Ad Mensam* explores the table as a setting for human interaction, a place where we come together, share food, talk, fight, and make up. At the table we meet ostensibly to eat, but effectively for the intrinsic need each one of us has to join the group and feel part of a larger whole. The food we consume at the table is the daily nourishment we need for our body; at the same time, it is an excuse to create a setting for communication. A commonplace daily activity can be transformed into the highest form of celebration, so we feast whenever life becomes dramatic, at weddings, birthdays, funerals, to mark the passing of time, to distinguish the days and the years from each other.
The table—be it the informal one in the kitchen or the more solemn in the dining room—has come to represent the family as a whole in a way no other piece of furniture can. It represents, in symbolic form, the hearth of the house, the fire around which people meet. As an object, the table has a physical presence that makes it a stable reference, an anchoring point. The objects which dress the table, by contrast, are transitory, often ephemeral, and ever changing. Their role is as conversation pieces, their importance lies in the fact that they allow the performance of rituals, the way we serve others, pass the salt, hold a spoon… .
Across all cultures and in a variety of ways, mankind has transformed the act of eating into a ritualised circumstance: the meal. Meals are an organised practice where the people partaking agree to behave in a pre-approved manner, use particular tools, and follow specific rules meant to facilitate the exchange between people and to provide us with a sense of belonging. Eating together helps people overcome their differences. Breaking bread and sharing it is the foundation of friendship. Friends and families that share food implicitly acknowledge their willingness to also share opinions, morals or values—or at least that they are prepared to discuss them. But don’t be fooled, the table is by no means always a peaceful place: most quarrels in the home take place at the table and researchers working on the dynamics of family relationships can assert it. And yet, even when eating together is strenuous and irritating, commensality is still seen (with a tinge of nostalgia) as an ideal eating practice.
Perhaps because this idea is so ingrained in us, we are happy to acknowledge that the table is the place where we welcome guests, be they friends or strangers. The Homeric Greeks, obsessed about sharing food, would first invite a traveler to eat and drink before ever asking his name and provenance, lest the Gods would be insulted. Jesus, in the same way, famously feasted with publicans and tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners of all kinds. It is intrinsic to our idea of humanism to make space at the table, symbolically and literally, and include everyone in the conversation.
In a world where a wave of nationalism aims to break up the dialogue, making space at the table should become a metaphor for open dialogue. We should all see the table as a welcoming and inclusive place. Twenty-one designers have risen to this challenge and given their own interpretation of what it means to sit at the table. The vastness of the theme of Ad Mensam means we have only started scratching at the surface but the surface of the table is a good place to start scratching at.
* from the Latin, meaning “at the table”