Top Pandemic Activity: Contemplating My Coffee Table

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By Bill Primavera

Realtors like me don’t care much for being stuck at home. We like to be out and about, and we should be exactly that if we’re doing our job right.

So being shut in at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on us.

As for me, I’ve spent a lot of time (when my wife isn’t looking) with my feet up on my large, round, 42-inch early 19th century coffee table, which serves as a display surface for a number of our collectables that look good there. These include an antique brass letter opener, a trivet upon which to put hot cups, a large brass hors d’oeuvres plate, an 18th century brass candle snuffer and a deep-pressed glass dish holding my collection of old end-of-day glass marbles. Its purpose is to provide visual interest for guests seated on our sofa. 

And, further for me, it sparked my curiosity, as could be expected, for the origin of the coffee table as we know it.

The original coffee tables were actually tea tables, developed in the late 18th century in Europe and Britain. These tables were quite a bit higher than the coffee tables we are used to today, and they initially were placed behind the sofa. Human nature being what it is, eventually other items found their way to this new open surface – lamps, books and other amusements.

These early examples evolved into the lower models that made their way to the front of the sofa, although the history of this transition remains unclear. Two possible cultural influences on the Victorians may be the chabudai, a low table found in traditional Japanese homes, and the tables used in tea gardens in the Ottoman Empire.

With the mechanization of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution, the basic design was standardized to the low and unadorned form we know today. J. Stuart Foote, president of the Imperial Furniture Company, claimed all the credit for inventing the coffee table himself in 1920, and marketed their functionality to Americans with vigor.

Some have theorized that the introduction of television into the average suburban home helped solidify the basic design of these fixtures, the low profile of which could accommodate beverages and TV dinners without obstructing the view of the screen.

Every design trend has created its own version of this simple fixture, including the return to a handmade aesthetic in the Arts and Crafts movement, the strong geometric shapes of Art Deco and the industrial-inspired use of glass and steel with purity of form in the Bauhaus movement. Perhaps the simplicity of the form of the coffee table helps give designers greater freedom in their creativity.

The ingenuity of interior designers in more recent times has made the coffee table multifunctional, with shelves and drawers built in underneath for storage. With the individualized artisan movement of today, it’s not uncommon to go online or watch a competivite show about flea market finds and see either coffee tables repurposed into other objects or other objects repurposed into coffee tables.

I found our coffee table on an expedition that my wife and I took when we operated a weekend antiques business. For many years, it has served as an expression of our interests and individuality, as it does for many. This semi-private, semi-public surface can also hold seasonal decorations, game controls, remotes, family photos, and yes, coffee table books.

Today the design of the coffee table seems to be returning to its original taller design, with top surfaces that elevate horizontally. Part of this function is to allow access to storage underneath, but part is also to bring one’s laptop up to a comfortable level for typing or video streaming.

Ergonomic, surely, but perhaps less condusive to the face-to-face gathering that these tables used to cultivate.

Bill Primavera is a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate, as well as a writer, editor and public relations consultant (, specializing in lifestyles and real estate. His real estate site is To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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