Short & chunky, TALL & SKINNY, top heavy, square, CURVY, squat, LONG LEGS, short legs, COMPACT, BLINGY, sleek, UNIQUE, modern, SCANDINAVIAN, ITALIAN……..No we aren’t referring to the latest pop band, but the……COFFEE TABLE!
Whether you are fan of them or not, the coffee table has been a favourite in the world of interiors since its birth way back in the 17th century. Everybody on the planet, even the remote tribes people in Papau New Guinea have their own version of them. Homes, offices, hospitals, schools and especially grandparents in their 1960’s style bungalows have one…..We simply cannot live without the worlds favourite tiny table .
“A coffee table is a style of long, low table which is designed to be placed in front of (or next to) a sofa or upholstered chairs to support beverages (hence the name), magazines, books (especially large, illustrated coffee table books), decorative objects, and other small items to be used while sitting, such as beverage coasters. In some situations, such as during a party, plates of food may be placed on the table.” Wikipedia
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE COFFEE TABLE
The best place to start has got to be another favourite of ours…..yep, COFFEE. When, where and how Coffee was consumed and how that led to the usage of a small table for placing your delicious, hot, frothy beverage down on.
If like me you love coffee and soaking up a bit of knowledge is your thing then great read on. If you want to cut out the history of coffee waffle and get straight to the furniture part then scroll way down!
There are many differing stories as to where coffee originated from but the most famous and well loved one is that it was from Ethiopia.
The legendary folktale tale states that in around 850AD, Kaldi an Ethiopian goatherd noticed that after his goats had been munching on certain red berries from a nearby bush, they became hyperactive and then would not sleep at night (blue smarties anyone?) Kaldi in his excitement told an Islamic monk at a local Sufi monastery about these magic bright red berries. The monk disapproved of them, threw them all in a fire and then happened to breathe in the gorgeous, enticing aroma of the roasting beans. The beans were hastily retrieved from the embers, ground up, dissolved in hot water and drank…….. he then pulled an all nighter from all that caffeine and coffee was born!
The earliest actual credible evidence of coffee drinking wasn’t until the 15th century. In the 16th century Coffee was apparently first introduced to Europe on the island of Malta via the Turkish slaves imprisoned there. The Turks were said to have been most skilful at making their “concoction” and it became a popular beverage with the Maltese high society with many coffee shops subsequently opening up here, and across the pond in Venice too.
“The ability and industriousness with which the Turkish prisoners earn some money, especially by preparing coffee, a powder resembling snuff tobacco, with water and sugar.” Gustav Sommerfeldt 1663
The above picture is a scene from a coffee house in Istanbul from the early Ottoman period. Ottoman men socialised by drinking Turkish coffee and smoking hookah……..Not a lot has changed then. If you have ever tried Turkish coffee then you will know how strong it is!
The word “coffee” seems to have entered the English language in 1582 from the Dutch word Koffie which was via the Ottoman Turkish word Kahve. This was taken from the Arabic word Qahwah.
In 1637 Nathaniel Conopios a Greek man studying at Oxford University brewed the very first cup of coffee in England…….and got chucked out for his all night coffee induced partying. If uni students today embraced coffee instead of cider then campus would be a much quieter place I’m sure!
A painting of a London coffee house from around 1668 with men sitting on benches at dining style tables.
“The first coffeehouse in England was set up in Oxford in 1650 by a Jewish man named Jacobs at the Angel in the parish of St Peter in the East. A building on the same site now houses a cafe-bar called The Grand Cafe. Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House, established in 1654, is also still in existence today. The first coffeehouse in London was opened in 1652 in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill. The proprietor was Pasqua Rosée, the servant of a trader in Turkish goods named Daniel Edwards, who imported the coffee and assisted Rosée in setting up the establishment there” Thank you Wikipedia.
An engraving of a coffee shop from the late 17th century.
By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England serving this hot brown liquid said to resemble ‘syrup of soot or essence of old shoes’ ……mmm tasty. Coffee shops were loud and lively and a popular place for discussing politics, and out of this the term ‘coffee-house politician’ was coined. A mix of all social classes from tradesmen to the upper classes were welcome…….just not women. The above image definitely has women in it though, unless they were practising Transvestism in the 17th century………I think we all know what sort of ladies these were!
Men enjoying a good old natter. Coffee house 1674
Coffee was known as the Devils cup, a mysterious, exotic and intoxicating liquor that was seen as the 17th century’s answer to Viagra. Husbands were frequently absent from the home and their domestic duties, preferring to down copious amounts of coffee whilst babbling along with their mates. So in 1674 after they had had enough, the wives created The Women’s Petition Against Coffee. Their enemy being “a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water”.
THE COFFEE TABLE
For a piece of furniture that seems to have been around literally forever, this little table is a relative newcomer on the design scene.
