They sit quietly and compactly stashed, but nesting tables are always ready to leap into action.
In the spirit of Marie Kondo, the home-organization guru who says we should limit our possessions to those that “spark joy,” I am taking an
appreciation tour of my apartment.
And so I say, thank you, immersion blender, even with your scary naked blade, for making me feel superior whenever the recipe says, “Purée in batches.” And thank you, magical desk lamp, for turning on and off with a finger tap. You’re a mite oversensitive, but who am I to judge?
Above all, thank you, neat quartet of nesting tables. You sit quietly in your living room niche, one on top of another, yet are always ready to leap out and spread like SWAT members when company arrives.
A perfect companion
Nesting tables are like candidates that keep their promises. They swear faithfully to be compact, unobtrusive and versatile, and — mirabile dictu — they are. They shoulder hors d’oeuvres trays, take part in TV-watching-at-mealtime operations and offer discreet spots for tucking away loose magazines.
What is more, nesting tables liberate the space in front of a sofa, where a coffee table would otherwise squat, allowing legs to stretch and blood to circulate.
Most space-saving furniture demands compromise. The convertible couch is rarely as comfortable as a bed or sofa. The folding chair lurks in a closet when it is not Thanksgiving.
Not so with nesting tables.
A recent history
In the annals of furniture, nesting tables are fairly new. The British cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton is credited with publishing the first drawings (a group of four spindly-legged tables labeled Quartetto) in his book “The Cabinet Dictionary,” published in 1803.
But Sarah Coffin, a curator at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, suspects that Sheraton was merely codifying a design that had emerged some years earlier. In the 18th century, people commonly arranged furniture for tea drinking, needlework and checkers, later returning it to its place against the walls. Leaving furniture in the center of a room, Coffin says, “would have been considered messy or way too informal.”
Coffin speculates that nesting tables would not have shown up before the 1740s, when straight or tapering legs replaced a fashion for curved ones. Legs with flat outer sides are needed to move the tables in and out of their stacks.
One classic style
My own nesting tables were designed in the late 1920s by German artist Josef Albers, when he taught at the Bauhaus. They are shiny, colorful rectangles on thin oaken legs (shown above right). In descending order of table size, the tops are pale minty green, goldenrod yellow, semi-burnt orange and celestial blue.
Albers wasn’t the only one making nesting tables at the Bauhaus. At about the same time, Marcel Breuer, his friend and fellow instructor, came up with a set in tubular steel with a similar color scheme. The tables fit the school’s populist ethos and the needs of a society that, like ours, had begun to relish small living.
After World War II, an explosion of modest ranch houses with open plans and centrally placed television sets made nesting tables a common feature in American décor.
In 2004, the German furniture company Vitra put Albers’ design into production, using tinted fiberglass in place of the artist’s painted glass tops. I picked up my set a couple of years later on sale at Vitra’s New York showroom. They are being produced through a partnership between the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut, and the Museum of Modern Art Design Store.
Eames Demetrios, an artist who is the grandson of the designer Charles Eames, is a great admirer of my nesting tables.
“There’s poetry in those choices,” Demetrios says of the tables’ not-quite-primary hues. “Somehow it comes together just great.”