The Coffee Table: an Altar for Your Feet
Metropolis, May 1991
Believe it or not, I had never thought that being comfortable was something to strive for.
Some people remember the first time they saw the sea, the statue of Liberty or the Northern lights. I don't remember anything of that scope, but I do remember the first time I saw a coffee table.
From a distance it looked like a thick piece of glass precariously propped on skinny chrome legs. As I moved closer to examine it, my perspective changed, and the clear slab became a mirror reflecting the living room upside down. Through this looking glass I could see a window framing a rectangular piece of the Manhattan skyline that appeared to be anchored to the thick carpet.
"I hate those finger prints" said the woman who owned this strange object. As she kneeled, trying to erase some offending smudges with the edge of her sleeves, I sensed her utter devotion. Perhaps she was praying to the icons of Good Taste on this altar: the thick glass ashtray, the burnished pewter cigarette box, the three issues of House & Garden and the small sculpture, a Henry Moore study of a reclining nude. Indeed I, too, felt a religious fervor — and almost crossed myself — as I noticed Bad Taste lurking around us the background: foil wallpaper, plastic flowers in wrought iron planters and frilly pillows thrown on the couch.
I had arrived from Paris that afternoon and this was my first visit to an American home. Driving into New York from the airport, I had had a premonition that from now on anything could happen; a windswept newspaper had taken off vertically from the sidewalk and disappeared above the rooftops; streets were venting steam like fumaroles near a volcano; the facade of deserted looking houses were covered with creeping metal stairs like ivy clinging to ruins. In this odd environment, people moved about like absent-minded creatures scurrying about, oblivious of the phantasmagoric backdrop.
My first coffee table was part of this new American magic kingdom where things are either a little too new or a little too old, a little too short or a little too tall. Invited to sit down, I sank far into the soft upholstering of a couch, experiencing yet another change of perspective as the horizon rose drastically around me. From this low angle things looked simpler, more graphic and more appealing. Maybe to understand America I would need a new point of view, a parallax adjustment — maybe to appreciate this new culture I would always have to sit 13"" from the ground.
Living room? A contradiction in terms
As unbelievable as it may seem now, I had never thought that being comfortable was a critical issue. My parents never sat down, they were always on the move. I grew up standing up. Although born in the country that can be credited for inventing the salon, the art of conversation, the "chaise longue", indulgence and Art Deco, I had a frugal and self-disciplined nearly puritanical education. Even the idea of a "living room" seemed absurd to me. Living? that's what you do when you are out on the town, not locked up in a room.
So by 1963 I had never seen a coffee table, even though one of the very first ones had been designed in 1927 by French furniture designer Jean-Michel Frank who created it for the much acclaimed Paris residence of the Vicomte de Noailles. But this original concept remained behind privileged doors for a long time. When Frank immigrated to the United States in the mid-Thirties, he updated his earlier idea into what was to become another American classic, the Parsons table. While Art Deco and Modernism had been widely accepted and eagerly emulated in the U.S., the French were still reluctant to throw away their antiques to make room for some trendy and probably faddish style.
My middle class upbringing was based on the work ethic. You were always in motion, away from sofas or even chairs. In most average families, including mine, there would be only one or two armchairs, usually reserved for the visiting grandparents. In these days, if you were healthy, there was always something for you to do around the house. Anybody sitting down was either sick or depressed. "What's the matter, are you unwell?" you would ask, if someone you knew was sitting in a chair. Even school work was looked upon suspiciously because it kept children idle at their desks. I remember our household as a place where doors kept opening and closing, where people carrying things would swiftly cross spacious rooms and where the furniture had been pushed against the wall to get it out of the way. Even talking was something you did standing up, usually in the hallway, between tasks. The art of conversation was a physical activity, involving a lot of posturing, accompanied by eloquent hand gestures. Nobody ever heard of sitting down for a little chat.
The occasional table
Before you can think of relaxing on a couch to read a magazine, you have to comprehend the notion of "leisure". Popularized after World War II in America, this concept did not reach Europe until much later, probably the late fifties, where it stagnated for a couple more years because people did not know what to make of it. The satirical movie, Mon Oncle, released in 1958, which featured a quirky old bachelor with a taste for modernistic furniture and appliances, made the word "loisirs" acceptable in France. But for me, as for a lot of my contemporaries, it was too late. We had been hiding too long in crowded smoke-filled cafés, the only places culturally acceptable for "hanging out." We could not embrace the thought of lounging around at home surrounded by gadgets that did the work for us. Yet I was curious, and decided to visit America, where I was told people worked only five days a week.
Isolated examples of coffee tables could be found in American magazines as early as 1925. I discovered an early one, a very awkward artist's rendering, in an advertisement for the Pullman Couch (sic) Company in House & Garden. Although it is the right height, the thing, looking like a flimsy tray with legs attached, is standing at least four feet from the couch. It is nonetheless a coffee table, not a tea table, because it is furnished with a distinctive silver coffee set. For the next 15 years, the tray-on-legs contraption is a favorite wedding gift item. But no amount of styling — "Queen Ann", "French Provincial", "Italian Renaissance", "English Restoration", "Chinese Dynasty" or "Colonial" — will get people to move this early coffee tables closer to the couch. It is still an "occasional" table, something to be kept at a respectable distance, like a servant waiting in the wings. For the coffee table to travel the remaining foot-and-a-half to position itself in front of people's knees, it would need a big shove — World War II. Without the total re-assessment of American values and the renewed appetite for life that resulted from it, the coffee table would probably not have become the social statement it is now.