17th & 18th century
Although there were an abundance of Coffee houses in the 17th and 18th century, there are no documents that have been found mentioning coffee tables at this time. Most tables associated with coffee drinking in the 1600’s seemed to resemble dining tables as seen in the old images of the coffee shops above.
Elizabethan (1520–1620) Oak withdrawing table
What was in production around 1750 was the high backed settee which was later replaced by a low back sofa, designed to have a sofa table placed at the rear as a surface for candles or to pop your cuppa down on in between gassing about 17th century wigs & stuff.
A pair of 18th Century English elaborate sideboard or sofa tables
Rather fancy Italian 18th Century Giltwood console table and an English side table, carved gilt pine 1740.
Tea was also popular around this time and by 1740 Tea tables were a necessary placing in any well furnished home. Rectangular shaped was most popular until 1720 then round and hinged (enabling corner storage) were the desired look. Interesting to note is that they were finished on all sides which means they could have been placed in the middle of a room like most coffee tables today. It is also thought that the name Tea Table changed to Coffee table as coffee soon became more popular than tea.
Archduchess Marie-Christine, Archduke Ferdinand, Archduchess Marie-Antoinette,
Archduke Maximilian, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, seen here in this old painting with tea on a “tea table.”
The sofa table, tea table and end table all served the same purpose. They were a place to put your cup of coffee or tea down on in between sips and to keep spoons, sugar, milk, treats and the odd book on too. They were set in front of a seating arrangement or beside a chair…..plus they are all seen as predecessors of the coffee table we know and love today. But unlike our beloved low tables, these were tall and round, coming in at 27″ high, compared to our modern coffee tables which are around 18″-19″ high.
An Englishwoman having tea in a drawing room 1770
The drawing room or living room was a less formal place than the dining room to have a small meal like afternoon tea or coffee.
18th century round tea table and a George III tilt-top tea table
It is thought that because coffee and coffee houses were the domain of men and an all round masculine pastime whereas tea drinking was more for the ladies at home is the reason why the coffee table was a late comer to the world of home decor.
A collection of George III (1760-1820) Tea and occasional tables.
The term “coffee table” wasn’t used until the early to mid 19th century or Victorian period, but as we learnt the design, formation and use of this type of furniture more than likely happened earlier. As we saw, tea tables had been part of the household furniture scene since the mid 1700’s while coffee tables have only been around since the 1870’s and the first wooden tables in Europe to be specifically designed and called coffee tables were in late Victorian England.
Regency (1811-1820) and George IV (1820-1830) sofa, side and occasional tables.
William IV (1830-1837) and early Victorian (1837-1860) occasional and side tables.
1860 mid-Victorian French, walnut and burr walnut freestanding centre table.
All the centre and occasional tables above are circa 1860, the last one is a Jacobean style one from between 1860-1880.
“According to the listing in Victorian Furniture by R. W. Symonds & B. B. Whineray and also in The Country Life Book of English Furniture by Edward T. Joy, a table designed by E. W. Godwin in 1868 and made in large numbers by William Watt, and Collinson and Lock, is a coffee table. If this is correct it may be one of the earliest made in Europe. Other sources, however, list it only as “table” so this can be stated categorically. Far from being a low table, this table was about twenty-seven inches high.” Wikipedia
1870 Victorian gilded, and carved wood console table with marble top.
A sofa, occasional and snap top table from 1870.
In the late 1800’s revivalism was on trend and earlier styles like Georgian (1714–1837) and later still Louis XVI (1774 – 1792) could have influenced coffee table design from then onwards.
Massively elaborate 1870 George II style side table.
A mixture of French and Italian Console and Occasional tables from 1880.
Nest of 3 Chinese tables 1880……….Ones just like my nan brings out has when I go round for Coffee and cake!
The first coffee tables were designed for the more affluent client and often had ornate, overstated, elaborate features such as giant claw legs and were covered in gold vine leaves…super blinged up! They could weigh a lot too with some weighing as much as half a tonne! As the consumption of hot drinks became the norm, coffee tables filtered down the social classes and could be found in homes everywhere not just ones owned by the rich.
George II style English giltwood side table late 19th – early 20th century.
An 1890 low occasional or coffee (yes coffee!) table with animal legs, and two french walnut occasional tables both from 1890.
HIGH TO LOW TABLES
So how did these high coffee or centre tables become so low? Well we know that in around 1870-1880 Japanese style was popular in Great Britain and low tables were and still are popular in Japan, so that could definitely be one link. Another possible reason could come from tea gardens in the much earlier Ottoman Empire which saw low tables also being a popular choice.
“A famous tale in the normal house setting goes that an English man who was trying to be a good husband to his wife trimmed the legs of a dining table. He named it the ‘coffee table’ for his wife’s impending party that required a centerpiece.”
