Sometimes an old photograph can inspire the design of a space. That’s exactly what happened at High Low, a literary arts center from the team at the Kranzberg Arts Foundation.
From its inception, High Low’s mission is “to offer a venue for freedom of expression through spoken and written word, a space which encourages creativity and literacy, where art can start and stand out.” KAF Executive Director Chris Hansen made it clear he wanted everyone to feel comfortable in the space, which is a combination café, gallery, performance space, and, upstairs, offices for nonprofit organizations and workspace for writers-in-residence. The name “High Low” refers to the no-judgement approach to what constitutes literature; it’s more than the traditional canon of texts – “important” books we were supposed to read in school — but it extends to poetry, music, spoken word, children’s books, graphic novels, young adult books, and art books. All are welcome, and a large selection of these books are on display and available for guests to enjoy in the cafe.
The two library-style tables in the café were too significant to simply choose from a furniture manufacturer’s catalog. Fortunately, we have master craftspeople in our shop, so we’re not limited by catalogs. After poring over images of writers’ workspaces, we stumbled across interiors of James Baldwin’s home in the South of France. Baldwin, an African-American writer and activist, was an influential commentator on social and racial issues in the United States. We thought we could build tables based on his desk. However, we called Magdalena Zaborowska, a Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan who wrote the book on Baldwin’s home, and she told us about his Welcome Table, the table where Baldwin wrote, dined, and held court with his friends, including Maya Angelou, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and many others of the creative class, both famous and not. It was around this Welcome Table that Baldwin demonstrated his charismatic hospitality, making all of his guests feel appreciated and comfortable. Baldwin’s Welcome Table is imbued with a story that spoke directly to KAF’s mission, so we designed two tables inspired by Baldwin’s.
There aren’t many pictures available of the original table, but the significant feature is the trestle legs. The available space in the café dictated the size of the table tops, and – to make the tables fit the needs of the space – we added built-in lamps to help those reading or studying. After drawing a simple sketch, our team began to build. Tom lathed all eight legs, and master craftsman Don managed the complex details to make all of the components coalesce in beautiful tables that can withstand daily use in a café. With his usual deliberate attention to detail, Don hand-selected the walnut pieces from the mill. He produced mock-ups of joinery to anticipate where hazards may lie when bringing the full-sized pieces together. To keep the tables affordable and not excessively heavy, Don crafted hollow box beams instead of solid wood as the trestle connecting the legs. 1-3/4” breadboards on the short ends of the table with mortise and tenon joints allow the wood to adjust to humidity and temperature variations throughout the year.
The resulting tables drove the rest of the furniture selection. Purple and gold, the colors of royalty and colors frequently associated with James Baldwin, are featured prominently throughout the café and upstairs in the Writer’s Suite. The palette of walnut, gold, purple and other jewel tones balances the natural austerity of the building’s honest concrete and white, creating a comfortable space for reading, sipping, and listening.
Special thank you to Dr. Zaborowska for generously sharing her research and knowledge with us, and thank you to the team at the Kranzberg Arts Foundation for giving us the chance to chase down old photographs that inspire solutions as special as the High Low and its mission.