A scene from Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence. While the situation seems perfectly normal on the surface, the kitchen table represents an emotional connection between the family.
“We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see. Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of. Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.”
How welcome it was to hear Elizabeth Alexander’s phrase (as above but with an ‘at’ in the middle) near the end of her poem at Obama’s inauguration. It reminded me of the domestic role of the kitchen table. It serves as the centre of family communication, a subliminal peacekeeper, gently designed to encourage conversation. Older generations might think these experiences belong in the dining room. Today, such communication most often occurs in the kitchen.
In holistic design terms, the value of a decent-sized, well-positioned table is on a par with prepping space, storage cupboards and sink cabinets. In psychological terms, it occupies the number one spot for creating family well-being. If ever a piece of furniture deserved a place in the family, it would surely be a table.
There is a saying, ‘what is good for the family is good for the nation’. Curious as to the contemporary symbolism attached to the kitchen table, I set out to explore. Images on Google are plentiful, kitchen tables in films feature numerously and references to kitchen cabinets and sinks add interesting companions. There seems to be a kind of barefoot element to references for things that emanate from the kitchen table, implying things done simply or by the boot straps, with a down-to-earth approach. Examples of contemporary books include: Kitchen Table Counseling: A Practical and Biblical Guide for Women Helping Others; and Making peace at the table and building healthy eating habits. According to Google, there are 767 books on making peace around the kitchen table, including one by my namesake, John Gray.
The table, with its 15 multiple meanings and deviations (according to dictionary.com) allows you to ‘table a motion for peace, present figures or a graph to explain statistics, put an idea on the table, be under the table, i.e. drunk, or turn the tables and gain the upper hand or simply receive table service in a restaurant’.
Before 900 AD, a ‘table’ referred to either a plank for eating off, or a tableau for writing on. Both of these definitions are applicable to our current project, speculating on the creation of a socialable kitchen for the Obamas.
With all of these symbolic connotations, what is the role of the kitchen table in the White House? What would Obama think about our initiative to turn the Oval Yellow Room on the second floor into kitchen? Historically, the Yellow Oval Room has been used by first ladies to entertain female dignitaries on occasions of peace initiatives. This could provide an authentic environment for an oval kitchen table where all have full eye contact with everyone else sitting around the table. Regardless, The kitchen table will always be there waiting for the First Family to gather round for all of the nation’s most important decisions.