Your (turquoise) table is ready

Your (turquoise) table is ready

Kristin Schell was frustrated by the hectic pace of her family’s life.

It was all good, but busy and stressful.

“We were in the minivan all the time,” she said, and her four kids — ages 14, 12, 11 and 6 — were mmersed in their phones or other screens.

“I noticed the way our family was communicating with one another was starting to change,” said Schell, of Austin, Texas. “When I was little, we were always outside and we knew our neighbors. I wanted us to reconnect.”

That was in the fall of 2013. She had ordered a picnic table for an upcoming barbecue, to capture the feel of those family dinners they never had time for anymore.Blog Photo

When it arrived, the delivery guys unloaded it in her front yard, right next to the street, and asked her where she wanted it.

A light bulb went off.

What if the table could be a gathering place for the whole neighborhood?

She left it right there and covered it with a coat of turquoise paint — her favorite color, which also symbolizes “friendship” in Native American culture. Then one morning she went out, sat down and waited.

Now even in Austin, she said, where the city slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” it’s a little unusual to put a bright turquoise table in your front yard.

But “literally within minutes,” a neighbor named Susan came by on a walk and stopped to chat. She lived about three houses down.

“Not only had I not met her, I had not seen her before, ever,” Schell said. “Thirty minutes later we were exchanging contact information. Now I can’t imagine not knowing Susan.”

That made her wonder: who else didn’t she know? Her neighborhood near the center of Austin is friendly, but her neighbors were just like her — busy.

They’d get together for a Memorial Day block party every year, but “as soon as the coolers and folding chairs were set back up, we still didn’t really know one another.”

So she texted three other moms she knew casually through her kids’ school and asked them to stop by for coffee at the table after drop-off the next morning.

“All three ended up getting a table that day,” she said.

Then her sister-in-law in San Antonio got one. So did a friend in North Carolina. The local newspaper ran a story, and turquoise tables started popping up all around Austin.

The turquoise table became a movement.

Schell, who already wrote a blog about hospitality, talked about it at a conference in South Carolina. Members of the audience pulled out phones to order tables on the spot.

There are now turquoise tables in all 50 states and nine countries.

She’s since written a book, “The Turquoise Table,” which came out last June. She’s been featured on the Today Show and in Good Housekeeping magazine, and has a line of products at Tuesday Morning, a discount home goods store.Blog Photo

“I never expected it to go viral,” Schell said.

“It scratched an itch. We live in the digital age, and it is the most connected era in all of history. But statistics show we’re lonelier than ever,” she said. “That’s what I was feeling, but I couldn’t put words to it at the time. But I wasn’t alone.

“People saw this as a simple, practical way just to start hanging out with friends and neighbors without all the hoopla,” she said. “It’s about slowing down enough just to reconnect.”

In the past, Schell said, she always wanted to host get-togethers but she’d fret so much about cleaning her house or preparing a special meal that she’d never get around to it. The picnic table offers a way to gather without stressing about a three-course dinner.

“This is just, ‘Stop by,’” she said. “There was just something so freeing about being outside in the front yard that didn’t feel like another commitment on the calendar.”

Her turquoise table, and others, became the center of the neighborhood social life. Kids used it for lemonade stands. When Schell’s daughter had spine surgery in 2014, she rolled her outside in her wheelchair so friends could stop by to say “hey.”

Neighbors started “Front Yard Fridays” after work each week, rotating among different houses. Whoever wanted to show up would bring drinks and lawn chairs and they’d take turns buying pizza. People could stop by for 10 minutes or an hour.

Schell, who works from home, hosts regular Thursday mornings at her turquoise table. But she said Saturdays might work best for others.

“Every neighborhood has a rhythm,” she said.

The concept works in any neighborhood, even if you live in an apartment or don’t have a yard big enough for a picnic table, she said. People have put them in libraries and atriums, churches and civic organizations, hospitals and college campuses. One was set up next to a basketball court.

The table can be new or a flea-market find, home-made or from a box store. In Austin, Schell partnered with the Rework Project, which employs men and women transitioning out of homelessness. A half-dozen now work full-time making turquoise tables.

Or it doesn’t have to be a table at all. It could be a couple of lawn chairs or a turquoise tablecloth thrown over a counter in a laundry room.

It’s about a gathering space, a place to start a conversation, she said.

“There’s not really rules,” she said. “You really can’t mess it up. Just be brave and try.”

Beth Stiff of Elk Grove Village, a fellow blogger, took the plunge last summer.
With her two sons grown and living in other cities, “my husband and I just wanted our home to become more of a place where we gather with friends and family. I thought this turquoise table was a way to do that,” she said.

They bought a table and painted it, and it “opened that door to step outside of my comfort zone to reach out to people.”

Stiff hosted a get-together with neighbors, and they ended up staying until midnight. She’s since gotten to know a small group of women who connect more often now.
“Turquoise is now my favorite color,” she said. “There’s something about that color. Everyone says, ‘I love your table.’ And I say, ‘There’s a little story about this table.’”

On a broader level, Schell sees it as one small way to ease tensions in these divisive times.

“It may seem really, really small, and it is. But what if we all were civil and kind and respectful, instead of bashing each other? It’s really hard to be mad or angry or have biases when you’ve shared chips and salsa.

“We can wait for the powers that be to do that ... or we can do something simple and meaningful in our own neighborhood.”

________________

Julie Wurth blogs about kids and familes and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226,
jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

Photos:

Top:  Kristin Schell chats with a neighbor at her turquoise table.

Bottom: Schell's book was published in 2017.

Photos courtesy Kristin Schell

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