If you visit the apartment of a creative friend who works from home, you'll probably see whatever project they're currently working on all over their desk. Stacks of paper, sketches, Pantone books, fabric swatches. We live in a time where work and leisure hours have blurry boundaries, we multitask, and we let our projects all hang out, visitors be damned.
In the past it was different, of course; societal rules dictated you cleaned up your pig-sty if company was coming over, and work and leisure were two different things. A household task like sewing fell into the "work" category, it was meant to be focused on a few hours at a time and then put away. And furniture design of the time reflected that with some pretty neat design solutions.
Take the Mid-Century-Modern-looking table above, for instance. It appears an ordinary endtable, but as we shall see it has some surprising design features.
First off, what appears to be a drawer in the front, one that you'd assume occupied the same depth as the table, isn't a drawer at all; it's a flip-out panel containing small bins.
Next you might notice the odd, subtle bevel along the front edge, which it turns out is there to give your fingers purchase. The top surface turns out to be two layers of material, the top one liftable.
On the other side you see this felt-tipped metal bar embedded in the table.
As you lift the tabletop on its hinge, an internal spring is released and the bar pops out of its nesting position.
The bar, it turns out, is to support the tabletop. And because what was the top of the table is now the bottom, the bar is tipped in felt to avoid marring the surface at the point of contact.
Now the narrow endtable has effectively doubled its work surface.
Looking at the cutout area now revealed in the tabletop, it becomes obvious why the front of the table is not a drawer. The interior is occupied by a sewing machine stored in a horizontal position.
The front panel flips open.
Now the machine can be grasped around the neck and lifted upwards. It is attached to the rear of the table by two hinges which it hangs from in the stored position.
After the front panel is flipped back down...
...the machine now has the support it needs to "stand."
This sewing machine, by the way, has a cast-iron body and weighs nearly 30 pounds, which was common in the first half of the 20th century. Yet the intended users were women ranging from teenage girls to grandmothers who would not possess the strength to lift such a machine. To address this, a support spring was added to the inside.
This black metal panel was attached to the spring and supports the weight of the machine during the hoisting process.
The spring can be calibrated to perfectly counterbalance the weight of the machine. Once it's perfectly tuned, lifting the machine into its working position is nearly effortless.
You'll see the bed of the machine is just about level with the table surface, which allows the smooth sliding of fabric across both surfaces.
Lastly, underneath the table is a metal lever on a hinge.
The lever can be lowered into a vertical position and is attached to the sewing machine's motor controller.
When seated in the operating position, the lever stays just to the side of your knee. By shifting your leg slightly and pressing the lever, you control the sewing action and speed of the machine, leaving both hands free to manipulate the material.
Even the attendant stool serves a dual purpose: The top lifts off to provide access to storage space beneath the seat.
This table is Singer's No. 71 Cabinet, by the way. The stool is also a Singer, and though it belongs to a different cabinet model and has different legs, the storage feature is identical.
In these period advertising shots, you can see how seamlessly the cabinet was meant to blend into the households of the 1940s and '50s.
It'd be nice if we had something similar for our home computers and work detritus. But these days, it seems, work is never meant to be put away.