Message in a table
Asked by Avinash Rajagopal of Metropolis to consider the work of the 19th century American designer, Duncan Phyfe, this text provided the opportunity to contemplate what became of 19th century modernism in the 20th century, and what might become of 19th and 20th century modernism in the 21st century. Published in the March 2012 issue of Metropolis.
"Perhaps I was conditioned by the design history books, most of which were written in the twentieth century, to believe that nothing too important happened prior to the 1920s. All of that changed for me a few years ago while I was watching video footage taken of the Eames Office before it was closed down, and noticed that Eames collected the cast iron side-frames of nineteenth century railcar and theater seating. In that moment it occurred to me that the Eames Aluminum Group is essentially a really good update of a nineteenth century seating archetype, replacing the wooden seat with suspended fabric, and the sand-cast iron with die-cast aluminum. Evidently the designers of the twentieth century were as familiar with nineteenth century design as we are with twentieth century design.
What struck me about Duncan Phyfe’s work is how little of it I had seen before being asked to write this, yet how familiar it already was. Phyfe’s ideas, construction techniques and forms are present in so many prominent twentieth century furniture designs. His nesting tables from 1841 exhibit the efficiency and economy of space that became a near obsession for the designers of the twentieth century. Stacking chairs from Alvar Alto’s Silla 11/611 to David Rowland’s 40/4 possess the same spirit and lightness that are embodied in Phyfe’s nesting tables. I can’t look at the vertical wooden members that span between the table’s side frames without thinking of those vertical aluminum members that join the side frames of the Eames Chaise – same function, same proportion. Marcel Breuer and Joseph Albers each designed nesting tables, which reveal how little the social habits of the living room changed between the 1840s and 1920s, and how Phyfe’s typology was rooted in firmly established behavioral needs.
Design, like any craft, allows its practitioners to speak to each other through messages embedded in the works they produce. This type of communication occurs silently, through aspects of the designs themselves, and can happen across generations and between designers who could never know each other. Today, Phyfe’s messages remain strong, clear, and are well worth intercepting."