Table Tools

11 September – 24 October 2015

Alison Jackson

Table Tools Alison Jackson__Fro_Vessels_image_Angela Bakker

‘The cupped hand’ by Merryn Gates

Our hands, I imagine were cupped so we could, at the dawn of our time as humans, drink fresh water.[1] Later wet clay was pressed into our palms to form a cup, and later still, picking up tools, those hands worked wood, then metals, into cups, ladles, scoops and bowls.

Alison Jackson set herself 10 days, and the challenge to make one vessel each day. This discipline, battling the exigencies of materials and time, make of her project a meeting place between ancient traditions and contemporary design. She brings both to her workbench–technical facility and a refined design aesthetic–each stored and ready for application. Taking up the hammer she created a hollow form in a technique little changed over the centuries. To recognise the hammered surface, each mark a hammer blow, is to quantify the maker's time and skill. The bowls she formed, roughly the size of a hand, begin to describe some essence of vessel-ness. How shallow or deep need it be? What various functions might it satisfy­—container, sieve, scoop, pourer? And how can it be handled, with our without a handle. When does it become a spoon?

Over these 10 days Alison gave herself free rein to enjoy a period of design led research.[2] Only the hours of a working day, and the size of the metal, set any limitation. There was no commission to consider, no thoughts for marketability, no limits regarding cost. At the end of each day the work was set down and a new one started. She used this time as a 'strategy for experimentation' to provide a hiatus in studio production so that '… everything familiar becomes thrown into a new light.'[3] Steel wire, normally used only while an object is being made, was allowed to feature on finished work; delicate spouts appear where the hammer has beaten an uneven edge; splits remain and become the basis of a sieve. Some are polished, in others the patinas contrast with the silver, foreshadowing the inevitable aging of this metal.

As each one-day bowl takes its place on someone's table, hands will further burnish the surface with use, and the metal will transmit heat or coldness to cupping hands. Together they form a community, the individual in dialogue with the group.

"The lovin' spoonful"

Jackson's community of utensils is not cutlery (there are no cutting implements) and the fork is also absent. Her vocabulary of form revolves around the cup, the spoon and the vessel. Curvaceous forms, reminding us that the spoon was once thought of as feminine. While the curves of Jackson's spoons evoke a generosity of hospitality, an informality of use, they keep a sense of the spoon's role in commemorating the landmarks in a woman's life: christening spoons and cups continue this tradition. The quaint word for courting, 'spooning', comes from a long-abandoned custom to give brides a spoon "at their betrothal."[4] Now both the word and the custom have been replaced by more modern ones. But well into the 20th C valuable silver flatware, often acquired piece-by-piece, were a woman's property, "passed from mother to daughter, [they] went with the woman in cases of separation or divorce, and… provided a 'cushion' when they became widows."[6] Such inheritance rightly values craftsmanship and precious materials. Jackson's unique pieces could well form part of a contemporary, albeit non gender-specific, 'dowry'.

"What might the contemporary Australian table wear?"

From breakfast through lunch to dinner, and the occasional supper, how we take our meals has changed substantially since mid-20th C design, with its introduction of stainless steel and lack of ornament, offered a real alternative to the Western tradition of dining etiquette.

From times when we brought our own personal cutlery to table (initially only the knife and spoon) to the height of Victorian excess in the boxed set of matching silver service with myriad tools for special food (asparagus tongs, marrow spoons, ice cream forks[6]), tableware has its own tradition, which owes as much to social custom as it does to developments in cuisine, materials and technology.

In contemporary Australia, people might or might not sit, alone or in company, to have our meals. In our houses the kitchen is now frequently open plan, eliding cooking and eating spaces.

"We might eat on our own, but we normally dine with friends," [silversmith Andreas Fabian] explains. "Dining involves all five of our primary senses and engages our emotions."[7]

Our fare may, in the space of a week, include tajines, curries, grills, roasts, soups or casserole, foods that come to be included on the modern menu from many countries, each with different cuisines and accompanying eating equipment. Your cutlery drawer–no longer velvet-lined and molded to fit each item–will no doubt include stainless steel versions of the 19th C silver or plate sets. The fish set, like mine, possibly gets little use.

Designer-makers such as Alison Jackson are working towards a time when Australian cutlery is not only a footnote about our devotion to the Splayd.[8] She makes tools for the table, unmatched, in a deliberate flouting of out-dated etiquette and propriety so unsuited to current habits. She imagines her utensils, a mix of serving and eating implements, presented at the centre of the table, so each diner can reach for their preferred piece. Some retain a hint of the kitchenalia of cooking, as food makes a seamless transition from the kitchen. These are table tools perfect for the shared plate of food, ending decades of á la russe service. They offer us a new conviviality, a possible joyousness, in eating in the company of other.

Jackson works in precious metals such as silver, or hand worked metals of lesser value. Perhaps, with a different perspective on what cutlery needs we might have, a smaller, more personal set might accompany us over our lifetime, as they once did. A set gradually built up over time as each special purchase is made, with no call for them to be matching in anything other than great design.

I invite you to reflect on this: Do you reach for a favourite spoon when you open the cutlery drawer each day?

Merryn Gates is a freelance curator, writer and art consultant. She is currently the Curatorial Advisor for the ACT Legislative Assembly Art Collection.