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Edith Wharton’s Round Table

Edith Wharton's TableAs the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature, Edith Wharton is best remembered for masterful stories and novels that consciously exposed the turn-of-the-century world of wealth and privilege she inhabited. Less well known is the fact that Wharton was an innovative designer whose first published book was The Decoration of Houses, a guide in which she and her co-author, architect Ogden Codman, Jr., pioneered an aesthetic of clean lines and graceful spaces that rejected society’s prevailing preference for ostentation.

When you visit The Mount, the country estate she built in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1902, you see many design choices that reflect Wharton’s simpler, classical sensibilities. In one important instance, you also see how she used design both to tweak the social conventions of her era and to stimulate her inner storyteller.

Other estates being built at this time featured large dining rooms in which massive rectangular tables were intended to impress. In his place at the head of the table, the host’s status would be perfectly clear. By contrast, for the dining room at The Mount, Wharton created a smaller, intimate space, opening onto the garden and full of light. At its center she placed a small, round table, just big enough to accommodate eight people. And at this round table, where corners couldn’t “cut off conversation,” she and her guests (often including her dear friend Henry James) engaged as equals in lively literary dialogue.

Wharton was no feminist. Politically conservative, she moved to France after her marriage ended and stayed there until she died, avoiding the awkwardness of divorced life in American high society. Nevertheless, in her round table, I see a tiny contribution to the dramatic social changes that were afoot. As any experienced facilitator can tell you, when you change the space, you change the conversation—and there is nothing like a circle to get people talking and telling stories.

How do you create spaces where conversation and change can happen?

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