1890 Chinese Opium table……a low table at last!
Coffee tables soon became more than somewhere handy to just plonk your hot beverage down on, and served as a centrepiece for light entertaining and to display ornaments and ceramics. More importantly as magazines were becoming a rapidly sought after read, (just thinking of ladies in their flouncy dresses reading the latest gossip from a mag puts a smile on my face) the coffee table served as the perfect place to display their beautiful and colourful covers……..basically to show off their Victorian answer to HELLO or OK magazine.
Coffee tables became increasingly popular in the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1938 that the coffee table was described by Joseph Aronson as being a “low wide table used before a sofa or couch” The design of these tables was to go on a huge journey as styles and home fashion dramatically changed in this century.
1900 – 1910
Chinese and Asian decorated low occasional , opium or coffee tables circa 1900 except the last one which is a Georgian style mahogany side table 1900.
1920’s occasional or coffee tables, the last trio are Syrian and the one before that is a Chinese lacquered one.
1930’s coffee and occasional tables. The last one is a Chinese table with brass tray top.
GOOD NEWS!! All of the beautiful tables above (with the exception of the first few in the 17/18th century section) can be purchased from the wonderful GEORGIAN ANTIQUES in Edinburgh. So why not treat yourself to a little bit of history and click HERE
Ernest Boiceau oak and lace wood coffee table circa 1930. This must have been a way out there crazy design at the time, but I love it!
Cocktail tables or coffee tables to you and me!
In America alcohol was illegal between 1920-1933. The repeal of the Prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s brought about another name for the coffee table, the “cocktail table”. This name was most probably started in the trend setting city of New York and by the 1960’s was a widespread name for a low sleek and shiny table, instant style brownie points were awarded to anyone who had one.
A very shiny cocktail table circa 1940
In the early 1950’s and after the postwar period, coffee tables became larger, more robust and able to withstand more usage. They were being used for more practical purposes.
“With the increasing availability of television sets from the 1950s onwards coffee tables really came into their own since they are low enough, even with cups and glasses on them, not to obstruct the view of the TV.”
The 1960’s saw a surge in space exploration which in turn spurred a fascination with space and all things futuristic….including coffee tables! The birth of Science fiction on our TV’s in the form of Star Trek & Dr Who made a massive impact on 1960s fashion and interior fashion too. The curves and pod like shapes of rockets and spaceships can clearly be seen in the furniture design of this era.
A 1960’s Robin Day for Hille plastic storage coffee table, looking like a fried egg!….but a futuristic one.
Classic 1960’s Ercol coffee table with magazine rack.
The 1970’s saw moulded plastic furniture, lacquered wood and a touch of glass still being flavour of the decade.
Glass, glass, and more glass! The 80’s saw a boom in all things shiny, including clothing!! Glass and metal coffee tables with pointy edges were the thing in this era.
In the 90’s we saw the return of wood (especially dark wood) and a resurgence of old styles from the past. Shabby chic/eclectic/ flea market was also in vogue and we saw an increase of chunky pine and oak furniture with a cottage used feel to it.
A collection of modern 21st century coffee tables.
The beginning of this century saw chunky wood with wicker storage drawers , steamer trunks/wood trunks (all about the practical storage element!) and acrylic coffee tables (later 2000’s) to name a few styles. I know this because I had all of these in my house in those 10 years, knee deep in small children. The first was overflowing with magazines, paper, crayons, pens & various plastic toys, this table was complete with lovely graffiti in various places made especially by my mini humans whilst I was too busy to notice.
Ottomans rose in popularity in the noughties and still are today to become a modern living room staple. A multipurpose gem in a world where space is precious, dual purpose furniture is required and clutter is not. The ottoman can be used as a storage solution, coffee table, footstool, seat or if it spins around, a tummy twizzler like my kids used them for!
Today, coffee tables are still popular and generally situated in the same location in front of a sofa or chairs, but the shape, size, and what its used for have changed vastly. Wood, metal, acrylic, plastic, MDF, glass, fabric, storage, ones with lights even cardboard (not sure spilling a drink on this would be advisable!) or a mixture of finishes. Anything goes, apart from heavily lacquered wood……I do hope that will never come back!
Super Eco-Friendly Cardboard Conversation Table” by Leo Kempf Design
Comfy chair + coffee table + hot beverage = Relaxation & good conversation!
With the most visited shops on the high street today being the coffee shop, the coffee table has to be one of the most important pieces of modern furniture to date that creates a cosy welcoming vibe to any space .
Below are images of just some of the lovely coffee tables we can offer here at Millar West and click here to see more COFFEE TABLES YOU’LL LOVE
BOX-IT coffee table by Verco
ARTHUR coffee table Boss Design
LUX tables by Nomique
ARBER coffee table by OrangeBox
After researching and compiling this absolutely HUMONGOUS blog, I’m off to treat myself to a coffee. If you too have managed to get to this last sentence without falling asleep, then you’ll be needing one too!
Yes this is MY coffee table.