tectonic balance tends to express itself in the search for harmony between the base and the top, which is rarely expressed in their formal continuity and in the distribution of loads on the ground. Indeed, the achievement of a fully unitary result implies undertaking the difficult challenge of synthesising in a formal unity a geometric system made from the surface of the table, from the support lines heading down, and from the points of contact between the two.
All great architects designed tables. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century there were no real alternatives to the use of solid wood and the tables were built respecting constructional schemes made up of elements of decreasing size - from the legs to reach the connecting elements - remaining anchored to the construction technique of wooden furniture. From the third decade of the twentieth century, thanks to the availability of new materials - and in particular to the steel tube - the era of the frame bases opens, often exhibited with the use of transparent glass tops. The first consequence was the thinning of the construction elements, followed by the possibility of using the same sections for vertical and horizontal ones. Marcel Breuer focused on the expressive force of the continuous tubular while Le Corbusier, perhaps too snobbish to use an essential profile like the Mannesmann tube, preferred to use the more elaborate and performing "tube d'avion" which allowed him to design the trestle base which it will be a reference for designers who will face the project of metal-based tables in the following years. The diversity of materials and structure between the base and the plan was reflected in the substantial indifference of the meeting points between the parties; the top could extend beyond the support points in relation to its rigidity and strength.
Table by Le Corbusier for Villa Church, Ville D’Avray, 1929
Sinapsi Table by Paolo Portoghesi for Matrix International
In some tables of that period, the typical frame structure of wooden tables was still used. This is the case of Le Corbusier's T-tables, where the connection between the legs and the frame takes place in the corners and is hidden inside the tube.
T Table by Le Corbusier, Salon d'Automne Paris, 1929
Also in the series of tables that Breuer designs for some private houses between the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 30s, the connection is hidden in the thickness of the wooden frame that houses the head of the leg in steel tube. In these tables Breuer starts experimenting with the coupling of different materials for the top - wood and glass, wood and rubber - and to use a metal collar as a connecting element, both constructive and formal, between the tubular legs and the top rounded corners. Although he uses different materials for the base and the top, Breuer celebrates the element of reinforcement of the connection as a formal connection between vertical and horizontal lines.
Marcel Breuer, Harnischmacher House, Reissued by Matrix International as BR19
A few years later, we witness the paradigm shift made possible by plywood, a new material that allows to achieve higher mechanical performances than solid wood with reduced thicknesses and weights. Used in the aeronautical industry since the second half of the thirties, it will have a very strong impact on the furniture industry and will make it possible to do the first tests on the continuity of form and material between the legs and the top: Marcel Breuer's tables for Isokon are an advanced expression of this research.
Alvar Aalto for Artek
Only Alvar Alto, a few years later, will be able to overcome Breuer and will do it in the even more complex field of solid wood: in his tables the scalloped edge flows harmoniously into the sculpted leg that brings the wood incisions to the ground. A masterpiece.
At the end of the 1940s, some architects showed with their projects the desire to expand the formal possibilities of spaces and furnishings beyond the borders traced by the first generation of modernists.
The Eames and Saarinen were pioneers of research into the continuity of form, which in the shells of chairs they aimed at developing in three directions. Plywood however did not allow reaching relevant results in this sense. Once again it will be the advent of a new material, fiberglass, to give rise to the turning point. On the wave of enthusiasm for the three-dimensional modelling possibilities offered by this new material, some of the most iconic furniture of the 1900s will be designed and produced; with the pedestal furniture designed for the Vassar College Saarinen will be able to reach the organic unit he had worked from the beginning of the 40s with the winning entry in the competition promoted by the Moma together with Charles Eames.
Eero Saarinen, Tables, Vassar College, reissued by Matrix International as SA59
Later, the emergence and progressive evolution of the plastic industry gave the possibility of obtaining complex shapes thanks to the use of injection, extrusion and thermoforming, but the considerable cost for the construction of the moulds did not allow to make a real breakthrough on large furnishings, at least until the introduction of rotational moulding techniques.
Arcadia by Vico Magistretti for Artemide
Avant-garde movements transferred to furniture the issues that were debated at the urban and architectural levels. In the Quaderna series, that has been considered the most representative expression of the radical design movement of the late ‘60s, geometric patterns take over the table tectonics and the distribution of forces to the ground.
Quaderna by Superstudio for Zanotta
A few experiments that were born in opposition to the values of modernism have seen the shift of the centre of the formal research on elements capable of recalling more directly elements of the tradition and popular culture, desecrating some modernist dogmas such as the truth of the materials or the relationship of dependence of the form by function.
Peninsula by Peter Shire for Memphis
The design of tables, since the 1980s, has seen a progressive disconnect between products for commercial spaces, on which investments have been made in research and development, and residential products, a small niche in the market and of modest relevance in the wider discussion on product design. It doesn’t surprise that in the sector of small series and unique pieces, designed at the intersection of design and art, there is great experimentation of shapes and materials in the design of tables, which end up becoming products of pure relish.
Konstantin Grcic for Galerie Kreo
The glass industry has contributed to experimentation on the topic of organic unity. A material that is entirely pliable in the fluid state, glass has been used in the production of tables and chairs, giving rise to great formal and performance results.
Ragno by Vittorio Livi for Fiam
Few designers have managed to achieve the perfect synthesis of form, technique and structure in the design of the tables, which expresses the quintessence of a design product. It is certainly the case of Angelo Mangiarotti with the eros and eccentric tables - in which the plastic and mechanical properties of a single material - marble - were used to reach the formal and structural balance that gives the table a completely unified aspect also and above all thanks to the extraordinary synthesis created by the interpenetration of the legs in the top.
Eccentrico by Angelo Mangiarotti for Agape
Lately, we witnessed interesting experiments on materials, and on the construction of structures inspired by natural forms.
Centrino by Massimo Imparato and Enzo Carbone for Matrix International
Humberto and Fernando Campana have experimented the organics of natural elements in various projects, proposing solutions in which the top is generated by the legs placed at the base like stems of plants. In other products they have pushed the confines of conventions by introducing groups of materials that have no precedents in the history of design, such as piles, layers and stacks.
Ofidia by Fernando and Humberto Campana for Galleria Friedman Benda
These approaches to the project are interesting since they reveal new possibilities of use of materials, of construction processes, and trace an interesting way to redefine the relationship between manufacturer and user.
Brass Table by Massimo Imparato and Emre ÇETINKÖPRÜLÜ for Matrix International
We live in a historical phase in which there is a growing need to reconnect our experience as users of space - residential, work, production, education - with something that goes beyond the - necessary - ergonomics of fixed and mobile furnishings that allow us to make appropriate use of the space. The search for materiality in the use of surfaces, in the use of light and colour, even in the use of fragrances, aimed at creating experiences that involve all the senses, shows that the relationship with the natural world, too often relegated to an isolated vacation experience, is a great challenge that must be put back at the centre of our action as designers of the built space.