...and yet we hold on to the big table which, in turn, continues to demand a room of its own. Never mind that the dining table may have a computer on it or often becomes the place to fold laundry or sort the mail. Its surface bears an invisible imprint that indicates placement of forks, spoons, knives, napkins, and plates, all of them promising order, civility, and good manners. Setting a formal table has retained its appeal through all the changes that come into the dining room. This room, a small domain of ritual, though out of sync with the patterns of contemporary life, nevertheless seems to answer some vestigial human need.
When they were very young, my twin sons were the kind of boys who could look at a truly beautiful cloud formation and see in it rifles; they used their toast as semi-automatic weapons and lived in a whirlwind of chaos. But what always astonished me about these two small warriors os how they loved to set the table; they could not seem to get enough of the domestic task. Even they seemed to sense that there was something soothing about the rituals of dining. There was meticulous care in the way one carried a pile of napkins while his brother softly laid out the forks. There was precision in every move they made. And their behavior seemed to suggest that these simple rituals may be balms to aggression.
That small domestic rituals can quiet the mayhem of the human spirit has been recognized and institutionalized throughout the ages, and recorded in the history of tableware and table manners. To my mind the seminal moment of that history occurred in 1669, when Louis XIV decreed the use of rounded knives, At the time, knives had a sharp, pointed ends and were as handy in resolving mealtime disputes as they were in carving up a tough hunk of meat. By outlawing such lethal cutlery at the table, the French king was making a reasonable suggestion that his court leave their aggressions elsewhere. Thereafter, knives were designed with blunt, rounded ends, and knives already produced had their sharp ends rounded. Here was legislation that promoted dining as a social, congenial, even gentle act. It was one of those moments in design history when the connection between the form of an object and social intercourse was clear and precise, when the shape of an object and human behavior took their cues from one another in a clear and beautiful sequence.