How Did Tables Evolve as Furniture?
Tables are important items of furniture for most modern homes and offices. However, outside of their basic utilitarian function, they have evolved into important items for social display and meaning. Concepts of power, status, and social interaction have revolved around the physical presence and concept of the table, where the design and purpose of the table has extended to many different meanings.
In earliest written societies, Egypt and Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BCE, tables were utilized mostly to keep things from the floor or lift items off the floor. Stands, on the other hand, held food and drinks for people. Tables were created from stone, wood, or sometimes ceramic, although usually these were smaller tables such as end tables. Tables were used for activities such as making crafts. Tables were not seen as a primary item for furniture in the home or palaces. However, tables were often important for providing offerings in sacrifices, where altars essentially resembled a type of table that provided or served a sacrifice to the gods (Figure 1). By the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE, tables began to appear more on palace reliefs. By then, the table began to replace stands as something that could hold items while one was seated. Tables also were now made of metal as well as more perishable materials.
In the 1st millennium BCE, the Greeks and later Romans also began to utilize tables as more prominent pieces of furniture for the home. Many scenes indicate dining and feasting occurring around tables rather than indicating that tables were a more prominent aspect of daily furniture. In effect, tables were linked with more larger social gatherings as they became more prominent. The guéridon (Figure 2), a small rounded table we still use, became popular as a typical piece of furniture for homes. This took on decorative and perhaps even religious aspects, as they showed imagery of mythical beasts. Romans also made more elaborate and decorated tables that were larger, where they now became more associated with wealth display in feasts and as prominent furniture in rich estates. Tables began to be associated with banqueting and elaborate feasts that were held to show wealth of households. Tables were seen as something that would accompany lounging or laying on couches. Chairs were not typically shown with tables.
In the early Medieval period, tables once again lost some of their prominence. Household furniture often did not emphasize large tables and multiple types of furniture, such as chests, would be substituted for tables as they were required. However, wealthy classes or individuals began creating long tables that they could put all or many guests on. Tables began to represent a type of social bonding that guests would come together around physically but also socially. Benches and chairs now began to be associated with long tables. Thus, long tables in prominent halls became symbolic as wealth and social status, where one can dine many guests at once as a way of showing social status and power. Desks were differentiated by this time from tables, where monks and others who worked with written documents required tables have drawers or different design to make writing and reading easier, such as a slightly angled table.
One aspect of tables was they became ways in which social rank was displayed. Those from prominent families or status ate at the head of the table, sometimes on a raised dais, while others were further away from the raised part or front of the table. If anything, it was only later in the Medieval period that dinning tables began to reduce in size again. This was seen, in part, due to the Black Death and declining larger gatherings held. Uprisings and political instability, in part due to the schism between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century, led to smaller dinning gatherings in general, as it was seen less beneficial to have too many large banquets as divisions emerged in society. This led to a reshaping of dinning into more intimate type gatherings and smaller tables becoming more fashionable. Round dinning tables also began to be seen as giving a more intimate gathering than traditional long dinning tables.
In the Renaissance period, there was renewed interest in all things Classical. Tables were among the many types of items and furniture where they were created to resemble Roman or Greek style ornate tables. Highly elaborate designs found in wealthy households from the Roman period began to be copied and reproduced. There were innovations though by the 17th century. As the urban elite and rich began to imitate Roman or Greek designs, the trestle table was a development of this period in the countryside. It was seen as a simple but elegant design for dinning.
In the 18th century, the idea of men drinking around tables after dinner led to more "masculine" style tables in Europe. As tables began to be associated with drinking and male social comradery, the social setting was reflected in the design of the period where decorative elements and thick tables resembled more masculine forms. Coffee and tea culture also began to become important in much of Europe and Britain. As these drinks often were consumed by themselves or with a small portion of snack or sweet, tables required tended to be small. However, it was uncomfortable to be seated low, so this gave the rise of high standing but narrow tables used in cafes throughout Europe. In effect, it was a new form of table used for the increasing role of coffee and tea houses as social gathering places. However, for the home, coffee tables did evolve to have shorter legs, as more people in the family were expected to gather around it, seating was lower such as on couches, and making the higher design less suitable for larger numbers of people.
Variations of Designs
More activities within the home and at work led to new types of tables being designed. Console tables, pier tables, side tables and hall tables were all variations of tables that were put along the walls of homes or larger buildings for activities ranging from eating, socializing, working, and drinking. Darker tables became more fashionable from the 19th century, including the use of heavy woods such as rosewood and mahogany. Coffee tables, with shorter legs, became features of the home by the 19th century. It was also during the renaissance and later centuries that tables were used for different types of games, including chess billiards.
In the mid to late 19th century, tables began to be simpler in design and less elaborate in general, as mass production increased, leading to new concepts of faster construction of tables where parts were pre-made and put together after being shipped to shops or furniture sellers. By 1890, Art Nouveau style tables began to replace the more classical appearance of tables, which helped to diminish their central importance in homes. Table design was now seen to be inspired by influence outside of the Classics or the past. In the early 20th century, there was more of a desire to remove the cluttered look of Victorian style homes in the UK and elsewhere, leading to simpler designs for tables and smaller tables.
In the 20th century, table designs began to apply sometimes more color or variation in design from traditional shapes. This reflected society's increase access to leisure time where the home became a place to entertain and enjoy ones time. Tables, became less formal and, often, more associated with informal gatherings and activities as well as retaining the traditional dining role they had.
Tables have had a long history of social significance not only for daily activities but also as social gathering places. Rank in society and social contact were important aspects of expression conducted around or on tables. Thus, tables took important symbolic meaning for societies, as their practical application became more prominent. Designs have remained generally conservative over the centuries, but evolution in design and they way we use tables reflects how we have changed our use of social space and concepts of what the home means to us have led to changes in furniture such as tables.
- For more on early Egyptian and Mesopotamian tables, see: Smardzewski, J. (2015). Furniture design. Cham: Springer International Publishing : Imprint : Springer, pg. 5.
- For more on Greek and Roman tables, see: Croom, A. (2007). Roman furniture. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus.
- For more on Medieval furniture in Europe, see: Diehl, D., & Donnelly, M. (1999). Medieval furniture: plans and instructions for historical reproductions (1st ed). Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books.
- For more on dinning around tables and rank in society, see: Weiss Adamson, M. (2010). Food in medieval times. Westport, Conn. [u.a.: Greenwood Press.
- For more on the trestle, see: Sparkes, I. G. (1980). An illustrated history of English domestic furniture, 1100-1837: the age of the craftsman. Bourne End [Eng.]: Spurbooks.
- For more on socializing and tables, see: Koda, H., Bolton, A. (2006). Dangerous liaisons: fashion and furniture in the eighteenth century; [Exhibition “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century” held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from April 29 to September 6, 2004]. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press [u.a.].
- For more on activities and table design, see: Cohen, M. F. (2005). Professional domesticity in the Victorian novel: women, work, and home. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
- For more on design and decor that became popular in the late 19th and 20th centuries, see: Binstead, H. E. (2007). The furniture styles: Design from Elizabeth I to Art Nouveau. JM Classic Editions.
- For more on modern furniture design, see: Quinn, B. (2004). Mid-century modern: interiors, furniture, design details. London: Conran Octopus.