We have evolved to function at many different levels: lounging, typing ergonomically, chopping vegetables, tending houseplants, tending bar. Latitudinally speaking, we want it all. That is where nesting tables come in handy. When children need to be fed away from the grown-ups, when a backgammon challenge is tendered, when we have bought a printer but forgotten all about a printer stand, we have tables sized for our needs.
Most space-saving furniture demands compromise. The convertible couch is rarely as comfortable as a bed or sofa. The folding chair lurks in a closet when it is not Thanksgiving.
Not so with nesting tables.
In the annals of furniture, nesting tables are fairly new. The British cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton is credited with publishing the first drawings (a group of four spindly-legged tables labeled Quartetto) in his book “The Cabinet Dictionary,” published in 1803.
But Sarah Coffin, a curator at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, suspects that Sheraton was merely codifying a design that had emerged some years earlier. In the 18th century, people commonly arranged furniture for tea drinking, needlework and checkers, later returning it to its place against the walls. Leaving furniture in the center of a room, Ms. Coffin said, “would have been considered messy or way too informal.”
She pointed out that in many European languages, the word for “furniture” is derived from the idea of mobility, as in the French “meuble” or German “möbel.”
Ms. Coffin speculates that nesting tables would not have shown up before the 1740s, when straight or tapering legs replaced a fashion for curved ones. Legs with flat outer sides are needed to move the tables in and out of their stacks.
My own nesting tables were designed in the late 1920s by the German artist Josef Albers, when he taught at the Bauhaus. They are shiny, colorful rectangles on thin oaken legs. In descending order of table size, the tops are pale minty green, goldenrod yellow, semi-burnt orange and celestial blue.
Albers wasn’t the only one making nesting tables at the Bauhaus. At about the same time, Marcel Breuer, his friend and fellow instructor, came up with a set in tubular steel with a similar color scheme. The tables fit the school’s populist ethos and the needs of a society that, like ours, had begun to relish small living. After World War II, an explosion of modest ranch houses with open plans and centrally placed television sets made nesting tables a common feature in American décor.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the German furniture company Vitra put Albers’s design into production, using tinted fiberglass in place of the artist’s painted glass tops. I picked up my set a couple of years later on sale at Vitra’s New York showroom. They are being produced through a partnership between the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Conn., and the Museum of Modern Art Design Store.
Eames Demetrios, an artist who is the grandson of the designer Charles Eames, is a great admirer of my nesting tables. He connects them to “Homage to the Square,” Albers’s art series begun in 1949 that grew into more than a thousand variations on concentric patches of color. “There’s poetry in those choices,” Mr. Demetrios says of the tables’ not-quite-primary hues. “Somehow it comes together just great.”
Which is why Lucy Swift Weber has turned down requests from manufacturers to sell the Albers tables individually. Ms. Weber, who leads the licensing and product department at the Albers Foundation, said she “even got into a little bit of an argument” with some of her colleagues, who accused her of standing in the way of commerce. Ms. Weber insisted that breaking up the set was not in the spirit of its creator.
She is so right. In Albers’s 1963 book, “Interaction of Color,” he wrote, “a set of four colors is to be considered — singly as ‘actors,’ together as ‘cast.’ ”
Not, one might say, unlike the Beatles.