The appearance is that of a round table, with cupboards underneath and room for six people to sit. Except there is a handle at one side which, when operated by the host, causes a cylindrical drum in the centre to rise. The drum consists of two levels. The bottom one contains plates, cutlery and glasses. The top one contains the food to be served. The drum rotates, allowing the guests to help themselves or be helped. Each of the cupboards underneath the tabletop, when opened, reveal bottles of soft drinks, wine and liquors, which slide forward and can be tipped without needing to be removed from their holders. In this way the meal can be consumed without either the guests or the host having to leave their seats, or the need for waiters or maids.
The table, known as l’Autarca (the autarch), was designed in 1936 by a Genoese attorney by the name of Angelo Fasce. It got its current name much later, though, when it became a museum piece. In his patent application, Fasce had called it, less poetically, a ‘table containing all the necessaries for serving meals’. It is reasonable to assume that he protected his design in the hope that it would be mass produced and become a feature of the modern home, along with the first automatic washing machines and the other appliances of the coming era.
By the time Fasce’s filing was accepted by the United States Patent Office, it was 1937 and the short-lived economic sanctions following Mussolini’s brutal invasion of Ethiopia had been lifted. The forced isolation that the regime had turned into a tool for political propaganda was no longer dictated by external conditions, but had since developed into the means of expressing materially and economically the Fascist ideology. So perhaps the posthumous name for this dining table isn’t misplaced. The autarch is proud and resourceful. By reducing his household staff, or the domestic duties of the wife, he will help the nation preserve the labour force needed to achieve and maintain its self-sufficiency.
I saw the table earlier this year in its current home, the Wolfsoniana museum in Nervi, on the outskirts of Genoa. It was donated to the collection in 2010 along with its original set of red earthenware plates by Richard-Ginori, bakelite coffee cups, Murano glasses and embroidered linen placemats. It is a magnificent object, yet also deeply ridiculous: what crazy, hopelessly impractical design was this, which would need to be carefully set up in advance (and how would it cope with hot foods in its belly for prolonged periods of time?), then operated while sitting down, always strictly in the correct order, when it might be easier to just pass the foods along, or get up and grab a bowl of salad from the kitchen? Would this beautiful machine really spare any time or effort? And how long would it take for its novelty to fade?
1936, the year the Autarch was invented, was also the year Modern Times was released in the United States, and the mind runs to the Billows Feeding Machine, that great invention designed to ‘eliminate the lunch hour, increase the production, and decrease the overheads’ of the most advanced Taylorist factories. This machine also takes labour-saving to preposterous extremes:
Let us acquaint you with our automaton soup plate, its compressed-air blower – no breath necessary, no energy required to cool the soup. Notice the revolving plate with the automatic food pusher. Observe our counter-shaft, double-knee-action corn feeder, with its synchro-mesh transmission, which enables you to shift from high to low gear by the mere tip of the tongue. Then there is the hydro-compressed, sterilized mouth wiper: its factors of control insure against spots on the shirt front.It doesn’t take the catastrophic, high-speed failure of the machine as it is tested upon the worker played by Charlie Chaplin to understand that the design is absurd, and yet utterly coherent and consistent with contemporary ideology and the role of people within in it.
The Autarch is genteel by comparison, less dehumanising, and we can admire it today as a museum piece, like we would the contraptions that entertained the aristocracy in earlier times. But it’s also a historical object, made at a time when a loutish and deeply uncultured regime presided over the extraordinary flourishing of our industrial design – another oddity of which this very odd object is an expression and a relic – then plunged us into a war that destroyed nearly everything.
You couldn’t sit at the table these days, although seeing as the full designs have survived and the inventor has been dead for so long, someone might yet build another Autarch, and play again at hosting dinner parties that resemble an elaborate mechanical dance while we all wait for history to end.