A History of Coffee Tables
The usual simple coffee tables are actually much more younger than anyone could suppose. They’ve become a huge hit only during the first half of the 20th century but their history still goes far beyond this period. It’s just before there were coffee tables as we are used to them – low and rectangular – there were tea tables.
The tea tables were a must-have for a family with some kind of a fortune in Europe in 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. Such tables had long legs and a round top so that the guests could sit and chat comfortably while the hostess or the maid poured tea into their cups. The seatings at that time were high backed but they gradually got replaced with low sofas by around 1780. As this process went on the tables got lower as well.
But those were still not the coffee tables we know now. The sofas were used sometimes with so called sofa tables, or occasional tables. Also some other names like center tables or end tables depended on where the table was put. The visitors were now invited to take a sit on the couch and put their cups of hot beverages on the tables next to it between taking sips. The popularity of the tea declined simultaneously with the abundance of the high backed settles but the coffee, however, slowly found more and more lovers among the wealthy Europeans. Therefore this drink became kind of associated with the talks on the sofa and a low table where the cup or the book or anything else could be put became a part of the routine as well.
The closest parents of the well-known coffee tables are to be found in some Victorian documents listing different types of furniture and the earliest date of their birth mentioned is 1868. R. W. Symonds & B. B. Whineray in their Victorian Furniture and also Edward T. Joy in The Country Life Book of English Furniture include the invention of E.W. Godwin which was called “coffee table” already and was made in massive quantities by William Watt as well as by Collinson and Lock. Some tables could cause a confusion with their look clearly indicating the Georgian style or the Louis XVI one but they definitely were made much later and present just an homage to the earlier periods due to the revivalism being popular in England in the late 19th century.
The abundance of the low tables themselves was probably the consequence of the growing interest to the East. The Ottoman Empire on decline was the main question of the foreign politics everywhere in Europe so people paid much attention to everything about it. Also after the Meiji revolution and the opening of Japan the Anglo-Japanese style gained lots of admirers. In both Ottoman Empire and Japan the low tables were used very often so they became the part of the style.
And the main legend about how the current form of the coffee table was born has its roots in 1920s. Rumour has it that the president of the Imperial Furniture Company, J. Stuart Foote, cut the legs on a regular table while helping his wife to prepare for a party. When he took a closer look at the lowered table he had the idea of it being ideal for putting next to a couch during coffee time. That’s how the coffee table became low and rectangular as we know it now. Not so seldom people followed Foote’s example and even antique tables were transformed into coffee ones so sometimes it might occur that the coffee tables were made much earlier than they really were.
After that designers never stopped looking for the new forms of a simple coffee table. For some reasons lots of interesting initiatives bloomed in 1978. During that year for example the Dakota Johnson coffee table was presented to the world. It is a semi-functional only piece of furniture which main purpose is already not to be useful for coffee cups but to look beautiful. The materials for the top are black laquered wood and black aluminium which are topped with the huge round clock face and surrealistic glass hands.
- Edward T Joy, The Country Life book of English Furniture, Pub: Hamlyn.
- Max Robinson, Going for a Song: English Furniture, Pub: BBC.
- R.W. Symonds & B.B. Whineray, Victorian Furniture, Pub: Country Life Ltd.