In the 1960s, David Hicks coined the term ‘tablescape’. It meant a large coffee table, artfully styled with books and objets (no, an object just won’t do). It was the beginning of self-conscious styling.
Of course, it could be argued that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the country house library lined with unread tooled leather volumes served a similar purpose: to show its owner as a man of belles lettres (French is the language of choice when it comes to pretension). Just as a tablescape – or its predecessor, the Germanic wunderkammer – was a way of showing your visual literacy.
The room featured on the covers of Japanese style magazines and in coffee table books. It worked harder than we did
By the 1980s, Hicks’ style capital was going down but the spirit of the tablescape lived on. We were all guilty of over-styling in the Eighties. Most people can put their excesses down to youthful folly and move on, but mine is documented, an over-dressed skeleton that haunts my husband the Brutalist’s minimalist closet.
We had one room that had only one purpose in life: to be admired. On the huge crackle-glazed coffee table with solid spherical legs, we had a permanent display of old cloth-bound encyclopaedias, one left open at a typographically cool page, some large stones taken from a Brittany beach and a few sprays of gypsophilia. The shelves behind were lined with bits of broken mirror and milk bottles which each contained a red carnation.
We never actually used the room but it featured on the covers of Japanese style magazines and in coffee table books. It worked harder than we did.
Let’s be ‘honest’…
The excess of the 1980s was followed by the decoratively barren or ‘honest’ – never trust a word that has to go in inverted commas – decades, when beauty was found in the most utilitarian objects (you were even allowed the ‘c’ now). Instead of buying Alessi vases and Philippe Stark lemon squeezers, we got excited about balls of string and scrubbing brushes; so raw, so functional and, when lined up on a mantel, so pretentious.
But, fickle as our generation is, we are now back on the acquisition trail. It’s only the language and our taste that has changed. As our children leave home, we replace them with ‘things’, but not just any old things. No, we give them cultural significance; and instead of tablescapes, we talk of ‘curating’ our shelves.
With one eye on our past, and the other on what’s cool and what’s not, we scour eBay for things that are just old enough for us not to have had them first time round – mid-century modern fits the bill perfectly – because nostalgia is so ageing. A friend of mine has a display table in her kitchen where objects, such as classic Olivetti typewriters or vintage shop scales, are rotated every few months. Yes, we are all curators now.