by Mara Fisher
Napkin folding is an oft-overlooked decorative art in modern table dressing, but one that we find has hidden meaning — the ornate nature of napkin creations and their subsequent undoing can serve as an exercise in impermanence and an exploration into the potentiality of everyday objects.
Inset: The Watchtower fold, The Beauty of the Fold: In Conversation with Joan Sallas, Edited by Charlotte Birnbaum
Folded napkins can signify a level of elegance or dowdiness, depending on the era — or who’s judging. For many centuries in Western dining traditions it was typical to use a tablecloth to wipe one’s hands and mouth while dining. The 17th century saw the introduction of smaller cloths designated for personal upkeep at the banquet table — these were originally vast pieces of linen that were long enough to cover a guest’s clothing, and which were tucked in or tied at the neck.
In the court of Louis XIV, napkins became elevated from functional cloths to elaborate works of art, contributing artistically and lavishly to the tablescape. As Louis XIV was the premiere tastemaker of France at the time, the predilection for featuring fanciful cloth creations at banquets naturally spread thoughout the lower nobility and bourgeoisie.
Folded napkins would take shape as animals, decorative shapes, floral motifs, and architectural elements, and the intricacy and inventiveness of the designs would indicate a host’s wealth and status. The napkins were frequently perfumed with rose water, and in some cases housed a hidden live songbird that would dramatically fly away once liberated from the napkin’s folds. At wedding banquets, a folded napkin would be personalized for each guest and its design indicated the individual’s relationship to the bride and groom.
There are several documented cases of folded napkin designs serving as symbols or totems specific to one individual. One notable fold that indicated an person's station was the Imperial napkin fold used at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna only when the Emperor was dining. The method of doing this particular napkin fold is to this day a closely guarded secret only known by two people at a time — the method is passed on by word of mouth by each person safeguarding this knowledge before the time of their death.
Napkin folding has an illustrious history unto itself which provides insights into status, identity, fluidity and transmutation — cloth interpreted, constructed, and then, usually, relegated to its more menial function.