All About Table Design
A well-proportioned table balances ergonomics with style.
Synopsis: The best designed tables combine basic ergonomics and proper dimensions with style. As Graham Blackburn describes, choosing a table design means paying attention to details such as comfort, size and seating capacity, functionality, and pleasing proportions.
Tables must above all function on a practical level. So far as function goes, ergonomic decisions, the choice of material, construction method, joinery details, and finish are of greatest importance. But — and this is a very big ‘but’ — for a table to be completely successful, aesthetic considerations are also extremely important.
For dining tables, the design begins with seating capacity. Unless you are planning to use extension leaves, you have to decide how many people you want the table to accommodate and live with that. Although it may be tempting to build a large table to account for any eventuality, you should consider how the table functions on a daily basis for the immediate family. If you need flexibility, extension tables are the best option but will require more effort to engineer the leaf supports.
While it’s important to make sure a table is sized to fit its intended surroundings, these dimensions will get you within striking distance.
With work tables, height might be the most important consideration. For example, a writing table will be too high for use as a computer table unless accommodation is made for a keyboard tray. Occasional tables have their own requirements, but height and width decisions are less critical. Still, consider how they will relate to existing furniture in the home. Sofas and arm chairs, for example, do not come with standard arm heights.
Regardless of your woodworking experience, the design of your particular table will benefit if you spend time identifying its precise function, giving careful consideration to the material and the construction, and following some form of aesthetic rationale throughout the piece.
TABLE HEIGHT GUIDELINES
Although there are endless possibilities regarding style, shape, ornamentation and proportion when designing furniture, start with proven dimensions suited to the function the piece will serve.
WORK TABLES: The height of a table is critical to someone who spends hours working at it.
Function: Tables need to work as intended
The original and quintessential function of a table is to provide a flat surface for writing, playing games, eating or working. The form of any given table may be as varied as these uses. So it is of the utmost importance to be clear at the outset about the requirements of the table you intend to design. These include not only structural requirements—so that the table can do its intended job—but also ergonomic requirements. The most exquisite dining table will be a complete failure if it proves too small to sit at.
Attention to function is absolutely the designer’s first responsibility. Familiarize yourself with tables designed for similar functions, and note features designed for specific purposes, such as sturdy legs for heavy loads, drop or draw-leaves for tables that must expand, lipped tables designed to prevent objects from falling off, and added drawers or shelves for storage. A reference such as Architectural Graphic Standards (by Ramsey and Sleeper) is a useful place to explore table types by function, and a basic reference for so-called “standard” or average dimensions.
Beware of “standard” dimensions. Few people are exactly “standard.” Unless you are building many examples of a particular table, your client will be better served if the dimensions are uniquely suited to him. Nevertheless, certain aspects of many tables really shouldn’t be changed, such as the amount of leg room required beneath a skirt or the area a diner needs for greatest convenience.
THREE PATHS TO PLEASING PROPORTIONS
A design rationale is crucial to building tables with pleasing proportions. The three described below are proven approaches, but others are possible.
More to a table than function and style
A table may also be defined by various structural features. The construction should, of course, be consistent with the intended use: a knock-down trestle table for portability; a draw-leaf table for occasional enlargement.
Frequently, there are trade-offs to be considered. A gate-leg table, for example, has leaves that enlarge it when needed. The leaves are supported by hinged legs that swing out. When folded, the leaves can interfere with seating, and when opened, there sometimes seems an inordinate number of legs that get in the way of diners’ legs. A group of four nesting tables stores in the space of one, great for occasional use. However, they are sequential in height and either the tallest or the shortest is apt to be at a less-than-optimal level.
While your own experience and available tools will dictate to a large extent how any given table is constructed, resist the impulse to build only what you are comfortable with. It is worth the effort to research a new technique or a new joint for the sake of better function or more pleasing shape.
At the same time, do not get carried away by the urge for novelty. Successful construction entails the use of appropriate species, relevant construction methods, the right joint for the job — dovetail, mortise-and-tenon, dowels, biscuits, etc. — and a finish consistent with the intended use.
Legs set the style
To a great extent, all table tops are the same. They’re flat, and intended to support something. While the wood species, edge treatment and apron certainly can make stylistic statements, it is the legs that most clearly establish a table’s style and visual effect. As important as well-designed legs are, they will only be successful if they are considered as part of the overall design.
When viewing a table in a room that has enough light to make out forms but not details or wood species, it is still possible to discern the function of the table by looking at the legs. Four heavy legs joined by a horizontal stretcher tell us that this is a library table intended to support a load of books. Light and gracefully tapered legs that focus attention on the table top, as if it were floating, suggest that this may be a hall table for the display of some precious ornament.
Legs are frequently the key determinant of the table’s style. For example, a Queen Anne table’s top and apron are typified by restrained ornamentation. It is the cabriole legs that allow us to recognize the style. The same is true of the Shaker style, whose simple and efficient legs carry their load with no ornamentation or excess weight. And the Art Deco tables designed in the 1920s by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann cast away traditionalism in favor of legs whose sensuous curves resembled nothing that had gone before. (See the back cover for a modern interpretation of Ruhlmann.)
TABLE BASE OPTIONS
Not only must legs be appropriately sized to support the table top, they’re usually the element that makes the strongest design statement.
Develop a plan that ties together all the elements
The final ingredient for successful table design requires that every detail be considered from the point of view of how the table will look.
Given that the functional requirements have been satisfied, and that the construction is sufficiently workmanlike, the most striking feature of any table is how well it fits in with its surroundings. This can mean designing in an established style such as Queen Anne or Arts and Crafts, or designing so that the general proportions, shapes, and colors are compatible with neighboring pieces. Compatibility can result from similarity or contrast. A severely modern design might fit very well with the relatively simple lines of a room full of Shaker furniture, but might look uncomfortably out of place in a room furnished in a ponderous Gothic or an ornate 18thcentury style.
Designing in a particular period style can be difficult without understanding the underlying design sensibility of the period. It is not enough to employ superficial features of a period to achieve the right feeling. Slapping some mis-proportioned cabriole legs onto a table does not guarantee that it will look “Chippendale.” Incorrect details can produce ludicrous and unhappy results, similar to applying a distinctive Rolls-Royce hood to a Volkswagen Beetle.
Arts and Crafts furniture is not as uncompromisingly rectilinear as it may initially appear. And Shaker furniture, for all its apparent simplicity and lack of ornament, is often surprisingly sophisticated in its proportions. Before attempting to design a table in a period style, make sure that you understand the typical construction techniques, the common materials, and the forms that governed the proportions.
This last point— forms that govern proportions — is more important than almost anything else. The term simply means that, functional and structural requirements aside, some method has been employed to decide on all the dimensional details of your table. Making decisions about the exact width of a leg or the depth of a skirt or apron based on structural requirements alone may guarantee solid joinery, but unless you are the rare designer possessed of an inherently perfect “eye” it is unlikely that your table will look as balanced and graceful as it could if designed according to some plan.
There are, in fact, numerous design paradigms commonly used by designers, some exceedingly simple, others more sophisticated. You may, indeed, invent your own paradigm or plan — the point is that using virtually any plan is better than making decisions about exact dimensions based on nothing more than what material is conveniently to hand, or what size router bits are available.
The ability to expand can greatly enhance a table’s utility, but this versatility comes with challenges. Sturdiness and leaf storage are two prime considerations.
FOLDING TOP RESTS ON GATE LEG: With the top folded, this Federal demi-lune table tucks neatly against wall. When needed, gate legs swing out from the back, and the top folds open.
Drawings: Graham Blackburn
From Fine Woodworking #177
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