The big game plan

Lucia van der Post is a winner at tracking down games tables of character and fine craftsmanship.

November 22 2009
Lucia van der Post

Nice big country houses nearly always have a table given over specially to the jigsaw. Somebody starts it and there they leave it, with friends and family filling in pieces as and when they pass by until the whole puzzle is finished. They then pack it up and move on to the next one. I’ve always thought it gave a lovely air to a house, making it seem properly lived in and enjoyed by people who had a bit of leisure time and used it in engaging in some old-fashioned pursuits.

The same goes for games tables. They are in one sense a luxury because they aren’t essential in the way that a bed, a dining table, a cooker and all the rest of the fundamentals are. They also need space, which is no doubt another reason why they seem like a real luxury – they can’t fit into the average small semi. Then they always look so inviting and make one feel that the household has time to spend playing with friends and each other. They make even a non-chess player like myself want to learn the game.

But where, these days, does one find a fine games table? Consult the internet and you’ll find no shortage of cheap and unattractive options. Dinky and horrid bits of rosewood, lacking proper space to rest the elbows and do a bit of serious strategic planning, can be had for about £200. Even cheaper come nasty bits of metal and baize or leather, while there is also plenty of pretentious tat – overly worked and ostentatious bits of carved oak and “medieval onyx”. If you want something large and comfortable, the sort you see in American ranch-style houses, then there’s a lot of choice but the designs leave much to be desired – they’re mostly great vulgar statements of bulging leather and over-carved wood.

And yet it is perfectly possible to make truly beautiful chess tables. For a New York exhibition called The Imagery of Chess in 1944, Julien Levy commissioned some renowned artists and designers, including Yves Tanguy, Alexander Calder and Man Ray, to come up with great designs. For the same exhibition, American/Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi created a stunning black chess table manufactured by Herman Miller that was simple, practical and lovely to look at (and to it he added some equally desirable red and green Plexiglass chessmen). The chess table top rotated on its base of two intersecting curvaceous forms, the board positions were indicated by alternating red and white inset plastic circles, and there were two hidden pockets to hold the chess pieces. Newsweek described it as the most beautiful piece in the show. In 2005, The Noguchi Museum issued 10 limited-edition tables, produced by Zach Hadlock of Platform Design, selling them for $25,000 each. The Museum still has one for sale and occasionally they turn up for sale at auctions or on specialised websites.

All this is no doubt why more and more people are looking for something bespoke. They turn either to interior designers, who will create something specially for them, or to the grand old companies such as Asprey, Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Goyard, which still have workshops and will come up with something entirely special.

Take interior designer David Collins. He seems to specialise in sumptuously modern interiors, finding a niche in that area where a certain sense of luxe and comfort has to be combined with a fine aesthetic sense. His clients spend a lot on their homes and they want to be able to enjoy themselves without having to go out. As backgammon, poker and other games have become increasingly popular, so the demand for the fine games table has risen.

Collins finds the challenge to come up with something that meets all the practical criteria – a good area for the cards and the chess or backgammon pieces, as well as areas for glasses – is something that pleases him. “It’s quite a sweet little thing to design,” he says, “because people want something that is very good to look at and at the same time is indulgent. A dining table simply won’t do as the geometry doesn’t work. You need a special table if you’re really going to be comfortable playing something like bridge, poker or backgammon. It’s one of the very few pieces that is decorative and utilitarian.”

For one client, Collins came up with a gorgeous octagonal table made from oak completely covered in yellow leather (£7,500). Its proportions are generous, and the matching chairs (which swivel – something he believes important) are comfortable enough to sink into. They’re made of palm wood and stitched leather inlaid with bronze studding. But that is merely one of his many commissions. For The Connaught, where he designed the penthouse suite which privileged people tend to take when they need somewhere to stay for a week or more (Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance, recently stayed for several months while her latest house was being done up), he decided to design a rather smaller, but just as interesting, games table. “Not everybody wants to watch television, and I thought people might like to play patience, bridge or invite some friends in to play poker.”

So he came up with a hexagonal table in blue leather and teamed it with blue chairs that are identical to the dining chairs in the apartment. All fit beautifully into the cool blue and grey interior. But over the years he’s used many different materials and colours – for instance, chrome and grey leather for a client with a house in the South of France. “On that occasion, I also gave them little metal holders to take glasses.” Since every commission is different, it’s hard to give precise prices, but they would start at about £7,000.

Collins says he was inspired to create his tables by seeing a spectacularly chic games table – the Tric Trac (which is a French onomatopoeic word to describe the noise made by the pieces) designed by the famous photographer Willy Rizzo, who also turns his hand to designing furniture. “It was in two shades of blue, with a reversible top, one side for chess, the other for backgammon.”

In a weird piece of synchronicity, Mallett, the grand New Bond Street antiques dealer, which now sells what it calls “the best of everything whenever it was made”, has formed a collaboration with Willy Rizzo to produce 10 new pieces of furniture (mostly redesigned versions of 1970s designs, but some originals too) and in among them is a beautiful updated version of the Tric Trac table, first made in 1973. Rizzo has reinvented it using different materials: leather top with bronze and brass frame, painted black. The top reverses to a backgammon surface, making it a dual-purpose piece, and saving space. The new colour gives it a stronger, more dramatic appearance. It is for sale in a limited edition of 12 at £12,500.

Brigid Strevens, a designer who specialises in hand-painted, very decorative finishes, is another source of bespoke tables. She works to special commission and paints malachite-effect marble but always finishes with her signature gloss lacquer. She would make a games table to order and her prices start at £2,850.

Meanwhile, David Linley says that he too has many customers who ask for special games tables. So often is he asked that while much of his work is made to special commission, he has developed a design which is always in stock. It’s a square table made in walnut on a pedestal base with inlays of Macassar ebony and nickel. It works for bridge, chess, backgammon and dominoes. The chessboard is an integral part of the table, with inlaid, alternate squares of ripple sycamore and rosewood forming the geometric pattern. To turn it into a card table, the board can pivot and turn to reveal the green baize playing surface.

To play backgammon, the board is removed entirely and there is another one with stones supplied by the well-known games expert Geoffrey Parker, designed in consultation with world champion backgammon player Paul Magriel. There are drawers to hold the backgammon stones, shakers, cards, score pads, Staunton chess set (all hand-crafted in boxwood and rosewood, re­interpreting the famous 1849 set made by the then world champion, Howard Staunton) and dice. The price (£24,370) reflects not only the specialised woods used but the fact that so much is handmade.

There are many other specialists in bespoke furniture who can always be approached, such as Asprey, which has wonderful workshops, as does Louis Vuitton with its Asnières craftsmen. Louis Vuitton, perhaps sensing the mood for games, has this Christmas come up not with a table but with an extraordinary and very extravagant Casino Trunk. Covered in the iconic Monogram canvas, it houses a roulette wheel and the many drawers include everything needed to play poker, roulette and blackjack. The price varies depending on the leathers, and anybody interested could discuss what they wanted in any Louis Vuitton boutique.

But if you can’t wait and these prices seem high, let me direct you to The Conran Shop where there is Front’s ready-made black and white lacquer chess table for Moooi (£650). And there is always eBay and antiques shops where some beautiful games tables sometimes come up. At the time of going to press, Lamberty, for instance, has an impressive Moroccan leather backgammon table by Karl Springer made in New York in 1970 for £6,800. Hard to beat.

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