Hairpinned Table

A few months ago, my cousin approached me about building a dining room table for her and her family. They had recently moved into a newly rehabbed house, just outside D.C. A spec builder took the top off a small sixties rancher on the edge of a steep site and expanded up. The main level has clean-lined built-ins, with great views of a wooded park and an open floor plan. They wanted a sleek form rendered in reclaimed material, similar to the Douglas Fir conference tables I made for Hattery a few years back. In order to match their other furniture, they also wanted to reference the mid-century aesthetic of Eames and Bertoia.

I rarely take on jobs like this — I don’t have my own shop, and no longer work in a shop for my day job. However, this was a great opportunity to make an heirloom piece, for family, at a scale at which I rarely get to work. I knew I could figure some guerilla solutions to my lack of facilities.

The Hattery tables have unusually swept-back legs, with chunky back braces. This limits the seating in the corners because they take up a lot of horizontal real estate. The clients wanted to seat 6–8 regularly, and 12 occasionally, at a top that is only 84" by 42". To make best use of the corners, I’d have to keep the legs closer to vertical and slim down the apron.

Instead of a full boxed-out apron, which reinforces the boxiness of the tabletop, I decided to use a modified X-shape underneath. This came with a risk — it doesn’t brace the legs in all four directions. To mitigate that, I would through-tenon the legs into the tabletop. And, for that mid-century reference, I decided to use really short hairpin legs as the back braces.

Hairpin legs have become so ubiquitous that they veer into cliche, helped along by the image mills of Pinterest and Google. They are so cheap to buy online from dozens of outlets (and relatively easy to make), that they crop up everywhere. Screw on a couple of them to anything reasonably flat, and bam, instant “designed” table.

The history of hairpin legs, however, runs deep through a long thread of mid-century thought. Designed by Henry Glass for American Way furniture in 1941, the original hairpin legs were a structural element in a series of sailcloth-and-steel folding beach furniture. They were structurally stable, lightweight, and used a minimum amount of low-quality steel at a time when metals were strictly rationed. Glass himself had an amazing life story: he survived two years in Nazi death camps, made his way to America, and launched a prolific career in architecture and industrial design.

He settled in Illinois (home to many displaced German design intellectuals) and built one of the first passive solar homes. An adherent of Buckminster Fuller’s thinking, he even laid a deposit down for one of Bucky’s ill-fated Dymaxion Houses. He died at age 91, holder of 52 patents. The hairpin leg wasn’t one of them, perhaps because they were so easy to copy.

I decided to use the hairpins unconventionally, nodding to that storied history but steering clear of some of the associated design baggage. I turned them around — feet pointing towards the center of the table — and used them as back braces to tapered wooden legs. The wood was salvaged Douglas Fir from the boiler room of a building owned by the organization I work for. It was damp, and stained with heating oil, but a few weeks of drying and a run through the planer brought out the beauty inside.

I laminated the top at the Station North Tool Library, a fantastic shared facility that has open shop hours twice a week and a day rate otherwise. There was no way I could have milled and glued up without access to their jointer, planer, table saw, and clamp set. SNTL illustrates the real promise of makerspaces and other shared workshops, allowing an independent designer like me to access equipment on demand without the burden of owning a whole shop. (If you’re in town, join me there Saturday night, March 28th, from 7–10 P.M. for a party celebrating the release of Guerilla Furniture Design!)

Once I had the top glued up, I moved over the basement of a vacant warehouse and spent a very cold winter putting the rest of the table together. At times, I had to delay doing certain parts of the project until it was warm enough for glue or epoxy to dry. In the end, it all came together into a visually light, lean, modern table that will last for generations to come. Look for a full Instructable soon for details about the build process.

Originally published at

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Will Holman’s story.