Thursday, May 5, 2011

The MoMA Table

Several years ago on a trip back to New York, I visited the Museum of Modern Art to check out their Architecture and Design Galleries. They have a pretty amazing collection of twentieth century design, complete with all kinds of consumer products and some great furniture such as chairs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Gio Ponti and Gustav Stickley. There was even a molded plywood leg splint designed by Charles and Ray Eames for battlefield use during World War II when certain kinds of metal and other materials were rationed. But the piece that blew me away was this little side table by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, a designer/architect I had never heard of from the early Arts and Crafts movement in England. (I haven't received permission to use MoMA's photo yet, so in the meantime my grainy, dark cell phone photo will have to suffice.)

Made in 1901, the table I call the MoMA Table is quite small, only about 27 inches high and 20 inches in diameter. It was made from quarter-sawn white oak that was fumed and has a round top and three legs joined by three angled stretchers. Another interesting feature is that the legs are hexagonal, tapered and splayed.

When I approached the table for the first time, walking around it, the angles of the stretchers made it seem like there was a fire underneath it. (Check out the movie below that I took with my cell phone.) I had never thought about designing something so that it moves as you change your perspective. I’m not sure if that was Baillie Scott’s intention, but he nailed it if it was. The other thing that struck me was that for an Arts and Crafts piece, this table is surprisingly delicate and elegant. Most of the furniture from that era tends to be heavy and strong to suggest that it is connected to the earth. Other Baillie Scott pieces I’ve seen, like these at the Art Institute of Chicago, strike me as dated, bulky and showy while his side table seems timeless.

As soon as I saw the table, I knew that I had to make one someday. I’ve looked around everywhere and can’t find an example of anyone ever reproducing it. Even though it is small, the table presents some serious engineering challenges. First, as I said above, the legs are hexagonal, tapered and splayed. Square legs that have one or two tapers are challenging enough. Square legs that have four tapers are even more challenging. But hexagonal tapers are off the charts. To make them consistently and precisely, I will have to design a jig to use on the table saw. I’ll write more about it later, but I’m envisioning something that would allow me to set the taper then turn the legs on an axis at a precise angle to cut the facets of the hexagon. The facets have to be the same width because the stretchers connect to them. The stretchers are the next challenge because they are joined with a compound angle. I’m not sure how I would make the tenons at the ends of the stretchers yet. I’m open to using floating tenons if that makes it any easier. Or if that doesn’t work, I might have to use magic.

It’s a bit of a risk to talk about something I’m going to make because I’m not sure how quickly I’ll be able to get to it. And I’m not sure I’ll succeed. But if I do, I’ll have a very cool table that I’ll be able to make multiples of and maybe even sell. I’ll have a very cool jig that will theoretically be able to make tapered legs with different numbers of sides. Also, I’ll be able to make cool, faceted legs for other tables and stools. I guess the main reason I’m interested in attempting this table is that I’ll learn a lot along the way – even if I’m not able to pull it off. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.


mild said...

great post, love the a spanish colleague of ours remarked today, working with wood "is a mental exercise in problem solving"...yours is a good example of that

Alex Comes said...

Crazy! Looking forward to reading your future posts about it.

Jeff Branch said...

Nice blog and that is a very interesting table. Thanks for sharing.

Shannon said...

I can understand your fascination with this table. It is so simple yet very intriguing. Thanks for bringing this up. I can't say I knew anything of Baille-Scott other than a passing mention in one of my A&C books. He bears researching further. I too can see adding this table to my list. It appears that the legs are through tenoned into the top. Is this correct? I would be interested to see what you come up with to build this as a production piece. Personally, I would do all the complicated stuff by hand to make it much easier, but this would be in a one off scenario. Please keep sharing as you get to it.

mda said...

Hi Furnitude, did you progress on the Baillie-Scott table ? Curiously, I also visited the Moma 3 years ago and took a picture of this beautiful table, very challenging to make. I am starting now to work on it, and to find solutions to the various problems that it raises. I would be happy to read your comments.