Here are two small tables. Except for similarity in size and the undeniable fact of their table-ness (flat top, leg at each corner, used for putting things on), stylistically they couldn’t be much more different from each other. One has a bright, lightweight, minimalist modern look to it, while the other is dark, heavy and traditional.
And yet, it’s possible to argue (which I’m about to proceed to do) that the distinction between the two tables is absolutely negligibly tiny. In many ways, although they look so different, they are the same table. Sorry to get all paradoxical with you, but if you stick with the story you’ll get to see what I mean.
Since this is a piece about tables, I’ll start off with a table comparing my two tables.
|Description||Small occasional/coffee table with removable legs||Small drop-leaf occasional/coffee table convertible to stool|
|Dimensions (mm) |
Width end to end
Depth front to back
|Materials||Top: mahogany(?), frame: walnut(?), legs: birch(?)||Oak|
|Finish||Clear varnish||Dark oak stain|
|Construction||Simple attachment of top to frame with glued triangular blocks, legs attached to corners of frame with metal wing nuts.||Traditional mortice and tenon construction, bobbin-turned legs with stretchers, hinged leaves and swivel-action top.|
Next, I’ll tell you something about the modern-looking table, and something about the old-looking one, and then I’ll resolve the paradox by telling you what it is about both of them that makes them the same – and why.
The Modern one
This small occasional table has a quite thinly-cut mahogany top, a walnut frame and removable legs in a hardwood which is probably birch. It is plain and simple and cheap-looking and featureless and, frankly, quite boring.
It lives in the attic and only comes out on very rare occasions when we need an additional surface for serving drinks and finger food in the living room. I bought it a few years ago in a fund-raising auction held at a Church of Scotland parish church near my house. My winning bid was £8.00. As I was collecting it afterwards a very old lady approached me and said: “I wanted that table. It would look nice in my sitting room. Can I buy it from you for £8?” I refused quite sharply, and she turned away, clearly disappointed at my churlishness. I felt that I’d been slightly rude. After all, it was only a dull dreary coffee table, and her need was almost certainly much greater than mine. At the time, I already possessed as many other occasional tables as I could possibly require, all of them much more suited to my personal tastes than this specimen.
So why would this rather cheap and unappealing object cause me to be brusque with an inoffensive elderly lady? Here’s why: because before placing my winning bid I had noted the markings on the underside. It’s not just any old table. It was made by an interesting maker.
The maker’s label is a strip of printed plastic bearing the name David Joel. To anyone who knows anything about British 20th century furniture design, that’s a classy name – the husband of the more famous designer Betty Joel (1896-1985). For a while in the 1930s, Betty Joel was the most celebrated and fashionable interior designer in the UK, sometimes referred to as the Clarice Cliff of furniture design. With her husband David she set up the Token Furniture works which met with great success until 1939 when the marriage broke up and she withdrew from the furniture business altogether. David renamed the firm David Joel Ltd and carried on by himself.
If you look at online images of Betty Joel’s furniture (like the ones here), you’ll see superb handmade craftsperson quality, influences from the later Arts and Crafts Movement as interpreted by Cotswold School furniture makers such as Gordon Russell and Edward Barnsley, the use of traditional British woods, notably oak and walnut, the whole effect lightly mixed up with a dash of restrained Art Deco and a touch of The Jazz Age.
By contrast, if you look at my table, you’ll see Scandi-influenced minimalism, skimping and haphazard use of materials, signs of mass-production (despite the “hand-made” claim on the label), and embryonic flat-pack construction. Very different.
From where, around 1950, did David Joel get the notion that his customers would want to buy modernist furnishings? Why such a major shift in British furniture taste from blocky, heavyweight, backward-looking solidity to bright, minimalist, lightweight, forward-looking modernism?
From the 1920s, modernist design was flourishing in Europe but largely ignored in Britain. Designers such as Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus in Germany, and Gerrit Rietveld in the Netherlands produced clean simple geometric forms using metal and light-coloured timbers. The Anglo-Irish designer Eileen Gray (1878-1976) produced some of the most iconic pieces of modernist furniture design, but she found success in France and was virtually unknown in Britain.
Meanwhile in Scandinavia, designers such as Finn Juhl and Hans Wegner were developing the kind of teak and rosewood furniture which we have now come to think of as “mid-century modern”, and it was to this style which David Joel referred when he produced my little table.
What made him look in this direction was almost certainly the overwhelming influence of one major event – the Festival of Britain, held on the South Bank of the River Thames in London in 1951.
Much has been written about the influence of the Festival of Britain on British design, and I’m not going to rehearse it all here. Suffice to say that the Government-sponsored Festival, and the artists, craftspeople, organisers, agencies and businesses behind it, were instrumental in sweeping away the dullness and austerity of the Second World War and the immediate post-war years, and bringing in a new colourful, modernist, populist aesthetic which has set the tone for much British (and world) design ever since.
