Heng Zhi’s dining table is minimal and opulent at the time same time. On the one hand, the plain, white table is set with only the basics. No flowers or candles, not even napkins – just a knife, fork, spoon, bowl and a plate for each setting. Of course, those settings are cast in bright, shiny gold, giving the spartan table top a bit of bling. But that’s almost besides the point. The main attraction here is the tank of water concealed inside the table’s Corian frame. When you first set the table, everything appears to be normal, but soon the weight of the place settings presses the floating table top down beneath the surface of water that comes flowing in, forcing the hypothetical diners to either rescue their food from drowning and eat it wit their hands or watch as the water ruins their meals.
So what’s the point? It helps to know that Zhi submitted “Water Table Object” to the “What If…” category of Beijing Design Week, meaning, I suppose, that it doesn’t have to make sense or be practical to satisfy any of the normal requirements of good design. And though I don’t really see the point, Zhi spent an entire year researching dining culture, questioning whether using utensils is more civilized than eating with your hands. German sociologist Norbert Elias argued “Why do we need a fork? Why is it ‘barbarian’ and ‘uncivilized’ to eat with hands from your own plate? Because it feels embarrassing to be seen with dirty and oily finger in company.”
That and it’s pretty gross. I admit that I like to mix cookie batter with my hands instead of using my Kitchen Aid, not because my hands are necessarily better tools (although Julia Child always said they were) but because it just feels good. Of course, I wash my hands before touching anything else. Imagine a dinner party where everyone ate with their hands. The cuffs of your shirtsleeve would be ruined, your wine glass would be covered in greasy fingerprints and the salt and pepper shakers being passed around would become a health hazard. Besides, utensils were invented to pick up hot, hard to handle food like pasta and soup. I mean, is there really even an argument here?
So what exactly is the “What If…” category for? Surprisingly, Dezeen makes the case for poetry. “Poetic interpretation of the familiar shape of a dining table brings to mind the formalities of dining that are taken for granted in the everyday life. Poetry happens during the process of serving the table, by force of the fragility of the whole setting. Watching the downfall of the eating implements that we are used to, we start to question why certain patterns of behavour and certain everyday objects make up the relationships within social groups. Poetry takes place here by turning an everyday object useless.”
Watch a video of the table being set. You may want to fast forward, though, it takes nine minutes to put down four place settings!