Previously On View: October 5, 2018 through April 14, 2019

See exhibitions currently on view.

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.


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.

Image of Joe Doucet and Mary Ping in the conservatory of the Cooper Hewitt, talking with an audience.
2018 NDA Winners’ Salon | Master Class with Mary Ping & Joe Doucet
2017 National Design Award winners Mary Ping and Joe Doucet lead a master class exploring their designs featured in Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition Tablescapes: Designs for Dining. 
Image features Mirror in large, carved and gilded vertical frame with double arch at top with pyramid of asymmetrical and tall curved leaf forms at each corner which flow into serpentine curves and then join straight sides; flowers entwined around straight sides; bottom rail duplicates curve at top rail and has asymmetrical group of foliage carved at center. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.
Reflections on Light
Mirrors, a commonplace fixture in the modern world, were not always the familiar accessory that they are today. Although some form of mirror has existed since ancient times, mirrors such as this 18th-century example used early industrial processes to create the fragile, metal-coated glass panes placed within a decorative frame. During the 18th century glass-making...
From the Dinner Table to Museum Display: Case Study of a Napkin
How textiles are stored greatly impacts their future condition. Creases created by folding textiles become deeply engrained; stress along these folds can create breaks in the fibers, eventually leading to tears; discoloration from light exposure, internal chemical degradation, and exposure to acidic environmental factors like wood furniture, non-archival paper, etc. intensifies along the exposed surfaces...
Sarah Coffin, a blond woman in her 60s stands at a podium that has the Cooper Hewitt sign. She wears a colorful scarf.
Diplomacy and Dining: A Look at Table Architecture and Cuisine in Empire France
In this lecture, retired Curator and Head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt Sarah D. Coffin talks about 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...
Dr. Ulrich Leben delivers the Morse Historic Design Lecture from the podium at Cooper Hewitt
The Morse 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.