Du français au russe en français

Disegno #21 (2018)

Image courtesy of Jasper Morrison.

“I remember once being taken to lunch by an industrialist – who won’t be named – to a restaurant in Milan that was so ridiculously formal,” recalls Jasper Morrison, “that any atmosphere was immediately torn away. The waiters poured you wine endlessly. I think I am allergic to that level of formality.” In the absence of a named industrialist to pin this on, who or what is to blame for this officious formality? The most likely culprit, I would suggest, is an overly punctilious derivation of a service à la russe.

When dining à la russe, a form of service popularised in Europe in the 19th century, courses are served sequentially, with dishes prepared and plated in the kitchen before being sent out to individual guests. It is a highly formal practice, at least in its purest manifestations, and one that exemplifies what the curator Philippa Glanville, writing in Elegant Eating: Four Hundred Years of Dining in Style, identifies as one of the core components of dining: “There is something special about a formal dinner. Trouble is taken.” Today, the service à la russe is the foundation of much contemporary Western entertaining, yet at the time of its introduction it was a curious novelty. “Had a dinner party on the sensible principle enunciated by some letter-writers to The Times, and called à la Russe,” wrote Benjamin Armstrong, the vicar of East Dereham, Norfolk, in his diary in 1859. “It consists in having fruit and flowers on the table, with wine etc, the abolition of side dishes, and only one dish at a time placed opposite the host. The plan worked very well, and the cook said that it was much easier for her.”

Armstrong’s dinner was no doubt a different experience to that undergone by Morrison, but the designer’s new Raami project for Finnish design brand Iittala grapples with some of the same ideas observed by the vicar of East Dereham 159 years ago. “It’s a conversation about how to make a good table, really,” says Morrison. “What makes a good table, a good lunch?” Raami, Morrison explains, is a table service intended to update the typology and cater for contemporary tastes. “The main topic at the beginning [of the commission] was how to do a modern-day service and, as usual, I was pulled in by the atmosphere that things make. There are certain items that high-end restaurants love to use – such as giant wine glasses or triangular plates or whatever – and they make for a very formal atmosphere. But that isn’t what you need at home, where objects should be much more low-key or relaxed, or conducive to that kind of casual way of dining. Actually, this service is about eating rather than dining.”

This difference is explicable, at least to Morrison, in terms of the relative levels of formality involved – an aspect of the service that has changed dramatically throughout its history. The form of dining that à la russe replaced in Europe was the more communal service à la français, in which the constituent dishes of a course were served en masse, with diners serving themselves and their neighbours under the auspices of the maître d’hôtel and assorted servants. “In dining à la français,” notes Glanville, “the great pleasure of ‘eating with the eyes’ lay in the mass of tastes, textures and shapes set out in geometric order before the guests arrived.” Certainly, profusion was critical. The poet Gervase Markham, in his 1615 book The English Huswife, describes the meat course of a dinner à la français as follows: “Next them all sorts of rost meates, of which the greatest first, as chine of Beefe, or surloyne, the gigget or Legges of Mutton, Goose, Swan, Veale, Pig, Capon and such like.” Markham further elaborates that the careful arrangement of these foodstuffs would inevitably provide “very great contentment to the Guests”.

À la français was not casual. Entire books, such as The Modern Method of Regulating and Forming a Table (c. 1750), were dedicated to precise plans that showed elaborately engineered constellations of dishes, such as “Calve’s Head A la Turtle”, “A Small Ham Boiled” and “Bak’d Tench”. In comparison to à la russe, however, the formality of the French style was more tacit. In her essay ‘À la française to à la russe’, the curator Ann Eatwell (I know!) observes that “dining became more formal and structured” with the arrival of the new trend, and that focus shifted away from the surfeit of dishes and onto the service itself: “The dining table now looked very different from the traditional spread of massed open dishes of the past – exotic, fanciful and costly foods being no longer the sole means of creating an impressive and decorative effect.” Under à la russe, the service became about precision – place settings were immaculate and laden with phalanxes of silverware, with servants tasked with bringing out and serving each course. It is a scenario captured memorably by the journalist Sara Paston-Williams in her book The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating, in which she observes that guests to a service à la russe, “were no longer greeted, on entering the dining-room, by a table covered with an impressive array of different dishes. Now they encountered a profusion of cutlery.”

With ballooning amounts of tableware, design became a key method of influencing the dining experience. “There are certain objects that can shape the atmosphere of a service,” says Morrison, and it seems likely that the formality of his Milanese lunch owed a debt to the effect of à la russe on the development of tableware. With dishes now served individually as opposed to en masse, tableware and cutlery specialised rapidly, with increasingly specific implements and vessels developed for each dish – splayed-tine lemon forks, comb-like servers for egg-white cakes, scoops to extract a single serving of hard cheese. “Because the courses were separated it became a much more structured way of dining, and so with that people would want a much more unified aesthetic [across the dinner],” explains Danielle Patten, an assistant curator at the Geffrye Museum of the Home. “In addition to this, by the 1860s you’ve got the emergence of mass production and companies are starting to make large dinner sets.” With the rise of à la russe, industrialists such as Josiahs Spode and Wedgwood began producing full services of matching plates, cups and saucers. And while such services were rarely purchased in one go, even by the rich, the notion that all the elements in a service should match began to take root.