The last sentence is a huge generalisation, and people who know much more than me about design (which wouldn’t be difficult) may take different views. But if it wasn’t for the design revolution which took place around the Festival of Britain, I think it very unlikely that my small David Joel coffee table would look anything like it does.
The Old-fashioned one
As for the Old-Fashioned table, I bought it for £7.00 in an Edinburgh charity shop a few weeks ago. It’s in heavy dark-stained oak, a miniature pastiche of a 17th century drop-leaf original, but with the leaves elevated by swivelling the top through 900 and not through a gate-leg mechanism as would be typical of period pieces. With the leaves dropped, the table doubles as a stool with a similar appearance to a traditional joint stool or “coffin stool”.
The table was bought for a very specific use – to serve as a small occasional table for the Summer House, where we have attempted to offer chilly hospitality to visiting family and friends during the period of Covid-19 restrictions when we haven’t been permitted to admit them into the house. We call it a Summer House but it’s really nothing more than a uninsulated thin-walled timber shed with big windows and double doors at the far end of the garden, unsuitable in every respect for entertaining in a colder-than-average Scottish December.
While the Summer House is unsuited either for winter use or, to be honest, for receiving guests in comfort in any season, the small occasional table is fully fit for purpose – strong, sturdy, and perfectly utilitarian in the sense that it’s so unremarkable that you don’t need to worry about damage from hot beverages or unruly grandchildren.
Having stressed the table’s unremarkability (if that’s a word), I’m now going to make some remarks about it. Because it is really quite strange that mid-twentieth century makers should wish to make, and buyers should wish to buy, furniture of seventeenth century design and construction. There was no uninterrupted continuity of style and fashion over those three centuries: for a hundred years or more in the middle of the period, fashion-conscious joiners and cabinet makers wouldn’t have dreamed of making a Jacobean-style dark oak bobbin-turned joined dropleaf table. They would have been using imported mahogany and satinwood to make elegant Georgian and Regency neo-classical furniture after the designs of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton.
It was really only in the second half of the nineteenth century that tastemakers rediscovered the joys of Olde English Oak furniture, stimulated by the popularity of successive phases of design fashion from Gothic Revival to Aesthetic Movement to Arts-and-Crafts. All of these movements or trends placed emphasis on traditional methods and historicism, fuelled by a yearning to get back to the simple idealised life of the English roast-beef-fed manor-house-dwelling country yeoman of the pre-industrial age. Or some such twaddle.
This yearning first manifested in the country houses of the rich, but soon communicated itself to the masses of modest homemakers in the rapidly-expanding suburbs of industrial Britain. That’s why most houses for moderate means built from, say, 1870 onwards, featured steeply pitched rooflines, mullioned and bay windows, and gabled porches, with the whole Mock-Tudor effect often embellished with fake half-timbering. This style was as popular with homebuyers as it was derided by architecture critics – that is until the 1930s, when poet and critic John Betjeman took a close look and decided that the lives of lower middle class owners of semi-detached Jacobethan homes in suburban Metroland  were full of grace and beauty and worthy of celebration.
Surprisingly, that same yearning has never quite faded away, and echoes of this style continued to resonate amongst new property owners even into the mid-twentieth century, as a parallel phenomenon with the rise of modernism. And, as we shall see, it still resonates today in the third decade of the twenty-first century.
Returning from this digression to my little table, who made it? Sorry, no idea. It might have been any one of hundreds of traditional British furniture makers. Just about all I can tell you is that in its appearance and construction it is very different and very distant from its marginally stylish David Joel modernist companion.
Except that they are the same. Here’s why:
On the underside of each table there’s a stamped logo comprising two circles, each with a small segment cut out. This is the CC41 Utility Mark. People born in Britain during the Second World War and in the first few years thereafter will be familiar with this logo on products of many kinds. As a baby, you might have been wrapped in a Utility blanket; as a school-child you might have worn a Utility uniform shirt or dress; the mark might have appeared on your furniture and on your kitchen pots and pans. Born in 1948, brought up in London, and geekily interested in labels from an early age, I remember it well. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I believe we still have a Utility bedsheet in our linen cupboard.
You can get useful information about the Utility scheme from Google and other online sources. It was a Government programme brought in during 1941, when all of Britain’s resources were focussed on the War against Germany. For every aspect of domestic life, strictest austerity was the watchword. New furniture was only to be manufactured for sale to newlyweds and to those who had lost their possessions in bombing raids, and the items permitted to be made had to conform to very strict regulations and a restricted range of standard designs. Utility furniture designs were published in a catalogue. They were plain and unpopular, but the products must have been robust because you still often see them in second-hand furniture shops and low-end salerooms.
