Ethical and Aesthetic Facets of the Dining Table

I have always wondered whether space and its edifices - distinguished by material & technology and governed by time - can speak.

Buildings, rather spatial constructs of visible and tangible 3-dimensional boundaries, are first and foremost, units of cultural measurement. The type of building we design and construct and the context within which it is woven is wholly influenced by the spirit of its time and place. Cultural limits, actions, ideals, choices and conceptions, impart a specific personality onto the created space.

Architecture thus becomes the physical reminder of accepted socio-cultural rules and conventions.

Architecture reinforces these conventions through making them perceptible through actionable usage and the occupation of space. Architecture thus becomes a framework or system of programmes for human engagement and behaviour that serve social and cultural purposes.

Alternatively, architecture becomes an object of practical function. This purpose, the use of a space, is either denoted or connoted, thus assigning primary and secondary importance to the animation of space and the rituals it embraces. Consider the domestic notion of space, which is the backdrop to our daily lives, as a cultural and social construct. The way we organise and program our domicile hinges on our cultural background. This is perhaps more evident in a room defined by its contradiction – it is sensitively intimate while innately public.

Norman Rockwell – Freedom from Want (1943)

The small contradicting sphere within in our houses, has seemingly lost its protagonist lustre.

I was raised in a family with a discernible robust moral code – perhaps because of the times (just before the dismantling of Apartheid) where most men were enrolled into the military with those values engrained into the very fabric of my parents, trickling down the generations. As a footnote, this meant that your bed making skills had to be flawless, and shoes had to shimmer even if the sun never shone. This also meant that we were sharing our meals at the dining table. The central point of convergence for our family. The protagonist of the house…the dining table. For sure, the act of cooking, and the people, contribute as much to the space in which the meal is shared as the table or dining room, however, people and food are variable and unpredictable. The space remains and will continue to serve. This space, the dining room, becomes a stage, a theatre for daily disasters and comedies, acted out by a family. Every family’s play is unique, attuned to culture, place, time and meaning. The dining table, becomes an object around which social negotiation takes hold, a venue for an intimate civic group to gather.

American Beauty (1999)

These days, the dining room and the table has lost its lustre, its reputation as a counterpole to the daily routines we establish – perhaps this is a significant commentary on the commercialisation of our times & a society that is progressively geared towards efficiency. The room has become a shrine for the visitor, the framed painting to exhibit and embrace when people arrive, which is locked up and stored when only the family remains. It had always been a place for assembly, the creation of a private sphere. The table within the room used to be a place where commonplace or not so commonplace matters was discussed. The profane and spiritual found a home.  Prayers were made; tears were shed, and laughter was plentiful.

Where has that all gone?

Scent of a Woman (1992)

In contrast to how we live our lives, determined by the speed that we travel to and from work, the events we are obliged to attend and all the people we need to see, the dining room provides a space to encounter individuals on a different level, at a different pace than their routines. Simply through conversation, the table becomes a stage for rational and irrational behaviour. A family can dish out a fair share of conflict around the table, taking a break from pure rational thought.

These days there seems to be an abundance of bar tables at restaurants and coffee shops or cafes, which is because of our fast-paced society. We do not make time to engage, because we tell ourselves we have no time. The dominance of the bar counter/table, as simple as it may seem, enforces a culture of fast-paced consumption, we need to eat as quickly as possible and we should not leave any trace of intimacy in a public group.

How does this notion function in the public sphere?

Although the most intimate space, and perhaps most archetypical, for a dining table is the kitchen, it is perhaps most frequently found, and naturally too, in most public spaces and restaurants. If the dining room and its table, as object and space, form the venue for public engagement, I must admit that I have very rarely come across an anonymous public group at a dining table at a restaurant. This reinforces the ‘public spaces’ socio-political term, in that it has never been a space/place for the anonymous public, rather it is a place where specific people meet each other privately. This notion is flawed and irresponsible. It cannot be deemed a public space/place just because large groups of people gather around a table, albeit in their own smaller groups. Let us imagine that two strangers join the table myself and four friends are sharing, then the definition of public groups becomes porous and acceptable. An intimate public sphere is thus established.

