A BRIEF HISTORY OF COFFEE TABLES - Development 1, Design Movements.


Picture of Art Noveau coffee table.


Pic of coffee table by Eileen Gray.


Smoked glass Art Deco coffee table.


Mies van der Rohe coffee table.


The evolution of the coffee table from the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century was influenced by the following factors.

  • New furniture became increasingly available and affordable to the populations of Europe and the U.S.A. due to mass production.
  • Advances in industrial technology created new design possibilities for using existing materials such as glass for coffee table tops, and new materials were developed that could be used in coffee table production such as chrome plating, stainless steel, formica, and acrylic.
  • Architects, interior designers, and sculptors from various design movements became involved in furniture design for the mass production market. As the century progressed they increasingly fostered the development of a modern style to counter the revivalist tendencies still entrenched among furniture manufacturers and the public at large since the 19th century.
Design Movements and Their Influence on Furniture Design (mid 19th century up to beginning of the 21st century)

During the Victorian era, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the manufacture of wooden furniture was gradually becoming industrialised by the use of woodworking machines and was less often made by hand by skilled craftsmen.
This mass production meant that furniture became cheaper and more available to a larger number of people. However it suffered from a lack of a cogent design philosophy appropriate to its new machine age status.
Most Victorian furniture of the time was heavily embellished with applied ornamentation and relied for its design inspiration on the revival of styles from previous centuries.

The Arts and Crafts Movement.

The Arts and Crafts movement, of which William Morris is perhaps the best known adherent, was based on the writings of John Ruskin and came into being as a reaction to this mass production. It aimed to restore the role of the craftsman and to establish a style suitable for the 19th century. Although there was some disagreement in the movement as to whether machines should be excluded from the production process altogether, most Arts and Crafts furniture was individually designed and constructed although it is possible that machines may have been used for some of the more mundane tasks such as planing up the sawn timber. It is stated in several furniture books that, "there are known examples of Arts and Crafts coffee tables," but no details are given.

Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau grew out of the Arts & Crafts movement and shared some of its aspirations, but did not have an antipathy to the machine production process.
A variety of individual styles emerged from the movement, one of  the most striking, in the field of furniture design, being that of the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There is a table designed by Mackintosh that bears a striking resemblance to the coffee table designed by E. W. Godwin, but it is listed as "Table" rather than "Coffee Table".
The British coffee tables and furniture that resulted from this movement eschewed the fussy decoration of the Victorian period and also the use of revivalist styles, and had clean simple lines, often with a strong emphasis on the vertical components and decoration based on natural forms. French furniture tended to have more sinuous lines and be more elaborate. The movement came to an end during the 1st world war and was succeeded, after the war, by Art Deco.
An example of an Art Noveau coffee table is shown in the illustration number 1 in the column on the right.

Art Deco.

Art Deco drew its inspiration from contrasting sources including primitive art but also from modern forms such as aeroplanes. Its followers distanced themselves from the romanticism of Art Nouveau and saw themselves as more representative of the machine age, they used geometric curves, rather than organic curves based on the plant world, and straighter lines. As with Art Nouveau, some architects and interior designers also became involved with furniture design. Art Deco continued as a movement up until the outbreak of the Second World War. One of the newly available materials in the 30s in the U.S.A. although it didn't reach Britain until around 1947 was decorative Formica laminate. It was taken up by Art Deco designers, and there were coffee tables produced with formica tops. There were also many coffee tables designed using glass or glass and metal such as the smoked glass coffee table shown in illustration number 3.
Eileen Gray started as an artist and went on to become a furniture designer and then an architect, and was part of the Art Deco movement. She designed the table shown in illustration number 2 in 1927. Originally designed as a bed side table, it was later marketed as a coffee table.

The Bauhaus in Germany - 1919-1933.

In 1919 the German architect Walter Gropius took over the Weimer School of Arts & Crafts from the Belgium architect & furniture designer Henri Van de Velde, (one of the original founders of Art Noveau), and also the Weimer Academy of Fine Art and amalgamated them to form the Bauhaus.
The Bauhouse set out to produce a new generation of architects, designers, artists & craftsmen who were designing especially for the mass production market & attempting to achieve a style for the 'machine age' that rejected the idea of applied surface decoration and relied on the purity of the form.
Mies van der Rohe the architect took over as director of the Bauhaus in the 1930s. In 1929, he designed the glass topped coffee table on chromium plated steel bars shown in illustration 4. His motto was, "less is more," which epitomised the philosophy of the modernist movement.
The Bauhaus was closed under pressure from the Nazis in 1933 although it did open again subsequently in the U.S.A. for a brief period.


Researched & written by Nick at - Copyright © - Telephone: 01420 474862

READING SOURCES: The Country Life book of English Furniture - Edward T Joy. Pub: Hamlyn.  The New Architecture And The Bauhaus - Walter Gropius.  Pub: Faber & Faber.  Mies van der Rohe - Peter Blake. Pub: Penguin Books. Going for a Song: English Furniture - Max Robinson. Pub: BBC. Miller’s Antiques Price Guides - Martin & Judith Miller. Pub: Millers Publications.  Diary of Samuel Pepys - Pub: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.  Victorian Furniture - R.W. Symonds & B.B. Whineray Pub: Country Life Ltd.