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."

Message in a table
  1. Granite benches
  2. Granite benches
  3. Granite benches
  4. Brujas Training Facility
  5. Brujas Training Facility
  6. Brujas Training Facility
  7. Brujas Training Facility
  8. Solid Textile Screen
  9. Solid Textile Screen
  10. Solid Textile Screen
  11. Solid Textile Screen, prototype
  12. Concrete Petanque Terrains and Aluminum Bench
  13. Realgar
  14. Natural pigments
  15. Twill Weave Daybed
  16. Selected Works
  17. Aluminum Chair and Truck
  18. Longing
  19. Longing
  20. Longing
  21. Call Waiting
  22. Saarinen & Friends
  23. Style
  24. Lapis Lazuli Aluminum Benches
  25. Cessna 172 and Aluminum Bench
  26. Goldie
  27. Aluminum Bench / Sainsbury Gallery
  28. Inaugural game of pétanque
  29. Correction
  30. Room for a Daybed
  31. Room for a Daybed
  32. Room for a Daybed
  33. Twill Weave Daybed
  34. Twill Weave Daybed
  35. Vitra Presents Work
  36. Ok, but first coffee
  37. Partner companies
  38. Sunset
  39. Work master plan
  40. Workspirit 14
  41. An Office Perspective 1850-2016 DE / EN
  42. An Office Perspective 1850-2016
  43. Alphabet
  44. Box of books
  45. RS '32 '15
  46. Shopfloor Aluminum Bench app
  47. Aluminum Bench alphabet
  48. Aluminum Bench, Volume Gallery
  49. Vitra Workspace
  50. Vitra Workspace: An Office Perspective
  51. Photo by David Van Severen
  52. Dog
  53. Aluminum Bench
  54. Aluminum Bench
  55. Source Material
  56. Source Material
  57. Source Material exhibit catalog
  58. Articulation
  59. Aluminum Chair shadow
  60. A Small Museum for the American Metaphor
  61. Studies for New Posture catalog
  62. Smith
  63. Jonathan Olivares and Richard Sapper
  64. Olivares Aluminum Chair
  65. Olivares Aluminum Chair
  66. Joint
  67. Skateboard rails
  68. An Exploded View
  69. Tips
  70. Smith
  71. A View on Natural Motion
  72. Products
  73. Window installation
  74. Smith
  75. NCS S 0530-B
  76. Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs
  77. Library and social hub
  78. Delivery
  79. A Taxonomy of Office Chairs
  80. Territorio
  81. A Chair for All Seasons
  82. An Exploded View
  83. Source Material
  84. Outdoor Office
  85. Smith Pro Detail
  86. Hortus Cliffortianus
  87. Source Material exhibit catalog
  88. If Darwin Studied Office Chairs
  89. Chaise for Hallingdal 65
  90. Impressions from Walmart
  91. Smith profile
  92. Rear leg joint
  93. Los Angeles
  94. Jones
  95. Double selfie
  96. Social hub at work
  97. Territorio photograph
  98. Message in a table
  99. Plan for An Exploded View
  100. 3 millimeter section
  101. The US Furniture Industry
  1. Contact
  2. Biography
  3. Website