Coffee tables can do more than hold up your feet

July 11, 1993|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Contributing Writer

In furniture design history, the coffee table gets little respect. For the most part, it's been dismissed as an incidental piece created to match a set of furniture rather than stand on its own four feet.

The truth is, the coffee table is nearly indispensable to a seating group. It beckons people to sit around it, and it seems to fill the void between chairs and sofas. But its utility is what makes most people want one.

The coffee table, which usually sits 15 to 18 inches high, ideally level with or slightly lower than the seat cushions of a sofa, was designed as a handy repository. It provides a surface on which to rest coffee and dessert, cocktails (hence the table's other name) and hors d'oeuvres. Of course, there are other practical, everyday uses -- stretching out tired feet, setting up a game of Trivial Pursuit, or simply making a home for a stack of magazines. More recently, we've seen coffee tables evolve into decorative tablescapes: mood-setting displays that include fresh flowers, candles, a piece of sculpture, boxes or personal collections.

Stylistically, in this country, where use of the coffee table really has taken off since it was introduced around 1920, it generally has belonged to "suites" of milky white French provincial, 18th-century cherry, Mediterranean or Scandinavian styles.

Some people still prefer suites with matching coffee tables, but even furniture manufacturers have become more open to encouraging a mix of styles and materials. Consumers have many choices today. Frames are available in light, dark or painted woods, stone and faux stones, iron and other metals and glass, as well as combinations of two or more of these. Legs may be straight, splayed, tapered, fluted or cabrioled. Aprons may be carved, decorated, pierced, painted or accented with gilt.

Besides thinking eclectic, some manufacturers also are answering pragmatic needs. The coffee table might have other functions such as seating and storage.

Currently, one of the most popular versions of the coffee table is actually an upholstered one best known as an ottoman. Vicente Wolf took a design that has been a favorite with private clients and translated it for the mass market. The Edwardian-style tufted leather ottoman, which sits on low, nicely scaled carved legs, now is part of Mr. Wolf's furniture line for Henredon.

What really distinguishes some of the new ottomans such as Mr. Wolf's are their generous scale and shape, which resemble those of a coffee table. They can be tailored or skirted with ruffles or pleats and embellished with all sorts of passementerie.

Some of the ottomans are designed with pull-up tops, so the interior can be used for storage, a feature that's especially handy in family rooms.

Think storage

The need for storage has prompted people to think also of other objects, such as trunks, that might double as coffee tables. This idea is certainly not novel to fanciers of country style, who for years have combed flea markets for aged trunks of wicker, wood or leather so they could be used as tables or seating in a family room or at the foot of a bed.

Some manufacturers are putting trunks up on stands made of the same or contrasting material, such as iron, a device that some designers have employed because it makes the pieces appear less bulky. One particularly handsome interpretation of this style is from La Barge's "Cottage Garden" Collection. The trunk, which has a gleaming brass closure, is hand-painted in a light burgundy and hunter green plaid on a bone white background. Elevating it from the ground maintains the lightness and grace of the piece.

Besides using pieces obviously designed for storage, manufacturers are thinking of other ways to incorporate storage in a coffee table. So some coffee tables include drawers, which may even be compartmentalized for videotapes, for example.

Not all storage is designed to be tucked out of sight. Since coffee tables often become filled with bric-a-brac, some manufacturers have introduced a means of display without sacrificing usable surface. The glass-topped curio coffee table was designed to showcase personal treasures. It is accessible from the top, which is hinged, or from the side, with a pull-out shelf. Some of the tables are even lined in velvet, like jewelry cases.

One example, crafted of pine solids and veneers, comes from Broyhill's Premier division as part of the "Creekside" collection. The design is inspired by 18th-century village furnishings that combined formal European looks with casual everyday use.

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