Kathy’s Table

kath's table1
Coffee Table in Paradox Walnut, 7’L x 30″W x 20″H

My brother in law recently commissioned a coffee table for my sister’s 50th birthday. The table was to be the centerpiece of the ample living room of a large house they recently moved to outside of Philadelphia, to be situated in front of a nine foot sofa opposite a grand, stone fireplace.

The challenge for me has been to design and make a table that compliments both the open, contemporary plan of their new home, a converted carriage house with large interior volumes, and the more traditional profile of their existing furnishings. They wanted the table to have a certain formality for entertaining, while being relaxed enough to accommodate and encourage daily lounging- the table needed to double as an ottoman and auxiliary dining table, without too much worry about supporting the inevitable feet up, dishes and glasses, reading materials and such. I also embraced the challenge of making a piece of furniture with a distinctly Californian provenance that worked in the fairly traditional interior of a home in my native Philadelphia. Most important, I relished the opportunity of making a beloved family heirloom for my older sister that will feature so prominently in the daily life of her family.

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I styled the top to suggest a vintage, ‘egg’ surfboard

To support a conversational ring of seating surrounding the table, I opted for an oblong oval, and based the shape of the top on vintage surfboards known as ‘eggs’, knowing the reference would not go unnoticed by my brother in law and two nieces, all avid surfers. I made the entire table of wood milled locally from the same tree, a Paradox Walnut I had been saving for just the right thing for over a decade. The top is laminated from two solid, book-matched slabs, measuring about 7’ x 30” by 1.75” thick. Further obviating the surfboard theme, the top has a gentle figure, reminiscent of lapping waves. I referenced traditional Chinese furniture in the proportions and unadorned styling of the base, giving a nod to the influence of Asian art in both contemporary ‘studio furniture’ and late colonial furniture design. The base gains structure and functionality with the addition of a slatted shelf beneath the tabletop, a place to stow books and magazines, keeping the top clear and strikingly visible.

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The rack beneath adds both structure and functionality

This is the second coffee table off the bench, and I thank my brother in law for prompting my thinking about this form of furniture. Coffee tables have such a rich history, and feature so prominently in American homes, I’ve become somewhat obsessed, and plan to make a series exploring possibilities for innovation within the form. My research has taught me that ‘coffee tables’ first appeared in public life in England in the 16th century, along with coffee, in coffee houses inspired by exchange with the Ottoman Empire.

Known as ‘one-penny-universities’, English coffee houses of the 16th century were popular public meeting places where ideas were exchanged around low tables recalling those used by bedouin traders. A century later, the form morphed into portable ‘tea tables’ in aristocratic circles, reflecting the new-found popularity of tea, following colonization of India. Beginning in the Victorian era, low tables came into vogue in domestic interiors throughout Europe and America, heralding the emergence of a sophisticated, middle class with the leisure, dedicated space and time to host public gatherings at home.

The form has remained a ubiquitous staple of family life ever since, with subtle variations in styling to adapt to new materials, technologies and patterns of use along the way- radio, TV, laptops, etc, but the primary function of providing a place for convivial gathering has remained constant. I’ve become an enthusiastic advocate for encouraging the role of coffee tables in domestic life, and am very grateful that my brother in law had the insight and trust to commission my first. Thanks, Jeff!

One reply on “Kathy’s Table”

  1. Your review regarding the history of coffee tables is extremely interesting ! The table that you crafted is absolutely SPECTACULAR ! Kate and Jeff will love it and treasure it forever !

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