Dinner Is Served

by Myrna Hackney

Tables of Content II: a sequel to last season's memorable exhibit of table settings

Tables of Content II

January 25-February 1,  1998

Hall of Sculpture

There will be a gala preview that includes cocktails and light buffet,  6 to 8 p.m.,  Saturday,  January 24.  Tickets: $100 per person.  At the Sunday showing,  January 25,  sweets,  savories,  sherry and tea will be offered from 1 to 4 p.m.; $15 per person.  For reservations and information,  call 521-0281.

It has been a longtime wish of the Museum of Art Women's Committee to create a show based on Pittsburgh collections of decorative arts objects meant for dining.
In The Formal Birthday Dinner,  the centerpiece is a 16th-century French plateau (or tray),  on which the hostess has arranged a chorus of gilt candle-holders and long-stemmed flowers.  Meiseen figurines,  representing the continents,  add richness and visual density to the composition,  as does a crystal wine-rinser filled with glazed almonds.  The place settings themselves include Flora Danica porcelain dinner plates,  each delineating a different Danish flower (the service was originally commissioned by the Danish royal family as a gift for the tsarina Katherine the Great).  The plates,  in turn,  are surrounded by Baccarat crystal and silver-and-gilt flatware by Tiffany.
There were such collections, the committee knew. Wonderfully intact assemblages, such as the Richard Scaifes' silver-gilt Roebling service, as well as a number of important individual pieces that had been passed down, through much of this century, in Pittsburgh-area families. Such an exhibition might not only be of historical interest but could even inspire viewers to attempt their own collecting, and-at least for designers and craftsmen-creating.

But there never seemed to be an opening for such an exhibition until October 1996, when, during the Decorative Arts Symposium, the Hall of Sculpture was made available for five days.

With alacrity, chairs Ruth Garfunkel and Lowrie Ebbert took to the telephone, enlisting committee members. They commandeered talented friends, and planning for the first Tables of Content exhibition was underway.

In this informal setting,  Italian pottery is combined with American wine goblets and stainless steel-and-wood flatware.
The white-marble Hall of Sculpture was transformed into a joyous, vibrant "dining" room filled with 12 vignettes, ranging from Gilded Age grandeur to fairy-tale dreams. The delight of the 4,000 visitors to the displays was apparent. The sole complaint, heard again and again, was that the exhibition period was not long enough for viewers to return with friends. Mrs. Garfunkel recalls that months after the fact there were notes "from total strangers," thanking the Women's Committee for the show.

Tables of Content II is being happily served up to the public again this season, for a slightly longer period-one week. Mesdames Garfunkel and Ebbert are at its helm once again, with the help of a third chair, Janet Hunt; these three have elicited 12 diverse-and sometimes remarkable-new table settings.

A splendid vignette in the forthcoming exhibit will be The Formal Birthday Dinner. Here candlelight, lace and silver and gold combine to build an elaborate composition.

At the other end of the spectrum in dining art is a less princely table setting. Here, Italian pottery created by Vietri was first glimpsed by a Pittsburgh visitor-and coveted, on the spot-some years ago, in Positano. This particular collection was not completed until recently, when missing pieces were spied in a corner of the Butler's Secret, a shop in Pittsburgh's Strip district.

Wood will be on view as well. Indeed, the wood table will itself be the focal point of the display. Some 700 pounds of walnut, with touches of rosewood, the table, named "MingurenII," was created for its Pittsburgh owner in the Nakashima studio in New Hope. Still other displays will feature a romantic South American scene, formal English setting, an equestrian motif, and a Mexican feast.

Whatever the theme, the settings of Tables of ContentII resonate beyond their immediate role as assemblages of objects for dining, beyond even their role as a record of traditional or ephemeral patterns of living. An artist who saw the first exhibition remarked: "This is about more than table settings. It's part Henry James and Jane Austin, it's part a game plan in three dimensions, it's part drama. You know, on a small scale, it's installation art!"

Tables of Content II is supported by the James M. and Lucy K. Schoonmaker Foundation.

Additional support from Sue and J. David Barnes, Bayer Foundation, Allen H. and Selma W. Berkman Charitable Trust, Myrna and William P. Hackney, Drue Heinz Trust, Sally Humphrey, Kaufmann's, a Division of the May Department Stores Company, PNC Private Bank, Ramada Plaza Suites, Alexander and Tillie Speyer Foundation, Anonymous.

Back Issues
Copyright 1998 Carnegie Magazine
All rights reserved.