Les Ombres Restaurant, Paris, 25 December 2017 _ Christmas in Paris atop Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (Jean Nouvel) (©Justin Coetzee, 2017)

The scenario can be such that you are seated opposite each other, not engaging in conversation or establishing dialogue. This is quite natural. However, it is through engagement with the unfamiliar larger group of people, confrontation with the public, that we begin to learn more about others, and as we begin to talk to strangers who lead vastly different lives to our own, we may just expand our philosophical understanding of the world around us. Even if this does not happen, the possibility at least exists due to the temporary and intimate nature of the public group, which is different from the public intimate group of a family. It is always ephemeral and fragile.

Ribera Terraza, Bilbao _ Tapas shared with friends and family is a uniquely Spanish cultural ritual that has been absorbed as international fashion. (©Justin Coetzee, 2017)

Being seated, dining at a table is a very noticeable archetypal ritual within our society. It varies vastly across cultural boundaries, however the intention and ritual of communicating our own lives, narrating who we are, who we wish to be and what we are interested it, remains common to man. However, the public intimate group, is a group that was non-existent before the moment the people sat around the table, unlike the dining room in a house, where the actors are familiar and continuous. In the public dining room (restaurants, bars, cafes’), the group is created through dialogue, confrontation and tête-à-tête.

The aesthetically formed public group.

The form of a table also plays a crucial role to our perception of public or private groups. Its shape and where and how it is positioned, are relevant from a symbolic point of view as well as from an aesthetic point. They form the aesthetic backdrop and horizon for the act of eating and sharing meals. Materials used to construct tables, be it wood, plastic or metal are determined by a myriad of factors and functions. The American Philosopher Nelson Goodman, describes in his book, The Languages of Art, the various functions of everyday aesthetic objects on a symbolic level.

Sala Beckett Theatre, Flores & Pratts Architects _ The Café becomes the edifice for the ritual of theatre retreats. (©Justin Coetzee, 2017)

One such function, ‘exemplification’, is where an object illustrates its qualities to its users. The table is thus not just symbolic because it represents an idea, rather they are also symbolic because the reveal something about themselves, the materials are not interchangeable, the surface and the function is not arbitrary, and the shape is not irrelevant to how we engage with the table. Dining tables are thus objects of a design process, because their aesthetic nature informs the function they fulfill. This function has been designed and developed.

The Godfather II (1974)

The generalised expression – sitting at a round table – to find resolution to a problem, evidently reinforces the relationship that developed between the shape of a table and the normative order of a place, be it public or private. A round table signifies equal footing among partners in dialogue. The form of the table – perhaps associated to the room – expresses a symbolic order. The head of the table, usually my father, is already delivered to his or her circumstances, exposed in a formal position not shared by any other seated around the table. Thus, it becomes a holistic symbolic sphere, that table, the people and the place.

Annie Hall (1977)

In a time where intimacy has waned in our private and public lives, we must acknowledge the important role that the dining table and design has played in shaping the rituals of dining, sharing meals and its establishment of certain public groups and the boundaries associated therewith. Thus, whomever contemplates the dining table and its function in our public and private lives, and the establishment of public and private groups, and communities, must understand this function because of the process of design, the constant re-invention and development of the table within a dining room.

Bastardo Restaurant, Lisboa, Portugal. _ The dining hall is animated with exemplars of designed chairs and gleeful tables. (©Justin Coetzee, 2018)

Where we eat, the dining table, and the room or non-room in which it takes place, creates a certain type of temporary or permanent community, be it familial or public. Sitting and dining together at a table provides space for life to be narrated and absorbed, a place where we communicate who we are, and who we want to be. It becomes a place for reflection and deliverance.