Coffee Tables

Coffee Tables
Coffee Tables

Imagine the typical home’s living room. It is called that because most families spend most of their time “living” in this room. The massive family television set faces the big comfy couch, where everyone eats, watches, plays video games, and relaxes. The other necessary item in this room is the ever-present coffee table. Whether it is used for coffee or not, most folks couldn’t live without their coffee table, the low table placed in front of the sofa, where everything from coffee table books, feet, TV remotes, and yes, coffee, find a place.

Seldom do we think about this necessary piece of furniture. Where did it come from? How many styles are available? Could we live without them? The modern living room would be incomplete without it.

Various social entertaining rituals developed in different cultures, but they all involved gathering around a central point, usually to share a beverage or a meal. Coffee itself was discovered in Ethiopia; its popularity spread throughout the Middle East and Africa, especially throughout the Ottoman Empire, centered in modern day Turkey. In their tea gardens, they developed coffee and tea drinking to a high art, and included small ‘tea tables’ as a part of the ritual. Is the modern coffee table descended from such ancient tea tables, which were carried in with tea makings and placed in front of guests? That’s one possibility.

Social coffee drinking became tremendously popular in Great Britain; the first coffee house was opened there in 1650; twenty-five years later, there were as many as 3000 public coffee houses, where people congregated to discuss important issues, share information, and, in at least one case, start companies that have endured to this day. Lloyd’s of London, started in an English coffee house by a group of merchants underwriting naval voyages, today is still very much a going concern. Coffee drinkers gathered around tables that were then about 27 inches tall, designed especially to serve coffee and accommodate animated conversation and gesticulation. Such a table listed in furniture resources of the time 1868 was called a coffee table, but it was taller than the low table familiar in modern living rooms.

Up until the 18th Century, the English sat upon uncomfortable, high-backed wooden settees. These were high-backed to help protect from drafty conditions. As conditions improved, and buildings became better insulated, the more modern, upholstered, low-backed sofa became popular. At first, tall tables were put behind these sofas, as a place to set down a candle or a book, and yes, coffee or tea.

There are many theories about the origin of the modern ‘coffee table,’ although a furniture maker in the early 20th Century, J. Stuart Foote of the Imperial Furniture Company, proclaimed himself the inventor of the modern coffee table. It seems that people were cutting down old tables in order to create a lower surface for setting down their coffee. Foote saw a need; so many wobbly homemade tables created a market for a low-cost, readymade alternative.

Nowadays, coffee tables are around 16-18 inches in height, to match the seat level of most sofas. There, however, the similarity ends, as there is an endless variety in designs and materials.

You might choose a simple wooden table from a plethora of natural wood types, textures, and color. Choices include many finishes, from antique and gilded tones to mirrored. Recycled, reclaimed, and natural materials, such as antique woods and sustainable materials are becoming very popular in this time of environmental awareness and green thinking. Continuing fascination with all things Oriental keep bamboo, lattices, and lacquered materials popular for the coffee table.

Glass-topped tables are both impressive in appearance and easy to keep clean with a little glass cleaner. An important consideration in choosing glass-topped tables is to choose a smooth-edged safety glass, and careful supervision of toddlers. The glass may be inset into a tabletop of traditional materials, or can be adapted to make almost anything into a table. A striking piece of driftwood, an attractive old steamer trunk, a sculpture, a chrome frame, an antique iron gate; any of these can provide a base for a glass top. With glass, the creative choices are almost unlimited.

There are coffee tables available with a lower shelf, good for storing magazines, books, remotes, or Playstations. Some tables have a hinged top, providing a discreet place to store or hide things when company shows up unexpectedly.

Your coffee table may come with matching ‘end tables,’ placed logically at the ends of the couch, often holding lamps, or giving another option for setting down your coffee if you’re seated at either end of the sofa.

Perhaps the most unusual adaptations to date in coffee table design are the so-called interactive coffee tables. The Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories have developed some very attractive tables featuring a circuit board of very bright LED lights that respond to movement and touch. Set down your coffee and the lights respond like dropping a stone into a still body of water; walk by the table and the electromagnetic ‘breeze’ created by your movement is reflected by the lights on the table. A clear or opaque glass or acrylic top completes the design.

The most innovative interactive coffee table is on display at Prudential Retirement’s Hartford, CT headquarters. Developed by Downstream, visitors sitting at this table can access information and 3D images with a simple touch.