Adrian Franklin’s new book, published in association with the Powerhouse Museum, is a guide to mid-twentieth century design. In this extract he looks at the humble coffee table.
If there is one item of furniture that is completely modern, it is the coffee table. As far as I can tell, there were no Greek or Roman coffee tables to inspire later European makers of antiques, partly because coffee drinking was unknown in classical antiquity. But then again, they didn’t watch TV either, and it was the combination of drinking coffee and watching TV that gave the impetus for the coffee table.
By 1675 there were 3000 coffee–houses in the UK, but not a single coffee table, or at least, not as we know them. This is because, until the twentieth century, people drank their coffee sitting on fairly normal dining chairs at tables that were dining table height. You can find antique long, low tables which are even described as coffee tables but, believe me, most of them have had their legs shortened after the modern coffee table became popular.
So what prompted their design in the first place? There are several theories. One has it that low tables popular in the Ottoman Empire were imported and became fashionable. This may be true, but they did not become an established feature of western homes until later, when people began to favour sitting on much lower sofas. From the late 1920s and 1930s, one sees a few low tables that are probably the ancestors of all coffee tables. One of the first to be called a coffee table was produced by Mies Van Der Rohe in 1929 and was constructed, somewhat outrageously, of chromed steel with a glass top.
However, it was not until television held people in specially designed low-slung chairs and sofas for such long periods of time that the idea of eating and drinking at this elevation became feasible or popular.
Tea was still drunk mainly at the table but coffee somehow detached itself from dining formality and wandered about the house more. It is therefore sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s coffee table of 1944, just at the beginning of the TV era, which is often considered the ancestor of all coffee tables. Like Mies Van Der Rohe’s earlier piece, it was glass topped, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Noguchi’s design was warmer and softer, with a free-form wooden base of ebonised walnut. It fitted in well with the relaxed, comfy space of the modern ‘television room’ and allowed coffee cups and the odd magazine to be within each viewer’s reach.
Australia was onto the coffee table very early and Paul Kafka’s coffee table of 1940 is a masterpiece of modern design. Made of walnut veneer and sapele wood with a peach mirror-glass top, this three-tiered coffee table would fit into any modern interior, from Art Deco to Memphis. After Kafka, every major Australian furniture designer offered a coffee table. As a piece of furniture, the coffee table offered the designer the opportunity to identify the clearest expression of their times.
Robert Klippel’s 1954 design for a coffee table that could be made from one sheet of wood demonstrates not only the cleanest of interlocking lines but also a design that could be easily translated into industrial art. A year later he produced one of the best coffee tables ever: his ‘Boomerang’ coffee table. Again, there is a smoked-glass top that provides a good view of its amazing sculptural base structure, comprised of two black and two white boomerang shapes that cleverly provide both the legs and the supports for the top. All four boomerangs articulate around a large red atomic sphere that focuses the entire design. If ever there was a design crying out to be reissued, this is it. 1955 was a good year for the factory of Functional Products in Sydney who were making Douglas Snelling’s coffee table: a simple free-form shape in maple with confident diagonal legs.
Through the 1950s to the 1970s the coffee table began to inhabit almost every home as a required element of furniture. The artists’ palette-shaped coffee table, mostly set on three unsteady legs, was widely manufactured or made at home during the 1950s. Although one feels that these were ubiquitous, it is nonetheless true that not many have survived into the present day. In 15 years of searching at my local markets and garage sales, I have only ever found one.
Through the 1970s, few coffee tables excite. They became generic and pedestrian, and for a ghastly period were made from cane and pine. These have very little retro interest. Enter John Smith in the 1980s, then under the spell of Memphis Design fromItaly. His hard-to-ignore ‘Colourblock’ coffee table from 1984 brought back so much colour, art and excitement to the television room that I cannot imagine myself watching TV if I had that to look at instead.
This is an extract from Retro: A Guide to the Mid-20th Century Design Revival by Adrian Franklin, published by New South Books in association with the Powerhouse Museum.
Fist published in Powerline, Dec 2011