A Foot at The Table
Sasha Portis

I saw Muriel Cooper’s work before learning who she was in design school; the black bars of the MIT Press logo and a thick book about the Bauhaus that every architect seems to have on their shelf. She was a graphic designer and educator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for about four decades. MIT Press hired her as their first design director in 1967 and later she started the Visible Language Workshop. She was fascinated by print technologies and publishing systems, then transitioned her attention to the emergent field of computer graphics. I read about a moment in her legendary class Messages and Means that is a good example of the kind of energy she stirred up: without permission, the students knocked down the wall separating the computer room from the printing room, creating a truly interdisciplinary workspace.

I am looking at a black and white photograph of Muriel Cooper at work captioned ‘Muriel Cooper in conversation with unidentified males, c.1972.’ They are standing around a wood table in a long collegiate room at MIT that has portrait paintings on the walls. The group is turning towards a document that is just out of sight from the camera in one of the men’s hands. At the moment the photo was taken, everyone’s mouths are closed and their eyes gazing in different directions. Muriel, foregrounded and the only one in full focus, appears to be lost in thought. There is one chair between the five people and a line of unused chairs along the wall behind them. Without seats, they are relating

to the table in slightly uncomfortable ways. Some lean on the it, some sit on it. Muriel Cooper seems very comfortable. She has her bare foot flat on the table. Her legs are wide open, and her crotch is turned towards the camera, lit by sun flooding into the room. The inner crook of her elbow rests casually on her knee which is jutting upwards. Muriel’s hand hangs down near her foot. Her white crocheted top stands out among the grays and blacks of the men’s suits. My eye wanders. There are dollar-sized coins and what look like white poker chips scattered on the table. A throw away wax cup near her hand is at odds with the sturdy seminar table. Who are these unidentified men, was this an everyday kind of meeting?

In 2014, there was an exhibition dedicated to Muriel Cooper’s work at Columbia University, the first in twenty years. In the exhibition booklet, two of her co-workers at MIT Press recount that ‘she often wandered around barefoot…and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project…Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble.’ So this wasn’t the first time she was shoeless in the workplace. Yes, it was the 70s, yes, she was the boss (imagine a world where an intern could stand like this at a meeting) but no matter how I contextualize it, Muriel putting her bare foot on the work table—which also happens to be the academic table—is radical. It seems the foot and leg are there to support an image more than an arm. Her stance is unmistakably assertive. If a man were to stand like this at a meeting he may be perceived as arrogant; a cowboy, a mountain climber who has reached a peak, a dog marking a tree. I am reminded that we lack a collective language to describe embodied power without conflating power with masculinity. The photograph offers an alternative image of a woman at work and of work in general. The presence of her foot just makes work look more fun.

I gave the pose a try in my living room and also made a re-enactment video. I had the necessary elements: table, bare foot, and stretchy pants. It felt physically strained, especially the lean forward, and humorously exaggerated. Maybe good for a momentary hip stretch, but not as a resting pose. And then in a work meeting, I brought my entire shin on to the table. This felt awkward at first, but I persisted and eventually it felt natural.

I am looking at a photograph of Muriel Cooper at work. Her stance has an internal tension that adds to its effect. As I look back and forth from her foot to her head, they appear not to be of the same body or mental space. From waist up she is casual, lost in thought. From waist down she seems defiant, that she is holding her ground.

Also, seeing hands and feet in such proximity to each other and on the same horizontal plane is rare outside the privacy of the bedroom. We spend most of our waking hours vertical. All day, the hands are free to dance weightless while the feet carry the weight. But here, the foot is elevated. The foot is at the table.