I too had a long way to go. Although I wanted to embrace the American Way of Life, I kept fighting it. Perhaps I was afraid of losing myself among the pillows. My marriage to an American did not ease my distrust of comfort and my endorsement of the puritanical values of my childhood. I stubbornly rejected the kidney shaped glass coffee table my dear mother-in-law innocently offered to buy for our first apartment on East 74th street. Undaunted by my refusal, she courageously tried to educate me. First she showed me a mahogany oval table with hinged flaps from Lord & Taylor, then a lacquered Chinese model from B. Altman. Getting no reaction, she suggested an ornate wrought iron creation her friend could get at a decorator's discount. She even tried to interest me in three identical end tables you can push together or split off for buffet parties. But she could not bring me out of the nineteen century; I was fundamentally unable to understand the cocktail hour; an all-American casual lifestyle cannot be learned; it is the result of a gradual cultural maturation.
First I had to learn to sit. Then I could try to slump. Much later, I would attempt to relax.
I sat upright on the edge of a stiffly upholstered couch straining to keep my knees locked together for the first seven years of my marriage. My husband, whose idea of a good life was big oak furniture, a couple of tweed jackets, lots of books and a pot roast on Sunday, decided to take the initiative, and got a coffee table on his own. He chose a platform-planter combo with a thick marble top and even bought some fern for it. Unfortunately his gardening attempt failed as the plants turned yellowish and finally succumbed to my vigorous watering.
Slabs of marble and packing crates
I would like to say, in my defense, that there is no word in French for three of the most important words in the American vocabulary, no translation for "casual", "fun" and "nice". The first time I heard the word "fun" was as memorable as the first time I saw a coffee table. I had visited a college friend of my husband who lived off-campus at Yale University. A garage sale addict, he had furnished his tiny quarters with pieces of junk that blended comfortably. In the dining alcove was an old jukebox still functioning if you had some spare change. As my husband's friend searched his pockets for a nickel in order to play a selection, I asked candidly why he did not simply reach for the money that had collected in the metal bin easily accessible on the side of the machine. I will always remember this boy struggling to extract a coin from his tight jeans: "because it's fun" he said.
Some people aspire to fame, others to riches — I now only wanted to have fun. With a little time, I knew I would figure it out. But for the man who had to live with me, seven years was time enough. Three days after we separated, my husband set up housekeeping with his girlfriend. She was young and impulsive, and from what I heard, petulant as well. A few months after I had moved out, I bumped into my ex-husband on the street. He had a plaster cast on his foot and seemed very pleased with himself. "Yes, " he said, "she got angry one night because I came home late. We had a fight and she broke the coffee table on my foot." He was beaming: she cared enough about him to swing a slab of marble across the living room. She gave me a break as well. The demise of that ugly coffee table, symbol of my failed marriage, allowed me to go on with my life.
Maybe that's what did it. One night soon after that incident I felt a distinctive shift in my spine, and unexpectedly I slumped. It was a wonderful feeling, as if the world was my hammock. Feeling bold and experimental, the next day I sipped a soft drink without removing it from its brown bag. Not long after that I sat on a stoop, ate cold pizza, and used paper towel when I ran out of coffee filters. And in my little apartment I used two crates to do the job of… a coffee table.
Before writing this article I tracked the origins of the coffee table phenomenon through graphic evidence. At the end of my research I concluded that the coffee table is derivative of the couch, not the table. The day bed, the sofa and the settee were its true relatives. Coffee tables are footstools with a hard top, not tables that stooped to conquer.
Roger van der Weyden's famous "Annunciation" reinforces this theory. In this early 15th century painting, Mary, book in hand, leans on a free standing bench covered by a shawl, a contraption not unlike the narrow wooden coffee table popular in the Forties. A couple of decades later Victorio Carpaccio's "Dream of Saint Ursula" shows, among the bedroom's furnishing, a knee-high little table which, according to Emily Post, would make a proper tea table. Like the Roger van der Weyden's bench, Carpaccio's table features a book and a shawl, identifying not the same form perhaps, but at least the same function. Throughout history, tables remained about 28 inches from the ground, while ottomans, tabourets, campstools, chests and benches vary in styles and sizes and seem to give people a lot comfort and delight. The 19th century is particularly fond of these versatile and movable objects that are either plain or festooned with fringes, tassels, handles and cushions. It is their very eclecticism that makes them such enjoyable things to have.
A couple of coffee tables have achieved the status of classics. I think particularly of Mies van der Rohe's glass top square design, Charles Eames' black-laminated low oval table or Noguchi's 1944 glass and wood sculpture. But a coffee table is a true American icon not because of what it is — a multi-purpose handy platform — but because of what it is not — a thing of beauty. So close to the ground, the coffee table seldom becomes a noble and elegant object. It is quintessentially awkward, stuck in an artistic limbo where it must struggle for recognition
A coffee table is an essentially Kitch object. An honest coffee table looks like something else, like a guitar, a boomerang, a flying saucer, a turtle, a praying mantis, a sleigh, a mushroom, an origami bird or a naked girl. A coffee table, the symbol of all-American ease, is in fact a surrealist concept. It is so Dada, the French could have invented it.
1/2 - I was fundamentally unable to comprehend the cocktail hour
2/2 - Isolated examples of coffee tables can be found in American magazines as early as 1925