The influence on the design of coffee tables and other furniture by the design movements discussed on the previous page, along with the continuing development of industrial techniques lead to the production of coffee tables in materials other than wood, such as glass and metal, and also, in time, to designs using formica, chromium plating, and acrylic.
In the U.S.A, (partly because of a lack of historical baggage although there were also other reasons to do with the two world wars), the progress of modernist design and its acceptance by the public were more advanced than in Europe. The glass topped coffee table on two sculpted forms shown right for instance was designed in the U.S.A. by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi in 1944. To give another example, as mentioned previously, formica was in use in the U.S.A. in the thirties whilst not reaching Britain until 1947.
In Britain, between the wars, despite the existence of these modern designs and materials being available, mass produced coffee tables and other furniture were still primarily being produced in wood and in overly ornamented revivalist styles.
During the Second World War the shortage of timber lead the Board of trade to appoint a committee of designers to lay down simple standard designs for mass production of what was called utility furniture. This led to cleaner lined, simpler, functional furniture more fitted for mass production. The British Design Panel had drawn up designs for further ranges of utility furniture to be produced after the war but had to abandon their plans. Utility furniture was not popular with the public at large, being associated with the austerity of the war years. The large furniture manufacturers, mindful of what would sell, simply reverted to applying machine made applied ornamentation to their designs.
However, throughout the late 40s and early 50s, public attitudes started to change, the memories of the war years and rationing were beginning to recede, newly built housing, for the most part, had larger windows and rooms with lower ceilings than their Victorian counterparts creating a different type of space. A space in which the heavily ornamented, bulky, dark stained Victorian furniture began to look out of place, and so a desire for a more 'modern' type of furniture began to grow amongst consumers.
It took until 1954 for this growing demand to be recognised by the major manufacturers. That year saw E. Gomme Ltd, a High Wickham furniture manufacturer, launch the G Plan range of furniture. This was to be affordable furniture designed in a modern style, and the first to be promoted directly to the customer with national advertising, and displayed in showrooms in simulated room layouts. It became hugely popular throughout the sixties and was imitated by other furniture manufacturers. G Plan was one of the first companies to popularise teak Scandinavian design. There were many G plan coffee tables designs often combining wood with other materials like the table pictured on the right.
In 1964 Terence Conran opened the first Habitat selling modern designs of furniture, he was one of the first retailers to introduce pine furniture to Britain and the proliferation of cheap pine coffee tables and other furniture has continued till this day. The introduction of pine coffee tables was symptomatic of a moving away generally from the taste for dark stained furniture like the oak and mahogany favoured by the Victorians to lighter woods like pine, maple, birch, and beech.
The decades since the 60s have seen the introduction of self assembly flat pack furniture sold by large chains of DIY stores. This furniture is most often composed of chipboard covered with either a wood veneer or melamine designed to look like wood grain rather than being solid wood and could be said to complete the transition from the permanent to the disposable. So whereas a piece of furniture might have been kept for a lifetime and passed on as an inheritance, the cheaper types of mass produced modern furniture are frequently discarded when moving house or even revamping a room.
As for the present time, as is befitting in this century where consumer choice is King, there now exists a plethora of styles. Revivalism never disappeared during the last century, there was an Art Deco revivalist movement in the 70s for instance, and it seems that the conflict between revivalism and modernism will never be resolved. Just as some people will always prefer to live in a period property and some in a modern apartment, some consumers prefer traditional styles and some prefer modern styles of coffee tables.
Nowadays, you can buy a
mass produced wooden coffee table in virtually any reproduction style
you like or in a cleaner lined more contemporary design. Glass topped
coffee tables in modernist designs are available as are coffee tables
in a variety of materials from bamboo to wrought iron and, thanks to
the Internet, obtainable from around the world.
Makers of fine furniture still exist and train apprentices in the craft of fine furniture design & construction, (e.g. The Edward Barnsley Workshops near Petersfield in Hampshire), There also exist many small workshops making custom country wooden coffee tables like The Coffee Table.co.uk.
Researched & written by Nick at TheCoffeeTable.co.uk - Copyright © TheCoffeeTable.co.uk - 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.