About the exhibition

Design has had an enduring impact on the rituals and customs of dining. The centerpiece for Tablescapes: Designs for Dining, which explores three distinct dining moments, is Cooper Hewitt’s magnificent surtout de table. On view for the first time in 30 years, this newly conserved masterpiece, designed by Pierre-Philippe Thomire for the stepson of Napoleon Bonaparte, Eugène de Beauharnais, exemplifies how dining in the highest levels of wealth and power in early 19th-century France was a theatrical performance, bringing architecture to the tabletop in an elaborate arrangement of vessels for food.

In the ensuing century, design for dining pivoted to embrace the casual lifestyle that emerged with industrialization and the rising middle class and will certainly change again in the future as contemporary design responds to emerging technologies and decreasing resources. To represent these shifts, the surtout de table is accompanied by an installation of Depression-era table linens designed by American textile designer Marguerita Mergentime, who blended bold colors, typography, and a fascination with American culture and history into her festive designs. And to suggest future directions for dining design, 2017 National Design Award winners Joe Doucet and Mary Ping were commissioned to envision a dining environment to come, one that is responsive to the needs of a rapidly changing world.

Also on view

To accompany Tablescapes, an installation in the Spoon Family Gallery of Marguerita Mergentime’s iconic textile, Americana, designed for the 1939 World Fair in San Francisco. Alternating bold Futura lettering with cursive writing, the entirely text-based design encompasses American phrases, organizations, foods, points of interest, and people in an all-over pattern. The textile is a red, white, and blue typographical banner of American values designed for a nation on the cusp of World War II.


Diplomacy and Dining: A Look at Table Architecture and Cuisine in Empire France

Tuesday, December 11
Exhibition viewing: 6:30 p.m.
Lecture: 7:00 p.m.
Sarah Coffin, former Head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department, will discuss the culinary history of banquet dining featuring elaborately designed centerpieces, which began in the 16th century and was extended during the Napoleonic era to also include superstar chefs and new culinary masterpieces. Purchase tickets.


Tablescapes: Designs for Dining is made possible by Anonymous. Conservation of the surtout de table is made possible by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee. In-kind support is provided by Shapeways and The Abadi Group.

Dr. Ulrich Leben delivers the Morse Historic Design Lecture from the podium at Cooper Hewitt
The Morse Historic Design Lecture | A Grand Statement: The Surtout de Table
Dr. Ulrich Leben discusses the ornamental grammar of the surtout and its relationship to the interior architecture of the Palais Beauharnais
Image features gilt bronze furniture mount in the form of a lyre made up of foliage and centered by a torch. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Shiny, Sturdy and Sophisticated
Gilt bronze furniture mounts have long been an element of decoration in French interiors. In addition to their use as ornament, they were highly functional. Their gilded surfaces added value and appeal to what would typically be a basic utilitarian purpose: protection for furniture. The mounts were generally fixed to the edges, corners, and feet...
Dining and diplomacy public program. Image of gilded bronze table centerpiece featuring ornate candelabra and mirrored base. Scroll down for additional program information.
Diplomacy and Dining: A look at Table Architecture and Cuisine in Empire France
This lecture will show how the Surtout de Table is part of culinary history that starts with sixteenth and seventeenth century banquets and the surtouts, often designed by architects, that served as display on tables of that period . The Napoleonic era extended this tradition with neo-classical design elements, new culinary masterpieces and superstar chefs all of which served to woo supporters and impress ambassadors and heads of state.  Eugene de Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepson often served as host for these lavish diplomatic and social events on behalf of Napoleon, giving added meaning to this surtout which has a provenance to his furnishings.
Image features: Length of printed textile with alternating aqua-blue and white stripes with scalloped edges. Stylized horses grouped in pairs are printed in the opposite colors. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Spencerian Horses
Marguerita Mergentime is noted for her innovative use of text as a decorative element, and among her many sources of inspiration were books of calligraphy and penmanship. The “Spencerian” of the title refers to Spencerian script, a cursive writing style developed by Platt Rogers Spencer and promoted through his 1866 book, Spencerian Key to Practical...
Conserving the Surtout de Table: Gilt Metalwork
Conservators Jessica Walthew and Jakki Godfrey discuss their approach to cleaning and enlivening the gilt-metal features of Cooper Hewitt's surtout de table.
This image features two candelabra, featuring a standing female figure of patinated bronze supporting branched gilt-bronze candle arms, each arm in the form of a winged female figure; the branches are surmounted by a patinated putto/faun standing on a column and holding an urn-shaped bobeche; square gilt-bronze base with a scene of Europa and the bull; a patinated winged female term stands at each corner. The female figures stand on a gilt-bronze plinth. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Luxurious Lighting
Today’s Object of the Day is on view in Tablescapes: Designs for Dining (October 5, 2018–April 14, 2019). These two candelabra in the neoclassical style, with their detailed sculptural work and multiple candle branches, would have undoubtedly brought abundant golden light as well as a sense of luxury to any early 19th-century interior. They were...
Image of Sarah Barak and Drew Anderson, conservation staff, inspecting the Surtout de Table
Conservation of the Surtout de Table
On view for the first time in 30 years, Cooper Hewitt’s surtout de table was recently conserved.
Cleaning the Gilding on the Surtout de Table
Jakki Godfrey, a contract objects conservator, uses a special solution to remove dirt, grime, and copper corrosion from 210-year-old pillars from the Pierr-Philippe Thomire surtout de table, which is on view for the first time in 30 years.