Last Friday (Sept. 29, 2023), we exported the “printer pdf” of Derek Jones’ new book, “Cricket Tables,” and sent it off for proofs. We reviewed page proofs on Monday, I uploaded a few corrections, approved said corrections, then it was off to the presses!
Below is a short excerpt, the Introduction, to whet your appetite. Derek – you might also recognize/recognise him as Lowfat Roubo – is a furniture maker, tool maker, writer and teacher at London Design & Engineering UTC.
No promises on timing, but my best guess is that we’ll have the book in house at the end of November. You can sign up now on our store site to get an email when “Cricket Tables” is available.
“Cricket Tables” is 112 pages, full color and printed on white, 70# matte coated 8-1/2″ x 11″ paper. The pages are sewn, glued and taped for durability. And the whole thing is wrapped with 98-point boards that are covered in lime cotton cloth (we’ll replace the mocked-up cover on the store site with a photograph of the real thing, once we have it). Like all Lost Art Press books, it is produced and printed in the United States.
It would be wrong to start this story with an explanation of what a cricket table is, for that would imply there’s a single, well-defined version on which we could all agree. There isn’t. That’s not to say they don’t exist, it’s just that they’re either at best inconclusive, or at worst contradictory. How come? That’s because for the most part we rely on vernacular terms to describe almost every item of furniture ever made. See something for the first time, and you will most likely give it a name associated with something you have seen or experienced before, and most likely with a disclaimer along the lines of “for want of a better….”
In the perfect sciences such an outcome would be wholly unacceptable – and rightly so. But when it comes to furniture and the history associated with it, it’s an all-too-familiar one and something I wholly approve. Every aspect of human development can be told through the artifacts we use, from the earliest implements used to gather sustenance for our bodies to those that feed our imagination and nourish our minds in preparation for what lies ahead.
It’s worth mentioning now that for the purposes of this book I’m going to base nearly all of my observations around the objects in our lives that come under the umbrella term “furniture.” It’s a catch-all word that immediately conjures up an image or understanding of what those items might look like to each of us, and for now that’s all we need to agree on. There is of course a whole universe beyond the world of furniture, and from time to time I might make reference to it, but the core content is aimed at encouraging you to engage with concepts involving furniture and how it’s made that might at first appear awkward and unfamiliar.
To begin with I should point out that cricket tables weren’t made by people who read the classics, let alone understood the principles of composition via an elaborate and questionable formula. Instead, they were in tune with something far less esoteric, something earthly and perhaps even divine: necessity and ingenuity. These two qualities are often discovered walking hand in hand and are responsible for writing nearly every chapter in human history, including those about furniture. They have driven us to the pinnacle of our achievements, and it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. Fibonacci might be the talisman of choice for accountants, but the extrapolation of number sequences that suggest a golden ratio can and should be used to design anything is unimaginative and restricting to the point of being obsolete. There. I said it. Out loud. If a controversial opinion sounds like fighting talk to you, take a deep breath now, then read on. I’ll do my best to soften the blows, but I can’t promise the road ahead is smooth.
The hero in our story is anything but awkward and unfamiliar – quite the opposite in fact. It is on the one hand simplicity itself, omnipresent in every culture and a milestone of furniture design and history. Somewhere along the way, however, it has been misconstrued, left behind and is in danger of being forgotten – unless you deal in antiques, in which case period examples are most definitely on the upper register of the “ker-ching” scale.
