The Dreaded Nest of Tables

As a design concept the ‘nest of tables’ must have fallen further out of fashion than almost any other furniture category.  And yet there are lessons we can learn from actual examples that could be reinterpreted to produce an exciting result.

This set is difficult to date, possibly 1930’s or immediate post-war.  The interesting feature is the pictorial finish to each table top:

The grouped image infers that the scenes are part of a greater, vertical composition, each table occupying an aspect of the visual field from near to far. In fact they are not interlinked, but this could be adopted in a reworked version to make a direct connection between the diminishing form of the nested tables and the diminishing horizon line of the image.

These tables from the 1950’s are matched rather than nested, but echo the first example through the use of color:


Again, a reworked example using triangular nested forms could extend the theme of interconnection through the sequential use of complementary colors or shades.

The key design element for the nest of tables is surprise – as each table is revealed the surfaces have the potential to create a larger visual narrative.

A Play on Materials

Designers have become so tightly governed by the adage ‘Truth to Materials’ that we are surprised when a piece deliberately flouts this rule.  To illustrate the point are two tables of different styles dating from around 1920:

The first example is a typical occasional table of timber construction.  What makes the piece extraordinary are the elaborate turned leg details with four carved and applied strap features that together recall wrought ironwork.  There is no ‘logic’ as such to this feature or sense of irony about the ‘correctness’ of materials – it simply represents the whim of the cabinet maker to inject something unexpected into the design.

The second example is a far superior piece, and better documented thanks to the lot description provided in this month’s Clars auction catalog.  The table was designed by Warren McArthur (1885-1961) and made for the Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix.

At first glance this appears to have a hexagonal timber top on a thin-section, ebonized frame. However it is in fact all metal, a combination of copper sheet and wrought iron.

As a more self-consciously ‘designed’ piece this also has a clearer message: it evokes the homeliness of a family dining table (natural copper standing in for the warm patina of a hardwood top) but with a rugged metal construction suitable for heavy use in a hotel environment.

Learning from Eastlake

In his best-selling book ‘Hints on Household Taste’ published in 1868, Charles Eastlake promoted a reaction against the prevailing neo-Baroque design style. Ironically the enthusiasm with which his ideas were adopted in the US led to the widespread industrial production of his furniture designs, undermining the very raison d’etre of its crafts-based aesthetic.  Consequently Eastlake’s star has faded in comparison to the later arts and crafts purists such as L&G Stickley, and despite his use of very particular details that have lessons for us today.

One example is the Eastlake table, a design that comes in a variety of sizes and shapes but which share certain common characteristics.  These include the fretted leg form with little three-dimensional modeling, and the central pin or newel feature at the intersection of the leg frets that appears to tie them together. Here are some illustrative examples:

If we reinterpret the Eastlake style in its fundamentals, we can envisage forms that are essentially ‘flat-pack’ in nature, joined with a central knuckle or pin. Some examples are shown here, drawing upon simple geometry to delineate the forms and dictate the size of the central joint:

The version on the left uses a combination of aluminum and glass to define the shard-like legs, joined by a steel or aluminum plug in drum form.  The version on the right is a more lyrical design, with legs in aluminum only.  Both tables have glass tops.  The central design is more closely related to the Eastlake precedent, being a side table in oak or similar with an aluminum newel.