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Design 2002

Laying It All on the Table

A simple quest for custom-made furniture evolves into a complex--but satisfying--production


At 8:30 on a Saturday morning, I was halfway to San Diego, talking on my cell phone to my friend Boon-Keng Woo and totally recasting the shape of a table she was designing for my family. For the third time. That was when I realized how the process of creating custom furniture can take over your life. And what a pleasure that can be.

Over the years, I have met many people who were consumed with the details of creation, certain that the difference between success and failure can lie in the timing of a single beat in a song or the finish on a floorboard of a room. I once sat in a studio while six Disney animators spent 20 minutes discussing the psychological implications of stripes versus flat color on a cartoon character's bathing suit. I thought they were nuts.

And then came my table. For almost two years, I have looked for the perfect dining table, and in the months since we decided to custom-build one, I have obsessed about every aspect of its shape, materials, weight and color, changing my mind more than once on almost every detail.

What I have come to realize is that the decision-making process of custom design can teach you a great deal about yourself. When you're suddenly asked to narrow an infinity of possibilities into a single, "perfect" piece of furniture, your taste comes into focus. And so do the intimate associations you make with the things around you.

This latter is particularly true for a dining room table, which for many is the heart of a home. For our family of three, it is the place where we eat our meals and read the newspaper. It is where my daughter sometimes does her homework, where I pay bills when the desk is too jampacked to work on, and where we sit down to talk--as a family and with friends. Our life centers around the table, and not incidentally, it is the first thing you encounter when you come in our front door. In our house, the table sets the tone.

But I never considered all this when I started my search. I thought a good table was something you just buy on the fly. I began stumbling toward my new consciousness only after, for the 10,000th time, I had walked by and tried not to look at the walnut Ethan Allen country dining set that my husband, Richard, bought secondhand for $200 when he was still single. Throughout our marriage--more than a decade--that has been our only dining set, a symbol of just one more thing that needs to be replaced ... someday. And since our house is a quasi-Modernist hillside cottage, with lots of floor-to-ceiling windows, the old table's inappropriate rustic nature has been impossible to miss from inside and out, even when camouflaged by tablecloths.

Still, the clunker had some essential good qualities that we wanted to duplicate. It is round, a hefty 48 inches in diameter, and expands wide enough with two leaves to seat eight (as long as nobody breathes) without overtaking the room.

The problem was, these days, extension tables are not round. Or when tables are round and expandable, they're not as big as ours. Richard graciously looked at hundreds of possibilities, rejected them as I had, and then left me to pursue my own path, knowing that ultimately he'd have (limited) veto power, if he felt strongly enough, in the final moments.

I wanted the new table to be natural wood with roughly the same dimensions and expandability as the old one. And thus began the downhill slide in the search for a ready-made.

High- and low-end stores and the Internet yielded nothing to suit my idea. Same for designer catalogs. Hadn't the late and very prolific Charles and Ray Eames--two of the greatest mid-20th century furniture designers--ever made a table like this, I hoped? No. Not an extension table, although their design for a lovely round table with a metal base gave me hope. Why couldn't that idea be expanded?

I turned to Boon, a Rhode Island School of Design-trained former furniture designer, who is now a full-time mom, for help. "Can you design a table like that one, but that does this?" I said, pointing to the Eames table in a catalog and gesturing with my hands to indicate the shape. I found myself surprisingly inarticulate at stating my vision, but Boon was too polite and too generous with her time to say no; she was also too much of a friend to charge me for her efforts.

However, I now know what she knew then: I was asking a lot. Designing a table is no small task.

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