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. Brujas Training Facility
  2. Brujas Training Facility
  3. Brujas Training Facility
  4. Brujas Training Facility
  5. Concrete Petanque Terrains and Aluminum Bench
  6. Realgar
  7. Selected Works
  8. Twill Weave Daybed,
  9. Solid Textile Screen, prototype
  10. Solid Textile Screen
  11. Solid Textile Screen
  12. Solid Textile Screen
  13. Aluminum Chair and Truck
  14. Longing
  15. Longing
  16. Longing
  17. Call Waiting
  18. Saarinen & Friends
  19. Style
  20. Natural pigments
  21. Hard Day’s Work
  22. Lapis Lazuli Aluminum Benches
  23. Cessna 172 and Aluminum Bench
  24. Goldie
  25. Aluminum Bench / Sainsbury Gallery
  26. Inaugural game of pétanque
  27. Correction
  28. Room for a Daybed
  29. Room for a Daybed
  30. Room for a Daybed
  31. Twill Weave Daybed
  32. Twill Weave Daybed
  33. Vitra Presents Work
  34. Ok, but first coffee
  35. Partner companies
  36. Sunset
  37. Work master plan
  38. Workspirit 14
  39. An Office Perspective 1850-2016 DE / EN
  40. An Office Perspective 1850-2016
  41. Alphabet
  42. Box of books
  43. RS '32 '15
  44. Shopfloor Aluminum Bench app
  45. Aluminum Bench alphabet
  46. Aluminum Bench, Volume Gallery
  47. Vitra Workspace
  48. Vitra Workspace: An Office Perspective
  49. Photo by David Van Severen
  50. Shu
  51. Aluminum Bench
  52. Aluminum Bench
  53. Source Material
  54. Source Material
  55. Source Material exhibit catalog
  56. Articulation
  57. Aluminum Chair shadow
  58. A Small Museum for the American Metaphor
  59. Studies for New Posture catalog
  60. Smith
  61. Olivares Aluminum Chair
  62. Jonathan Olivares and Richard Sapper
  63. Olivares Aluminum Chair
  64. Joint
  65. Skateboard rails
  66. An Exploded View
  67. Tips
  68. Smith
  69. A View on Natural Motion
  70. Products
  71. Window installation
  72. Smith
  73. NCS S 0530-B
  74. Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs
  75. Library and social hub
  76. BBQ 2013
  77. Delivery
  78. A Taxonomy of Office Chairs
  79. Territorio
  80. A Chair for All Seasons
  81. An Exploded View
  82. Hortus Cliffortianus
  83. Smith Pro Detail
  84. Outdoor Office
  85. Source Material
  86. Source Material exhibit catalog
  87. If Darwin Studied Office Chairs
  88. Chaise for Hallingdal 65
  89. Impressions from Walmart
  90. Rear leg joint
  91. Smith profile
  92. Los Angeles
  93. Jones
  94. Double selfie
  95. Social hub at work
  96. Territorio photograph
  97. Message in a table
  98. Plan for An Exploded View
  99. 3 millimeter section
  100. The US Furniture Industry
  1. Contact
  2. Biography
  3. Website