Some of my earliest memories revolve around furniture. Using a can of Mr Sheen to polish a mahogany dining table that had extending pull-out leaves that was bought in the 1960s from a Gordon Russell store in London is one. I would have been somewhere between 5 and 7 years old, so it’s the early ’70s, and I’m most likely helping my mum with the housework. A series of other markers help pinpoint the decade but as for the rest of the information, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know it. The legs on the table and matching chairs were covered in tiny dents low down to the floor. These were explained to me as being created by my older sister repeatedly pushing a truck of wooden bricks around the house. I don’t recall exactly how the conversation went, but I came out the other side knowing that although mahogany was a hardwood it was a soft hardwood and dented easily. What surprises me the most about this recollection is not my sister’s choice of walker but why my mum knew so much about mahogany. She was a dancer and would have been in her early 30s. This detail is only surpassed by the earth-shattering news, delivered around the same dinner table at Christmas around the same time, that my grandfather had built the cabinets in their kitchen in Tonbridge Wells. Until then I just assumed all furniture came from Tottenham Court Road or The Pantiles, and my granddad only knew how to grow tomatoes. I mention this now merely to illustrate that form, function and furniture have been on my radar in one way or another for as long as I can remember, and it’s probably why I pursued a career in antiques as soon as I left school.
Speed Dating for Furniture Dealers
The antique trade in Brighton in the ’80s was a sea of brown furniture with Georgian mahogany representing the top line. Traditional oak furniture, Art Deco and Art Nouveau were of little interest to anyone other than a handful of specialist dealers and was always something of a lame duck in the showroom. With little appreciation for the period (or knowledge), I quickly developed an eye for spotting good pieces in the wild. And by “good” I mean something that could be turned into a profit and quickly. My mentor at the time told me it was all in the proportions, the colour and that you know it when you see it. It just looks right. In essence it became a sixth sense that I employed to navigate my way around the auction rooms and house clearance shops daily in search of items I knew I could re-sell. In the 10 years or so that I was dealing, I only recall buying one piece of traditional oak furniture, a chair. It came off the back of a knocker boy’s truck as part of a job lot to obtain something more desirable. It was wonky, unbalanced and irregular. Its joints were loose, it was spattered in paint and cut an unfamiliar silhouette. It was a lame duck.
Pieces like this became props in the shop, and this one must have grown on me because it was never really for sale. For years it became quite literally part of the furniture until I closed the shop, sold all the stock and took one of life’s left turns into an altogether different career in civil aviation. Thirty-something years on, it sits in my hallway, still wonky, unbalanced and irregular, but now with the paint spatters gone and the drawbored mortise-and-tenon joints rock solid. It’s the only piece of furniture I have from that period in my life, and I can’t imagine ever not having it. It took me a while to get used to it though. It was everything I trained my eye to avoid, and I see now how lucky I was to end up with it; I wonder how many similar pieces slipped through my hands back then.
It was in 2018, in an auction room on viewing day, that a piece of furniture caught my eye. For a moment there wasn’t another piece in the room. There was a blip on the radar and it was like being back in the ’80s. This time, however, the item in question was oak, not Georgian and not familiar. It was well-proportioned and of a good colour and, yes, I could tell immediately that it was “right.” Feeling optimistic, I left an absentee bid at the office on my way out only to discover a few days later the person who took it home had added a nought to my number. It was gone forever, and we didn’t even get to haggle, let alone say goodbye.
Cricket tables – for that’s what it was – have been on my radar ever since, and the dozen or so examples I made before writing this book are beginning to explain what I enjoy the most about this form. For a start, there isn’t a blueprint or a recognised plan to follow. I’ve never seen two tables exactly the same. Even when I build them myself with the same splay angles and the same dimensions, they’re never truly identical. It’s not just the timber or choice of finish that makes them different, it’s how they go together. Some are born into this world without a struggle while others are laboured and long winded. And contrary to what you might expect, their path to existence is not always reflected in their outcome. There are days when I find this irritating beyond belief. If everything can be explained with maths you should be able to dial in a set of coordinates and end up with the same result every time. Let me tell you it doesn’t work like that, not in my workshop anyway. It doesn’t help, I’m sure, that I’m always looking to improve some aspect of the previous build either in sequencing or reducing the number of times a component gets worked. A lifelong fascination with batch work has seen to that.
