The History and Modern Use of Coffee Tables



The history of coffee tables dates back to the Victorian Era. During this period, they were used for placing cups of tea, the fashionable beverage of the time. These early tables were taller than today’s low-slung coffee tables and were primarily used in conjunction with high-backed settees. As the popularity of low-back sofas grew, these tables were reimagined to stand at the back of the sofa, accommodating books, candles, and coffee or tea. The earliest coffee tables were crafted in Britain using wood and featured a higher height compared to contemporary designs. Influences from Japanese floor-level tables and Ottoman-styled tea garden tables may have contributed to the development of lower coffee table designs.

The introduction of coffee to central Europe during the 17th century marked a significant moment in the history of coffee tables. Coffeehouses began to emerge across Europe, with Vienna and also Budapest, and Belgrade becoming a focal points. These coffeehouses served as gathering places for intellectuals and the bourgeois. Patrons often complained about the lack of suitable surfaces to place their coffee cups alongside newspapers or journals. To address this, coffeehouse owners commissioned custom tables, which marked the first officially recorded use of tables specifically designed for coffee consumption.

Coffee tables underwent various transformations as design movements emerged. During the Arts and Crafts movement, there was a focus on restoring handcrafted furniture, resulting in unique coffee table designs. The Art Nouveau period embraced clean lines and natural forms, departing from the ornate Victorian style. The Art Deco movement introduced sleek, streamlined designs influenced by primitivism and modern technology. The Bauhaus movement emphasized purity of form, utilizing materials such as glass and steel. These historical design movements continue to inspire modern eclectic styles.

Modern Use of Coffee Tables

Today, coffee tables come in a vast range of styles, reflecting their diverse past. Minimalistic, round coffee tables have gained popularity, aligning with contemporary design aesthetics. However, there is also a wealth of styles that pay homage to different periods in history. Faux Victorian styles, clean Bauhaus designs, and retro 60s kitsch are just a few examples. Futuristic-inspired tables with unconventional legs and glass tops, as well as upcycled designs using repurposed materials, showcase the limitless creativity in coffee table design.

Coffee tables have transcended their original purpose and become central elements in interior design. As the centerpiece of a room, a well-styled coffee table can enhance the overall aesthetic and complete the look of a space. Designers emphasize the importance of striking a balance between decoration and functionality, avoiding clutter while incorporating carefully chosen accessories. Playing with scale, incorporating natural elements, and considering the viewer’s eye movement are some of the techniques employed to create visually appealing coffee table compositions.

From their humble origins as tea tables to their current status as design focal points, coffee tables have undergone a fascinating evolution.

Their history is intertwined with the changing social and cultural landscape, influenced by global trade, design movements, and the rise of coffee culture.

Today, coffee tables continue to captivate with their diverse styles and serve as functional and decorative elements in interior design.

image: katja rooke

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