A Bit of History: The Architect’s Table

April 19, 2012

Thomas Jefferson owned an architect’s table, which only stands to reason. But so have individuals as diverse as the 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert and the late media tycoon John W. Kluge. Restoration Hardware offers a grand, industrial-strength example—a reproduction of a 1920s French piece—in its latest catalogue. Swimsuit model turned home-design entrepreneur Kathy Ireland also included one in her Portland Loft line. What is it about this old-fashioned furniture form, with its adjustable, slanted surfaces for use while standing, that people find so appealing?

This German Biedermeier architect’s table, made around 1830, brought $10,740 at Christie’s April 3 decorative arts sale in Amsterdam. Photo: Christie’s Images

For starters, it isn’t only architects—at least those who haven’t completely abandoned the T-square and pencil for AutoCAD software—who find the adjustable surfaces to be useful. Many artists are also fond of architect’s tables, a.k.a. drafting tables, aware that their slanted tops help reduce neck and back strain and that standing while working has positive circulatory benefits. (Jefferson, for one, designed his own, to better customize its ergonomics.) For the same reason, some writers like them too, though usually they are the rare ones who don’t toil on keyboards.

Sotheby’s London sold this George IV mahogany architect’s table for $7,985 in November. Photo: Sotheby’s

Not that one has to actually use an architect’s table to appreciate the design, craftsmanship, and history. When it comes to antique examples, all are not created equal. Some are decidedly bare-bones, composed of little more than a large, featureless flat wood top attached to a skeletal base by a pivot hinge that allows for custom angling. The most beautiful examples, however, exalt the craft of traditional cabinetmaking, utilizing exotic hardwoods and veneers, while featuring cunning retractable work surfaces as well as slots and drawers for storage. In a way, an architect’s table is the cabinetmaking equivalent of a bespoke sports car, combining fine artisanship with mechanical ingenuity and operational delight. And antiques collectors should note that prices for such tables tend to be far below those for exotic automobiles, largely because of the tables’ specialized, somewhat obsolete functions.

In a September sale at Sotheby’s London, this early-19th-century mahogany table of Russian or Baltic origin went for $9,820. Photo: Sotheby’s

A German Biedermeier architect’s table made around 1830 sold on April 3 at Christie’sAmsterdam for €8,125 ($10,740), more than two times the low estimate. The neoclassical walnut contraption has a compartmentalized drawer and a desktop drawing surface that can be raised to chest height. Last year at least two exceptionally handsome examples were offered at Sotheby’s London. One was a macho George IV mahogany table mounted on hefty fluted legs that sold in November for £5,000 ($7,985). The other was an exquisite early-19th-century table of Russian or Baltic origin, which came on the block in September. Made of pale, flaxen-color mahogany and featuring tapered legs inset with striking gilt-brass strips, it fetched £6,250 ($9,820).

This Louis XVI example, known as a table à la Tronchin, by ébéniste Jean-Henri Riesener, goes on the block tomorrow at Sotheby’s Paris, where it is estimated to bring as much as $66,000. Photo: Sotheby’s/ArtDigital Studio

One of the best antique architect’s tables seen in recent years goes on the block tomorrow, April 20, at Sotheby’s Paris. Known as a table à la Tronchin—after Théodore Tronchin, an unconventional 18th-century Swiss physician who advised a sluggish aristocrat “to write at a raised desk, while resting against a tall stool”—it is the work of the greatest ébéniste of the Louis XVI period, Jean-Henri Riesener, who in this instance combined ebony and mahogany with gilt-bronze mounts. Closed, the Tronchin table gives little hint of its actual purpose; fully opened, however, it looks something like an aircraft carrier, with two sliding surfaces for holding candlesticks, a frieze drawer for storage, and the ubiquitous racheting work surface floating above it all. The table’s twin was once owned by the French royal family. Sotheby’s estimates it will bring between €25,000 and €50,000 ($33,180–$66,360).

An early-20th-century French architect’s table with a metal base and a weighted counterbalance, on offer from New York dealer Linda Horn for $5,875. Photo: Steve Horn

So if you aren’t an architect or an artist, how do you make one of these adjustable tables earn its keep? Follow the example of architect Gil Schafer: Though he designs exclusively with AutoCAD, he uses an 18th-century English architect’s table at his home in upstate New York as a display case, finding its slants to be perfect for propping up framed works of art.

Mallett’s New York location is selling this rare George III satinwood artist’s table, circa 1780, featuring inlays of mahogany, boxwood, and ebony, plus a detachable locked compartment for brushes and paints. Price on request. Photo courtesy of Mallett
This French mahogany example, made around 1810, is available from George Subkoff Antiques in Westport, Connecticut, with an asking price of $11,500. Photo courtesy of George Subkoff Antiques
Adding pieces like these to your home can give your space a look of sophistication.  With their slanted, adjustable surface, the tables are great for your posture because you can sit up straight while working at them instead of hunching over.  For more historical, refined furnishings, visit us in our stores!  Sacksteder’s Interiors is located in New Trenton and Obryonville.

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