The 2011 CHOW 13

Philippe Starck: The Communal Table

You see it everywhere, in both beer-garden-style joints and high-end restaurants: perfect strangers sawing into their hanger steaks while perfectly avoiding conversation with one another at the communal table. It seems like a product of the recession: The restaurant can make more money off a communal table because it can squeeze more people in, and if the benches are hard enough, the customers will leave faster. But the concept's actually been around for nearly 15 years. The man responsible? Philippe Starck.

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SCULPTED ILLUSTRATION LIZ LOMAX

In 1997, the stocky, perennially tousled Paris designer made a 35-foot-long alabaster table the centerpiece of the original Asia de Cuba on Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. In a space shrouded with the semisheer draperies that framed Starck's iconic late-'90s look for boutique Schrager hotels like the Delano in Miami's South Beach, beneath a two-story-high holographic waterfall, the table cut through restaurant conventions the way Asia de Cuba's fusion cuisine did. Who knew it would still be potent nearly 15 years later, surviving in glossy urban bistros and Marriott Courtyards alike, long after Asia de Cuba's tuna tartare with wonton chips lost its luster?

''It was purely a question of being functional,'' Starck told the New York Times in 1998 (the designer declined our interview request). ''When you combine a long table where everybody can come and can speak and can meet and you build it at the right height, you have a good antidote to modern stress.'' Tell that to walk-ins forced to wedge into some communal table reluctantly as an alternative to a two-hour wait at the bar.

Still, there's something undeniably democratic about the communal table. "Philippe said it would be good for breaking down social barriers," Jeffrey Chodorow—one of Asia de Cuba's original owners—recalled to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in 2007. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if strangers sitting next to each other started sharing?'"

Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, says Le Pain Quotidien founder Alain Coumont believes Starck got the idea for the communal table from Coumont's original bakery on Rue Antoine Dansaert in Brussels, where the centerpiece was a farmhouse table Coumont had scrounged from a local flea market. Starck's innovation was to take the shared table—a fixture in student dining halls, hippie communes, and penitentiaries—and frame it with luxury.

The juxtaposition still carries a charge. Starck has made communal tables the dominant design element in glittery projects like Le Lan in Beijing (2007), Madrid's Ramses (2008), and the renovated Royal Monceau in Paris (2010), where shared dining's power to break down social barriers might play out via billionaires being forced to sit next to not-quite billionaires.

Douglas Burnham, principal at envelope A+D, a design firm in Oakland, California, recently installed his first communal table ever in San Francisco's Locanda, a bar and restaurant from the owners of Delfina. "The perception at Delfina is that you can't get in," Burnham says, "so the communal table [at Locanda] allows a physical space that people know is open. Potentially." —J.B.

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