The Parsons table is not a physical object but an idea, the platonic ideal of a table, characterized by a simple form, unadorned, adaptable to any material, with legs as wide as the tabletop is deep. The “ur-modern” table, the “essence of tableness,” it is capable of assuming many different forms: a singular model with multiple real variations. The name is now so established that there are entries under “Parsons table” in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition), the New Encyclopedia Britannica (1986), and Roget’s Thesaurus (2004). It is so much a staple that it has been called the, “Gap pocket T of American interior design.” While clearly influenced by the work of 1920s European avant-garde (similar tables were produced by Gerrit Rietveld, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe), it has a muddy provenance. For this reason it is seldom mentioned in histories of twentieth-century furniture design, which are often structured around lists of famous designers.
Though the origins of the Parsons table are unclear, a mythology has built up around it, one that is frequently repeated in design magazines. The mythology goes something like this: during the 1930s the French designer Jean-Michel Frank was a visiting critic at the Paris branch of Parsons School of Design (then known as the New York School of Fine and Applied Art). Frank had utilized simple cubic furniture, including tables, in his designs from the mid-1920s: versions of the Parsons table form may be seen in photographs of his work dating from this period, including his famous salon for the Vicomte de Noailles of 1929. During this time he set his American students the problem of designing a simple table that could be clad in any material. The design originally known as the “T-square table” was the result. Almost all versions of this story originate with the interior designer Stanley Barrows, a graduate of Parsons who went on to teach at the school. However its veracity is difficult to prove. Interviews with Parsons alumni from the pre-war Parsons Paris era indicate they had no awareness of the Parsons table during that time. It appears to have been unknown, even as a type, until the 1940s and 50s when students remember being advised by their instructors to include such a table in their interior renderings because it was easy to draw.
Though it not possible to verify Barrows’ origin story, there can be no doubt that the “T-square table” was in popular with New York City interior designers by the 1950s. Its popularity mirrored that of Frank’s work, which represents both absolute minimalism and absolute luxury. The same can be said of the table: it is an example of both extreme minimalism, and of the refined taste and sensibility of high modernism. Copies of the table became available on the mass market in 1953 when Milo Baughman designed a version for the Winchendon Furniture Co (also known as Murray Furniture) in Winchendon MA. Baughman had no connection to Parsons. He attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles from 1945-7 and it is possible he many have encountered a similar design by Charles Eames during that time.
Just as its origins are unclear, there are few clues as to how the “T-square table” became known as the Parsons table. The first published occurrences date to the early 1960s when another version was mass-produced under that name by two furniture companies, Mount Airy and Directional Industries. During that period Baughman also adopted the name for his product. A 1966 article in the New York Times ascribed the popularity of the style to its versatility: it was easy to make, could be constructed of many different materials, and it went with furniture from any period. In 1968 the Washington Post named the Parsons table the, “status table of the year.” Around the same time the design was popularized to a mass-audience through the widespread publication of an article describing its ease of fabrication in a series of regional newspapers. Attesting to the trickle down of modern design from “high-taste” interiors, to mass-produced furniture pieces, to “Do-It-Yourself” projects, articles demonstrating the construction of a Parsons table were published in Popular Science magazine in 1972, 1973, 1978, 1980 and 1985. As an institution Parsons School of Design began advertising a link between the school, the table, and Jean-Michel Frank around 1972, and its mythology was widely employed in the school’s advertising by the early 1990s.
(Much of this information was compiled by Theodore (Ted) Barber, former Director of the Parsons Archives, now in the New School Archives. My thanks go to Wendy Scheir, Director of the Archives, for directing me to this material.)
1. Mitchell Owens, “Dying for a Parsons Table,” New York Times (8 June 2006).
2. Interview with Stanley Barrows, conducted by Martica Saw, 02/01/94-02/10/94. New School Archives.
3. Folder: “Parsons Table: Questionnaire Replies.” New School Archives.
4. “Something Eclectic Added: Milo Baughman, Designer,” Interiors (1953), 84.
5. “Furniture Show,” New York Times (17 June 1963).
6. Lisa Hammel, “Countless Variations in the Parsons Table,” New York Times (1 July 1966).
7. “In 1968 Parsons Turns The Tables,” Washington (DC) Post, (16 June 1968).
8. See, for example, “The ‘Parsons Table”: Hottest Item on the Shelf Since the Electric Knife,” Bedford Indiana Times Mail (13 September 1966).