The tablecloth - given its simplicity - is surprising in its many meanings, its ability to transform the ambience of a space, and the way it modifies behaviour.
That the humble tablecloth, in its basic form, has a protective function from the accidental splatter of Brown Windsor soup, or the upended bottle of the establishment's finest, is just one of the many statements it can make.
In terms of the cafe or restaurant, 'we are open for business' is its most direct message.
The businesses of culinary indulgence, social interaction, or the useful separation from the daily grind of the world outside.The cloth contributes to the quality of, and the anticipation of, what is about to be consumed.
At its most majestic, in all its full damask glory, it stages the centrepiece, the royal icingencrusted wedding cake, as well as hiding what would be an unfortunate view of some elderly aunt's knees.This function of concealing another life under the table can be highly significant to those in some secret tryst.
The cloth of checks, often plasticised and easy to wipe down, suggests speed, convenience and an instruction to the stomach to get ready for an injection of grease.Sometimes the cloth has become the entertainment, via a ready supply of brightly coloured crayons that allow the covering to become a canvas.This is intended to keep younger diners happy while they wait for their chicken nuggets and spaghetti hoops.
Colour plays an important part in tablecloth etiquette.The starched, heavily pressed, brilliant white that shows off the food is the classic.Although this often leads to the style being extended to the rest of the dining room, it is also the case that a beautiful dressed table can elevate the senses even inside a meagre hovel.Fine dining takes place at a specific time:1.15pm for lunch and 8.30pm for dinner.
A starched white cloth does not always feel so welcome after closing time at the pub.
Do not be deceived, however, as sometimes the finest presentation can lead to disappointments in taste and your wallet feeling completely fleeced.
There is, of course, the naked table option, which, providing there are no tablemats, suggests simplicity and directness.Here the food is served on plates and the bread on the table.A delicious local cheese, a good claret and a slice of cucumber can be as good as a feast.
Functionally, there is no laundry, and a quick wipe between customers will suffice.
I have experienced the multi-cloth option, which allows the top cloth to become soiled during the first course and whipped off before the next one to reveal a perfect table again.
This is often favoured by Chinese restaurants.
As architects, we have often heard about, but rarely seen for ourselves, the architect-client lunch where miraculously the whole proposal is sketched out on the tablecloth (or alternatively the napkin). I have always hated this myth because it seems completely inappropriate to use small movements of the fingers to outline a design for one of the largest objects the human race makes - a building.Often the larger the building the smaller the sketch.
It always seems to me that the architect should work on drawings at the largest possible scale in order to employ their whole body in making the marks that contribute to the design process.On this basis, the eating establishments that are favoured most by architects should provide tables for one that could seat 12, and provide charcoal and 8b pencils along with good quality cartridgepaper tablecloths. I am sure some food stains would be more interesting than the drawings.
WA, from a large marble table overlooking the Ionian Sea