Quick History: The Parsons Table

Retrospect

The Parsons table is one where the square legs have the same width as the tabletop, regardless of its other dimensions. Its history is characterized by contradiction: created to be a simple canvas for exceptional materials, its design is simultaneously credited to the famous designer Jean-Michel Frank and to anonymous design students. But is the real story even more muddled?

According to oral tradition, the Parsons table was created in a furniture design class at the Paris campus of the Parsons School of Art and Design (hence the name). It was the 1930s, the era associated with both spare Modernism and luxurious Art Deco, known at the time as "Moderne". The teacher of the design class was the French designer Jean-Michel Frank, whose own work perfectly straddled the Modern/Moderne divide, pairing simple geometrical forms with sumptuous, evocative materials like shagreen, straw marquetry and parchment.

As the story goes, "Frank challenged his students to create a table so basic that it would retain its integrity whether sheathed in gold leaf, mica, parchment, split straw or painted burlap, or even left robustly unvarnished."* Together, Frank and his students came up with a design they called the T-square table, because the relationship between the leg and the top was the same as the two perpendicular arms of the T-square drafting tool. The table was first executed in New York for a student exhibition, constructed by a Parsons handyman according to the plans drawn up by the students in Paris.

Complicating this story is the inescapable fact that the table makes an appearance in the annals of design before that fateful class was ever taught! By the time the 1930s rolled around, tables whose tops are the same thickness as their legs can be seen in interiors by Mies Van der Rohe and Lilly Reich (image 4), Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus, Mart Stam, and even Jean-Michel Frank, himself (image 3)!

So who designed it first? Or did it just emerged wholesale from the Bauhaus values of functionalism, simplicity and basic forms? Its association with the T-square reminds me of Herbert Bayer's Universal Typeface, which he designed at the Bauhaus in 1928 strictly using the forms of engineering tools. Perhaps it follows that several people extended that principle to a simple table form during the same era. And then, in the tradition of great teachers, Frank guided his students to uncover the formula for themselves.


*The quote cited is from a Times piece by Mitchell Owens, a great source for the traditional account of the table's development at Parsons.

Images:
1 The Parsons desk in metal, $399 at West Elm
2 A San Francisco interior designed by Jean-Michel Frank in 1929, with two Parsons-style tables visible in the living room, via Peak of Chic
3 Lilly Reich's Apartment for a Single Person incorporated a Parsons-style table in 1931, via arttattler.com
4 Parsons-style nesting tables from Julian Chichester
5 The Fresca white console table, $249 at CB2.

RELATED RETROSPECT POSTS ON APARTMENT THERAPY:
Unsolved Mystery: The Obscure Origins of the Chesterfield
Quick History: Mies van der Rohe and the Brno Chair
Quick History: The Bauhaus and its Influence
Shagreen: The Skin of Rays and Sharks

Originally published 4.28.11 - JL

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