BROOKLYN – In the 1950s, when television watching began, people left the dining room, but still wanted to eat “properly” in a civilized way. The people of American aspiration, namely upper middle class Americans, ate at dinner tables, a habit of generations, the emblem of upward mobility and respectability.
Radio changed things. For the first time ever in human history, something else outside the house interrupted the formal dining schedule at home. Telephone calls, usually taken in a hall, were away from the dining room, so the interruption was temporary. Radio, however, changed people’s schedules, if something special was on. But radio could be listened to in a dining room. When television arrived, it was hard to get away from, no matter what income group. Around 6:30, there was network news, followed by three channels of programs. Until the invention of the portable television, there was no eating at the table.
However, the American habit of a proper table, where there is room to put utensils, a drink, napkin, and perhaps ashtray, did not go away easily. American eating habits had not yet become slothful; Americans till wanted a table, or tray, set with utensils. The solution? The TV table, its ancestor either the butler’s serving tray, or the Adirondack camp folding table. Enter the Artex Butlerette.
Of the TV tables, Artex was the brand that mattered, and it wasn’t even a TV table. Artex was the banner decorative brand of tables, sold in upper middle class gift shops and department store accessories departments nationwide. They marketed them not as a substitute for the dining room, but something better. Their slogan?
America Serves on Artex.
A set of Artex tables, owned by Ronald and Nancy Reagan, sold for $8,750 back in 2016. The estimated price was less than $1,000. The idea that one would be able to sit down every night and eat on the TV tables of the Reagans obviously was appealing; even more that the tables are practical, and handsome. Christie’s described it thusly:
A SET OF FOUR AMERICAN BLACK-PAINTED FOLDING TRAY TABLES BY ARTEX-GREEN CORP., BROOKLYN, N.Y., SECOND HALF 20TH CENTURY Each laminated top inset with a black and white print after Piranesi, each with a retail label to the underside 25 in. (63.5 cm.) high, 20 ¾ in. (53 cm.) wide, 15 in. (38 cm.) deep
The author can happily say that he grew up with these same TV table designs at the Pollard household in Virginia, never knowing that Nancy and Ron used them in California.
The Artex difference was in construction, and design. Their specialty was the way the Artex wooden table neatly folded and then nestled into a rack. When folded out, they were sturdier than a metal TV table. Details were snazzy too; the edge of the table looked much like a picture frame, and even had a gold leaf band around the top, so that when the tables were in their racks, they looked like art. Because there were four images on the four tables, you could change the image you saw in the library. Above all, the Artex brand promoted their design sensibility. Cheap TV tables might come from Green Stamps or Sears, sold under the Harmony House brand, but have cheesy images. Artex tables, however, were considerable enough to be a substantial wedding gift.
Before television, the table might have been called a butler’s table, but with TV, it became a TV table or tray table. Artex tables were also special in that they had enameled tops, so that you did not have to worry about drinks creating rings. They were also all wood; old camp tables or British safari tables relied upon leather to hold legs together. The decorative tops also looked good in either direction, two on each side, with the image vertical. Designs could be a decorative pattern, a fruit still life, a nature scene, historic art or European etchings. In a sense, they were place mats, or place settings for a new place, the world of television.
Today, dozens of Artex tables can be found on the web in antiques shops and places like etsy.com and Worthpoint.com. Custom designs for Artex were suitably ambitious. The website Chairish has a vendor The Green Chair Project that found a set designed by Gant Gaither (1917-2004), a producer and friend of Grace Kelly. Gaither’s whimsical paintings, his second career, were sold on products including the Artex tables, and scarves. Today, they are highly collectible; the Gaither Artex table set is offered for $895.
They decoratively remind one of the Pimpernel place mat, which are basically laminated pictures with a cork backing. Like Artex, Pimpernel (famous in England and also in WASP houses in the U.S.) has the same product shapes, but the offerings could have endless variety, depending upon the color of the wood and the images used.
Brooklyn based Artex Tables was a unit of Artex-Green, and located at 300 Dewitt Avenue, Brooklyn. The one-story building is still there. Artex held a 1974 patent on their version of the tables, United States Patent 3,897,738. In their patent, the Artex tables were labeled “folding snack tables.” Inventors were Irving Meteliz of Douglaston, N.Y. and Stuart E. Minsky of Woodbury. The patent described the design as follows:
A folding snack table having a substantially reduced number of components is disclosed. There are provided a pair of laterally spaced apart scissor type legs pivotally mounted with respect to a support surface. First and second cooperating plastic frame sections are prestressed and secured to each other by concealed fasteners about the marginal edge of the support surface and are provided with means that firmly clamp the support surface in place. The first and second frame sections and the support surface are individually flexible but in the assembled condition are rigidized due to the prestressing feature of this invention to thereby resist subsequent twisting forces. The pairs of legs are each pivotally secured to the second frame section by means of pivot pins having heads that are received in partial sockets formed integrally with the second frame section.
There was also an Artex brand of tablecloths, and another Artex brand of appliques, basically decoupage. Decoupage parties were a thing back in the 1960s. It is unclear if the tablecloth brand was connected to the TV tables. We would be interested in others’ favorite designs, or stories, and hope they will comment below.