Sardonic Spectator’s Tablescapes 2014 Adventure

In case you missed it, we’d like to report we were at Tablescapes this year. The Arts-Illiana fund-raising event was held at the Country Club of Terre Haute, reached by a narrow road as riddled with potholes as less affluent parts of town, which just goes to show asphalt is no respecter of status.

The road winds by the former Chapman Root estate — a home that has fallen on harder times than the birthplace of Gilbert Wilson, but at least it’s still standing. Knowing Wilson did some work there (although he ridiculed the kinds of things rich people want on their walls), we were excited to see a for sale sign on the property, and hoped to contact the realtor for a showing to look for vestiges of his murals. However, it’s only part of the property being sold, not the home.

Wilson, among his many grandiose plans, envisioned getting the Roots to donate this home for a “Laboratory of Research… and have there a chapel with spaces for some fine arresting murals concerning social research and human betterment.”  He actually proposed this in lieu of payment for his work.

Ellen Root preferred to live there and enjoy her flowers and pets. She declined Wilson’s offer in a polite handwritten note dated July 13, 1935 that included a check for $500.

The intersection of creative work and commerce, and the distinctions among art, design and decoration are always fraught in some way. Tablescapes is an event that cannot escape it. The event raises money for an organization promoting the arts, but the vast majority of the tables are decorated by local businesses for promotional purposes — not that there’s anything wrong with that (to re-contextualize a famous Seinfeld phrase).

The Sardonic Spectator was also there partly in the hopes of being noticed. Of course, we went about it in a perverse way. Had there been a prize for the table with the lowest profile, literally speaking, we would have won hands down. Ironically (or maybe serendipitously), we — with absolutely no centerpiece — were situated next to the table with the tallest and bulkiest: a man-sized chipmunk costume dressed in a mariachi costume, complete with the huge peaked and brimmed hat. It was spectacular, in a certain sense of the word.

Maybe there’s something about a centerpiece that brings out a latent desire for spectacle. I’m the writer of this group, but I was chock full of my own grandiose ideas.

Me: Let’s do a replica of the microwave tower!!! They have a 3-D printer at Rose-Hulman, and we can get them to make it for us!

Designers: Oh, that’s an interesting idea, but we probably don’t have time to get it done.

Me: Let’s do a diorama of the 500 block buildings!!! We can use actual photos and put them on cardboard!! And we can get Tonka construction vehicles!

Designers: Hmm. Well, there’s a Terre Haute Landmarks table, and they might already be doing something like that.

Me: Let’s get real tree branches and put the crows in them!!!

My husband: Ha! Ha! Oh wait – were you serious?

On the Tablescapes webpage you’ll see that the winning centerpiece by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods used real tree branches. But my point isn’t that great minds think alike. My point is that the kind of things rich people want on their walls and attendees at Tablescapes want on the tables is decoration, not design. Dressing up the space is the ultimate goal.

The table we had for the Sardonic Spectator looked different because it was designed with the primary purpose of being functional. Principles related to human psychology, communication, interactive processes, visual perception, and aesthetics were considered. A dinner table functions as a place for dining and communication. Additionally, the table had to function as an embodiment of our theme “Terre Haute Tidbits,” chosen to express what we are trying to cover in our work. So, the table cloth and dinnerware were designed using imagery and words we’ve published.

Jeffrey Zeldman, who has written extensively on design since 1995, has said, “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

The designers for the Sardonic Spectator table translated the content of our on-line publication into aesthetically interesting cups, bowls and plates, and our motif of crows into both an abstract tablecloth pattern and representational objects of papier-mache.

Though we might have looked out of step compared to the other tables, we were satisfied with the end result. And we want to thank Brenda and Phil Milliren, who not only put in many hours to make the fund-raiser a success, but invited the staff of the Sardonic Spectator to be their guests for the dinner. We had a lovely time.

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