So I’ve thought about this puzzle for a very long time, easily more than a decade, without seeing anything that could help solve it. Then recently I ran across an article by Rice Librarian William Dix in the December, 1949 issue of The Library Journal, which you may have missed. This detailed description of the new library and its setup should have solved the mystery but instead only deepened it. It’s all interesting but the most relevant part is on page 1868:
So the librarian asserts, publicly and in print, that the library tables are by Aalto. I’m going to skip a bunch of steps here because I got so wrapped around the axle I can’t describe it adequately. But the key thing turned out to be the fact that Dix says the tables were made in Sweden.
If you crawl underneath them (which I don’t recommend, so gross), both the ones in Fondren and the ones in Architecture, you’ll see the same thing:
So what the hell? Why are they so different? Stuck, I did the only thing I could think of: I asked Stephen Fox ’73 ’75 and Drexel Turner ’69, who I assumed would certainly have been paying attention to the furniture in the library (I mean this as a high compliment, by the way.) And they indeed were. With their help the pieces now fall together.
Once upon a time all the tables looked the same, with the same lovely light birch. Here’s Radoslav Tsanoff sitting at one, helping dry out books that were damaged in the great library flood of 1966:
And also underneath, inventory tags prove their age:
But at some point someone decided to sell some of them off . . . and then they covered the rest of them in some formica-like laminate!
Ye gods. As my old friend Bill from the Electrician’s Shop always said “typical!”
Happily for my purposes here this stuff has had a tendency to chip off at the corners. You can see the original birch underneath the cladding:
So there you have it. It’s a sad story of Aalto tables refaced (or defaced). But there’s no denying that they got their money’s worth with this furniture–over 70 years old and still in service!
Time to strip that plastic off and refinish those tables to their original look.
I am astounded! Astounded I say! That they spent the money on Aalto tables and Herman Miller chairs back then.
Amazing detective work, Melissa. Especially crawling under the table. It’s a astounding story. And, typical of institutions. The tables are certainly worth restoring to their original finish. Please, Rice!
I didn’t appreciate those tables when I was using them, but I attribute that to the laminate.
I was working in the library then and sat at one of those tables, with Dr. Tsanoff and others, placing paper towels between the leaves of hundreds of rare books to dry them out.