NEW YORK – Utilitarian in its original purpose, the coffee table has lately become the design focus of the living room, providing a stage for creativity and personal expression that goes beyond functionality. For proof that the coffee table has become the most artfully arranged section of the home, one need only to scroll through Instagram – the ultimate purveyor of taste in the 21st century – where I last counted 434,239 #coffeetable posts. Walk into any home store and you will see curated selection of objects meant for display: amethyst coasters, a Diptyque candle, a tiny succulent plant, a sculpture, and of course, a few coffee table books. A genre in its own right, the coffee table book can elevate a modest display. Can’t afford a Jeff Koons sculpture? Get his splashy monograph with a work on its cover instead. The aspirational aspect of these decorative tableaux is precisely why #coffeetable fits so well into our Instagram feeds. It’s where “look at my perfect life” meets “wishing for my perfect life.”
AN INTERIOR BY DESIGNER ALEX PAPACHRISTIDIS. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALEX PAPACHRISTIDIS.
The obsession with an artfully arrayed table is fairly recent; the coffee table itself was only invented at the end of the 19th century. During the Victorian era, every task, from sipping coffee to sewing to handicrafts such as papier-mâché, required a piece of furniture dedicated solely to that activity. And before the coffee table, there was its 18th-century ancestor, the tea table. About 28 inches tall, these tripod tables were meant to accommodate the fashionable trend of tea drinking, first introduced in England during the 1650s. Much like tea itself, this new form of furniture – marketed by savvy craftsmen – was instantly associated with gossip and even scandal, because ladies would gather around them to indulge in the luxuries of tea drinking and conversation. This continued into the 18th century, when prints and paintings of interiors often feature a group of women – often behaving lewdly – gathered around a three-legged table.
So how did the tea table develop into the modern coffee table? Prior to the 19th century, furniture was moveable. Rooms were open spaces with furniture placed along the walls. When company was over, depending on the activities planned and status of the visitor, furniture was arranged accordingly. In 19th century, the concept of privacy began to develop. One’s living room was now the place you could withdraw after working or attending social events. Since the living room was just for you and your family, the furniture could be placed in more permanent arrangements. As the sofa table and the tea table were moveable pieces of furniture, craftsmen developed the coffee table, to fit with this new type of interior design. The coffee table was born: a low table that acted as the anchor for the fixed chairs and sofas of the living room.
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By the mid-20th-century, television vaulted the coffee table into prominence. As families gathered to watch the nightly news or their favorite shows, the coffee table was necessary to hold snacks, the remote, or TV dinners. However, as the laptop has come to replace the TV set for many of us, making it possible to stream our favorite show anywhere in or outside the house, the coffee table has become increasingly liberated from its purely functional role. These days, our tables allow for creativity and personal expression as well as function. And while #coffeetable is popular right now, I will be watching my Instagram feed closely to see what the next furniture invention will be.
A LIVING ROOM DESIGNED BY ELLIE CULLMAN. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ELLIE CULLMAN.