Art of Games

Stamps professor’s homemade table becomes much more

The prototype of the Feldmark table built by Roland Graf, associate professor of art and design in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, in 2006. (Photo by Roland Graf)
Written by Noah Roy

Roland Graf’s father retired in 2006, and the family wanted to celebrate the occasion with a small gathering in his native Vienna, Austria.

They soon realized that they did not have a table large enough to seat the 12 people attending in Graf’s small apartment, so he followed his wife’s suggestion and did what he had done since he was a young child.

He created.

Graf gathered some discarded untreated pine plans from a nearby construction site and made a table around which his family celebrated his father’s retirement.

“Back then, my family was happy about the retirement party itself and less concerned with the design of the table. They knew I was constantly creating stuff,” Graf said. “We didn’t want to spend a lot of money because it was just for one occasion and the table would be too big for our living room.”

Five years later, Graf and his wife relocated to the United States, with Graf accepting a position as associate professor of art and design in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.

The table found a place in one company’s history.

The prototype of the Feldmark table built by Roland Graf, associate professor of art and design in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, in 2006. (Photo by Roland Graf)
The prototype of the Feldmark table built by Roland Graf, associate professor of art and design in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, in 2006. (Photo by Roland Graf)

At the heart of its character is its simplicity, which was by design.

“All my creative instincts are to go for simplicity,” Graf said. “I like to do more with less. It’s just a principle that I’m very obsessed with.”

He did not mock up a design or spend painstaking hours measuring twice and cutting once.

He simply listened to the plans of wood.

“When I looked at the planks, I realized I only needed a handsaw to cut out some joints and a hammer to assemble it,” he said. “It happened like when you’re working on a piece of sculpture: You have the materials and the tools and you kind of eyeball it.

Roland Graf
Roland Graf

“You really feel it out aesthetically and structurally. It’s how these plans want to fit together.”

He settled on using three 9-foot plans of wood for the tabletop and four plans for the legs. The entire thing is held together by grooves and four beech wedges keeping the legs connected to the tabletop when the 130-pound table is moved.

Long enough to comfortably seat 12 people, the table is also fairly narrow at just 2½ feet. That was alsoal as Graf, wishing to create a piece that fostered increased social interaction.

A design colleague was so struck by the table’s simplicity and sturdiness, she it encouraged Graf to send photos of manufacturers. Graf was concerned about the rawness of the table would turn off manufacturers considering it has no wax or varnish. But officials at German design retailer MAGAZIN said it “fit their vision” and after a three-hour visit to see the table and share tea with Graf in his apartment in Vienna, they struck a deal to manufacture and sell the table.

On a consequent trip to visit a German production facility, MAGAZIN officials and Graf brainstormed names for the table. Nothing stuck until they reached a part of a small town called Feldmark, and the Feldmark table was officially a product.

MAGAZIN celebrated its 50th year in business last year and produced a book titled “50 Jahre, 50 Produkte” — or 50 years, 50 products — and included the Feldmark table as one of the products that mark the company’s history.

“A local carpenter in Germany sources wood locally and is able to produce enough tables to service Germany, Austria and Switzerland,” Graf said. “It’s a small number of tables that sell. It’s not like thousands of tables, but it sells every year. I’m surprised because it’s such a big table, so I’m like, ‘Who has space for such a big table?’”

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The prototype sits unassembled in the attic of Graf’s grandparents’ house in the Austrian mountain countryside, about 60 miles from Vienna. Graf credits a small woodshop of his late grandfather’s where he spent countless hours as a child creating and learning about tools and materials for fostering his creativity.

That creativity has led to a host of inventions during Graf’s time at UM. Working within the intersection of art and technology, he created, among others, Solar Pink Pong — a street video game — and iGYM, an inclusive exergame system that uses projected augmented reality to create a room-sized, interactive game environment.

He calls iGYM the most important project he’s currently working on, and he’d like nothing more than to see it available to the public. He recognizes that will take effort, more than simply putting together seven plans of wood to create the table.

“You either have the stars aligned, like they were with Feldmark, or other times you have to find the stars to make them aligned,” he said. “That’s where we are with iGYM.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

One of the most memorable moments was perhaps the surprise “baby shower” for my youngest daughter, Vida, at the Stamps School. This was such an unexpected, kind gesture organized by Stamps staff and colleagues nine years ago. Unexpected, because it was disguised as an ad-hoc committee meeting by our former associate dean for academic programs Elona Van Gent. Imagine my face as I opened the door and saw cakes and balloons instead of worksheets.

What can’t you live without?

I can’t live without my family, some sport, and sufficient exposure to art, architecture and culture — including regular travel to Brazil and Austria, where my extended family lives.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

One of my favorite spots on campus is the pizza oven and outdoor area in front of the sculpture studio at the Stamps School. Not many people outside our school know this hidden spot on the north campus, I think. The oven is not often used, but has good memories attached to it.

What inspires you?

Wobbly pavement stones, unusual sunlight reflections, unexpected behavior of people in the public, lab visits and conversations with colleagues across campus. Such direct experiences and conversations are the most important springboard for my creative work and research.

What are you currently reading?

“The Creative Classroom” by Keith Sawyer. I like how Sawyer, as an education and creativity researcher, breaks down learning science concepts and curricula innovations to a few principles that he refers to as “guided improvisation” — a pedagogy that seeks to balance structure and freedom to cultivate creativity in any domain, not limited to art and design.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My grandfather had probably the greatest influence on my career path, at least initially. Although I don’t have any recollection of him personally (he died before I turned 2), I was allowed to use his small workshop as a “playground.” The tools and materials that he left behind shaped much of my play activities and provided an outlet for my imagination as a young child. It was not until much later, however, that I realized that imaginary play with tools and materials can also become a career.

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Noah Roy

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