A Bunch of Three-chord Wonders
On a topic completely unrelated to furniture making, I remember being shocked when, during a meeting, a colleague who was clearly frustrated with proceedings, let rip and blurted out, “Don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough.” It was enough to cause everyone to pause momentarily and reconsider their position on the matter. I remember thinking it sounded a bit defeatist and immediately started to question their leadership qualities and maybe even their moral compass. But the pause was just long enough for me to remember a similar proclamation, decades earlier by another colleague who under very different circumstances claimed a job to be “good enough for rock ‘n’ roll.” As derisory as it sounds (it may even have been a tad elitist), it was, despite the obvious ambiguity, an accurate and qualitative assessment of an object being “fit for purpose.” For a maker of things, these must surely be the most calming words in the dictionary. Posed as a question, it will set you on the right path to resolving any issues you have with your project. Left hanging in the air, spoken slowly and without a question mark, it’s only necessary to turn the lights off in the shop, lock the door behind you and head for home as your work is done. For now, at least, I’m happy to accept that I need to make more tables before I can comment conclusively on the merits of a predictive system; but deep down, I’m holding out for the day when I can hold two sticks up in front of the academics and say there are some things you just can’t and perhaps shouldn’t even try to explain. A notion that’s better expressed by my teenage daughter: “It’s not that deep, dad.”
The Cognitive Illusion
To the untrained eye, three-legged tables at first do look wonky, unbalanced and irregular – especially when viewed at waist height. A bit like refraction, they alter as we shift our viewpoint. Get the viewpoint right, though, and something magical happens: The laws of symmetry start to work and the form makes perfect sense, as pleasing as any I’ve encountered. More refined versions have a symbolic quality not entirely dissimilar to a pair of dividers, and although you could put it down to coincidence, I’m inclined to favour the notion that an unconscious bias toward symmetry lives in all of us.
In the hours I’ve spent gazing at the examples I’ve made, I’ve often wondered what it is in the form that attracted me to it in the first place. It wasn’t the perfect profile; that didn’t become apparent until much later, and I fully acknowledge that’s a subjective standpoint.
I’m prepared to believe that after years of drawing and making things, I’ve acquired sufficient knowledge to recognise pleasing shapes almost from any angle and see their potential long before it’s had a chance to reveal itself. It’s entirely possible I could chalk that one down to CAD. It’s also fair to say that years at the bench and drawing board have in a sense hot-wired my brain to resolve complex forms in an instant. It doesn’t make me a genius, and I’m certainly no mathematician; we all do it all of the time. Put a familiar face in a crowd of people, and you’d be able to spot them a mile away even though their features aren’t crystal clear. On that basis, I think we can assume that shape awareness is something we’re born with. At the subconscious level we rely on pre-learnt data to make rapid decisions almost intuitively. Our ability to recognise symmetry, square and level work in this way. For less frequent tasks, like spotting your neighbour in a crowd, for example, we first have to input data from our memory and apply it to the task at hand while fighting off distractions such as all the other faces in the crowd, and any doubts we might have concerning the validity of our initial input data. This type of thinking is laboured and requires us to question our intuition (pre-learnt data) before we can reach a decision.
We shouldn’t confuse these tasks with being in some way more complex than the intuitive ones. Assessing symmetry, square and level all require sophisticated and precise calculations to take place in an instant – it’s just that we, and by that I mean the makers among us, do them all the time so we are well-versed in the skill. Training ourselves to accept at an intuitive level that what first appears to be wonky, unbalanced and irregular might just be OK takes practise. It’s a bit like learning to like jazz or draught beer. Their complex tones are a shock at first compared to the more accessible chord progressions of rock, pop and country. Heaven forbid we get a taste for easy listening.
The pages that follow outline some of the things I’ve learned while building cricket tables. The complex ones are paradoxically easier to resolve when you’ve broken free of 90° and square. Like any other, 60 is just a number. I’ll talk a lot about techniques and the transition of one form to another because I think this is more helpful in the long run than “how to” or “step-by-step guides,” and of course I’ll offer my explanation for how the cricket table got its name. Spoiler alert: It’s not what you’re thinking.