After the end of the War in 1945, the Utility scheme (together with food rationing and other elements of the austerity regime) was continued through the period of reconstruction, until it was finally abandoned in 1952 – thus providing the latest possible date for either of my two small tables to have been made.
If you look through the catalogues at the approved ranges and designs of wartime Utility furniture, you won’t see anything like either table. It’s all very plain and 1940s-looking, with distant echoes of the Cotswold school, but with no hint either of Scandinavian modernism or Jacobean traditionalism. But in 1948, towards the end of the Utility scheme, the Government design restrictions were relaxed, and registered firms were permitted to introduce their own ranges. Which indicates that 1948 is the earliest possible date for the production of both tables.
After hostilities ceased in 1945, there began a huge post-war house-building programme and, of course, a Baby Boom, which produced, among many others, me. Alongside, but perhaps not so much recognised, there must have been a furniture boom. It stands to reason that there was a vastly increased demand for tables for all the new families to sit at in their shiny new houses, flats and prefabs, whether built by local councils, or for sale, or for private rental.
Thus I find myself the proud owner of two tables both manufactured between 1948 and 1952 by British makers approved for the Utility scheme. Both makers operated in precisely the same market to satisfy the identical demand for affordable, sturdy, stylish furniture from newly-married returning service-people and those left homeless after the ravages of war.
I hope you’re beginning to see why my two tables are the same. And yet, they look so different. Why would that be?
Let’s deal with the modern table first. Between the time when Betty Joel left the firm in 1939 and the time when my table was made by her ex-husband around a dozen years later, two momentous events shaped the future for design: the Second World War and the Festival of Britain.
Under these influences, David Joel was clearly the type of furniture maker who chose to take advantage of the 1948 relaxation of the Utility regime to produce modern designs. During this boom time makers had to contend with severe materials and labour shortages, with most timber supplies and skilled workers being snapped up for house-building. Hence, perhaps, the odd mixture in my table of modernist aspiration with rather timid design, sloppy manufacturing and oddly combined hardwoods.
Simultaneously, the forces of traditionalism remained pervasive, as is proved by the existence of the little dark oak bobbin-turned drop-leaf table. While one young Baby Boom family chose to buy a brand-new lightweight, light-coloured clean-lined modernist table from David Joel, another went to a traditional furniture maker for brand-new heavyweight old-fashioned brownness and three-centuries-old design. This other family was oblivious to the charm and attraction of modernism, immune to the influence of the Festival of Britain, antagonistic towards new-fangled foreign design ideas. They sought the safety and familiarity of Mum and Dad’s or Granny’s taste, and there was a product readily available on the market to enable them to do so.
So it still goes today, at the start of this 70th anniversary year of the Festival of Britain. Look first at all the super-modern houses featured in Grand Designs, in all the daytime TV programmes and in interiors magazines promoting minimalism and decluttering and pale colours and clean lines and concrete and plate glass and stainless steel and edginess.
Then consider the homes that actual builders are building and that actual people choose to live in. Browse the three biggest homebuilders’ websites: Barratt, Wimpey, Persimmon, take your pick. Sure enough, in city-centre apartment blocks and you’ll see a watered-down version of modernism with its big windows and open-plan layouts, suited to the tastes and pockets of singles and young couples starting out on the property ladder and choosing their furnishings from Ikea.
But then look at the suburban and semi-rural housing estates into which these youngsters move as they start their families. What’s happened to modernism? It’s gone. Instead, you find detached and semi-detached family homes displaying vestigial external elements of distant manor-house forebears – a dormer here, a bay window there, a chimney, a gabled porch, some rudimentary half-timbering, a patch of garden front and back, a fence, a gate.
Indoors, here in the new housing estate of the 2020s, you’ll find plenty of Ikea and some mid-century modern, and my David Joel Utility table could easily find a favoured place as a vintage treasure.
Sadly the same cannot currently be said for the oak utility table. While new home owners find Jacobethan echoes desirable on the outside, it’s all clean lines, wall-mounted TVs and wipeable surfaces on the inside. Don’t expect to find moulded plaster ceilings, stained glass, wainscotting or elaborate dark oak or mahogany furniture.
But dark brown furniture isn’t finished yet. Mark my words. Wait for a few years for the pendulum of fashion to swing back. My little oak dropleaf table still has a good many decades of Utility ahead of it.
Note: Readers of the Random Treasure blog know that this writer is a great believer in recycling. Almost all of the objects that he writes about are second-hand and thus recycled from former owners. Many of his ideas and notions are second-hand too. In this spirit, sections of the above blog post are recycled from a piece written a few years ago and published on the Talking Antiques blog. If you want to read the original (written when I only possessed one Utility table and before purchasing the second), you can find it at https://talkingantiques.co.uk/utility/.