In a world where living room furniture is often designed around the TV, a tea table can seem an anachronism. Shorter than a dining table, they provided a space for conversation over tea. Today they can still serve for intimate dining or largish occasional tables. This design by the Scottish Architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh features an elliptical top over a base with four slatted legs. The legs are set at an angle relative to the base so that they appear to follow the curve of the top. Cutouts frame carved leaves, an organic embellishment showing an art nouveau influence.
Although it met with mixed reviews upon its completion in 1909, Mackintosh’s design for the Glasgow School of Art is now generally regarded as his masterpiece. Built in two phases, it bookends the peak of his creativity. Today later construction has crowded the building, so it is interesting to see it captured, as in this photo from the School’s archive, in its original context.
I was in Glasgow recently to take a look at the furniture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I began my tour at The Lighthouse, Mackintosh’s first public commission for the Glasgow Herald. The building has been reimagined as a gallery and museum, featuring a fine overview of Mackintosh’s work (and spectacular view of the city from its repurposed water tower. This example of Mackintosh’s design for a side chair for Catherine Cranston’s Argyle Street Tea Room shows its age in the cracked back, but age doesn’t diminish the distinction of the design. The cutout evoking a bird in flight shows an Art Nouveau influence, and the high back creates a strong impression of verticality while also fostering an air of intimacy around the table. Having sat at in one of these at the Tea Room, I can report the design is more attractive than comfortable.
See the side chair in the Museum of Modern Art’s online collection.
While the tapered columnar base looks a bit elaborate, building it is relatively straightforward. I produced a pattern then used it to bring the sides to final shape, cut their mitered edges, and plow the grooves for the corbels. After roughing out the side blanks, I then routed them to final size with a pattern bit and mitered the edges with a 45-degree chamfer bit. A a 3/4-inch guide ring kept the ¼-inch spiral upcut bit straight as I plowed the grooves.
I took my usual approach to corbels, then cut the top to final size and chamfered its edges lightly. After sanding things to 220 grit, I fumed the table and applied a coat of boiled linseed oil. While I generally prefer to prefinish my parts that decision here proved problematic: packing tape does not stick to oiled wood. I had to scramble during assembly, replacing packing tape with masking tape and a couple of strategically-placed clamps. Despite this obstacle, I managed to get the base together, then installed the corbels, using a shaped caul and clamps to glue each one in place. Screws through corner brackets attach the top to the base.
I find the minimalist design quite appealing–I especially like the effect of the floating top and the juxtaposition of sharp angles and smooth curves. I’ve built it with a plywood top to be historically accurate, (that’s the approach documented on video, too), but I think there’s enough play in the metal pegs joining base and top that movement of a solid top wouldn’t be too much of a problem. I think a solid, vertical grain fur top over a cherry base could look good.
If you prefer your woodworking instruction via the printed word, this Juhl-inspired coffee table is also one of the step-by-step projects featured in Mid-Century Modern Furniture.
I spent the first week of January at the Popular Woodworking shop to shoot a couple of videos. The first, Building Techniques in Mid-Century Modern Furniture, is now available on shopwoodworking.com.
To help promote the launch of the video, I wrote “Five Lessons from Mid-Century Modern Furniture” for the PWM shop blog.
I spent the first full week of January in Blue Ash, Ohio at the Popular Woodworking shop to film two videos–one on Mid-Century Modern construction techniques, the other on building a coffee table in the style of Finn Juhl. It’s a little intimidating to be in front of three cameras, but I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product. And I’d love to have those lights in my basement shop.
I’d leaned the sides of the tabouret against the bench to get them out of the way to begin work on the corbels when something in their shape seemed familiar. Because the Limbert Furniture Company produced so many designs featuring the tapered column base, it took me a minute to realize why these sides look familiar: They are very similar to the the shape of the No. 254 umbrella stand. The stand may have a slightly wider mouth than the table, but both share the same footprint and similar cutouts, though the tabouret features two cutouts the stand’s one. It would be easy to repurpose the template I created to build the umbrella stand, either preserving both cutouts or omitting the second. The umbrellas probably won’t mind if I’m not 100% accurate to the original.…
I’d read in the past that you can use woodworking tools to mill soft metals like brass and aluminum, but I didn’t give that much thought. I also read you can bond metal using epoxy. Again, I didn’t give the fact much thought–until recently. Researching an upcoming project, I’ve finally had cause experiment with epoxy and aluminum tubing, and with my first results, my reaction has gone from “oh, you can epoxy aluminum” to something like “HOLY @#!$! YOU CAN EXPOXY ALUMINUM!” No need to braze or weld, you can just glue. Couple that capability with the ability to mill soft metals using woodworking tools, and it opens up new potential in the shop.
I’m still in the early stages of my experimentation, practicing simple and compound miter joints, but it’s a short step from experiment to fabricating parts. The base of a Nelson bench comes to mind, as does a variation on an Eames surfboard table.
To build the miter:
- Cut the aluminum tubing at the miter saw.
- Sand the miter with 50-80 grit paper. Scuffing the metal helps the epoxy adhere to it.
- Clean the metal with mineral spirits.
- Mix epoxy per the instructions. I used JB weld.
- Apply the epoxy yo the tubing and clamp together. I used a corner clamp for this miter, but for a trapezoidal frame (like the base of the Nelson bench, I’ll try packing tape.
The Limbert furniture company produced several occasional tables on the same theme–an octagonal top supported by corbels and a tapered columnar base. The No. 239 also features two cutouts on each side, the shape of cutouts echoing the shape of the sides.