Thursday, May 05, 2005

Project Tables

I've long been interested in stools, counters and bars, particularly in what kind of work and interaction they support. Clearly, they are common in commercial and work settings (see below). What's surprising is how seldom you see them used in homes, outside of kitchens.... and, of course, in those wonderful 1940's penthouse apartments from the Thin Man movies.

Bars work because they permit people to stand or sit, work mutually or independently, and interact at closer distances than they would fully seated, or standing out in the open. They support concentrated tasks as well as casual interaction. The subtle difference in this pattern from conventional table and chairs is not as much physical as it is social: interaction does not require the same level of commitment from all parties. Ever notice how party people will migrate from the living room (where they are expected to sit) to the kitchen counter or the work island? People would rather "hover" where they can break away and reposition themselves more easily than if seated.

Bars let people work and interact in special ways. The very term is of synonymous with the legal profession, practiced under, around and over it for centuries. The related term "bench" pops up in legal world as well as baseball and even (in its Italian form, "banco") helped originate the term for monetary trading, solidifying back into English as "bank".

Bars (which I'd define as at least 40" to perhaps 48"in height) can support light to moderately intense physical work (heavy labor, like pounding out pork cutlets or mounting tires on rims, calls for something closer to standard counter height of 28-34"). Bars and the tall stools that accompany them permit more postural diversity than chairs and call for a bit more alert behavior than conventional seating. Barstool seating or "perching" is shallower than full seating, and takes less effort to stand up from. Related to the “bar” pattern is the “counter” pattern, both of which are found all over the commercial world. What you find less often in homes is a workstation with the same social/ergonomic characteristics, but designed for the whole family to use. I’m calling this a “project table” pattern, and I bravely predict it will show up more often, as laptop computers become the media of choice in today’s homes.

My theory is that a raised central "project table" in living areas could support a particular pattern of behavior--call it "cross-age project work" like nowhere else in the home. It would need three or four adjustable height stools with backrests on at least two of them. The stools would have to be kid-accessible and free rotating. The work surface would be durable enough to permit use of messy art media and sharp tools. You'd have plenty of flush mounted power outlets and a cable chase for computers and other devices. Power would come up through the floor. I'd install an array of halogen floods overhead, and make them dimmable.

What happens here? Kids do their homework. You can walk right up to them and look at want they are doing--because you are at the same eye-level, you can easily talk or share tasks at cuddle-distance. It's a place for kids to sit with friends and confide or play cards. It's a drawing table, a worktable and a game table. It's a puppet theater and dollhouse platform. You may wrap presents here (without backstrain) do your Christmas cards, sort out the family photographs or arrange flowers. One could do crafts or scrapbooking. You will use your computers here (you'll bring your modem/DSL line here too). I'd bet you would move the family computer (once it's a flat-screen) to this space, liberating that other room as an adult reserve, or office. Then you'll be editing and showing home movies, working on your family website, ripping MP3's, doing genealogy tables, composing music, surfing Ebay, and so on, all in a communal space that supports shared tasks. Closet spaces could help house tools, games, art supplies and media.

A full-out version would look like an unusually tall library table, with shallow drawers around the edges and the whole thing resting on four sturdy legs, or better yet, a pedestal base (perhaps housing a computer printer/paper) anchored to the sub-floor. Pencil cups might be recessed into the surface.

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