Morrison’s service for Iittala aims to do away with this idea of unity. Instead of conforming to an overarching design language, Raami proposes a species of tableware stripped of any kind of designed self-consciousness. It’s a practice in line with what Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa proposed in their 2006 Super Normal project. In Super Normal, they advocated for “real, lasting, and pleasing things [that] avoid the designer’s trap of placing too much importance on how things look”. The Raami collection is formed from four separate families of object, each of which has little in common with its peers. There are fluted glasses, carafes and candle holders, all executed in moss, salmon, blue and orange glass. These sit alongside simple, unadorned items of stemware that are modest in size and utilitarian (bar, perhaps, a cute digestif glass that is a favourite of Morrison’s: “It would encourage me to drink more port”). There are also white porcelain plates and bowls with the sort of folded-over rims more familiar in enamelware (“a detail I found on an antique plate”); and a set of oiled oval wooden trays that blur the distinction between a chopping board and a serving tray. Together, the four looks form a collection, although one without a common aesthetic. Morrison’s elements sit together, but in the fashion in which any disparate items collected over time might come to enjoy harmonious resonances. That Raami’s individual items form part of a single collection is largely down to the fact that Morrison says they do. Worth noting is that “Raami” means “framework” in Finnish.

To some extent, ’twas ever thus. “The concept that all elements on a table should match starts in the 18th century, but it’s only a goal – people were very rarely buying them all in one go,” says Patten. “As time went on, services were often given as wedding gifts, whereas the difference today is that people will usually cohabit before they get married, so you won’t necessarily need to buy everything at one point in your life. Consumers mix and match.”

Morrison’s work on Raami is, in part, a response to the realities of buying habits that Patten describes. “The way of selling services has changed, because it used to be through wedding lists so you would actually want the whole design to be very tight,” he explains. “That has now evaporated completely, but I no longer believe in this idea of a fully matching set anyway.” This approach sits in contrast to previous services developed by Morrison; in particular 1997’s Moon range for Rosenthal, in which the designer developed a series of softly rounded, lightly squashed porcelain forms whose common aesthetic ranged across tea- and coffeepots, cups, plates and bowls. “I remember thinking that some of the [Moon] objects were a bit forced because they were obliged to be a part of that set, so I had a feeling that by freeing [Raami] of that rather design-imposed requirement of everything matching or having the same detailing, we would get something more interesting and relaxed,” he says. “Maybe subconsciously I was trying to design something as if it had been gathered by someone as opposed to designing it in a more forced way through matching shapes or details.”

It is an approach that thumbs its nose at the service à la russe, but which does recall something of the service à la français. The French style’s idea of communality is not only echoed in the modern buffet (if you ever eat at a hotel breakfast bar, consider yourself – tangentially – to be breakfasting à la français), but also finds parallels with contemporary dining habits. “Although à la français was to a degree formal, its sharing of food is much more casual compared to, for instance, the mid-1860s where they’ve got a fork for nearly every piece of food,” says Patten. “Today, I think there’s been a bit of a reaction against that. If you look at how people now eat and drink, more people are eating out of bowls; there are trends for tapas foods; and if you watch a cooking show, it’s always about communal dining.” Buttressing these developments is the pervasive influence of mid-century Scandinavian modern, which extends beyond furniture and lighting, and into food culture. The Swedish Smörgåsbord, for instance, reached an international audience when it was shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and its vision of communal, informal dining resonated widely. “Once adopted, informality became carefully orchestrated,” writes the curator Jennifer Hawkins Opie in her essay ‘Scandinavian Style’. “Beautifully composed table arrangements and traditional ingredients became a hallmark of Scandinavian entertaining throughout the twentieth century[…] From the first decades of the twentieth century Scandinavian design was driven by social concerns and the belief that functionalism and beauty, properly ordered, would enhance humdrum lives.” So too, it seemed, might communal dining – whose suggested spontaneity was highly aestheticised or, to quote Hawkins Opie, “studiedly casual” – offer a kind of social value. “Beautiful may be a pretentious word for [tableware], yet the good material and design of the equipment[…] add up to something which deserves such a description,” note Arthur Hald and Sven Erik Skawonius in their 1951 book Contemporary Swedish Design. “The setting is unpretentious but in each article there is evidence of design.”

Lurking within this idea are values that remain of relevance to Morrison and which he hopes are embodied by Raami. It is a purposefully casual collection, stripped of the usual design imperative for obvious visual continuity, and this same ethos is intended to carry through to its use. “I think we all dream of a summer lunch with friends and more relaxed situations than we experience in our normal daily life,” says Morrison. “A dinner is still quite relevant to everyday life and you want the atmosphere for that dinner to be good. You want everyone to be cheerful and happy, and while that probably depends on the people involved, certainly I can feel very different based upon what is on the table. A factor in this collection has been the avoidance of formality and so the conversations for this have all been how to provide something that could work in that more relaxed way. I’m always looking for those things that are on the border of having been designed and just being there, as so many objects are.”