A few months ago I had the good fortune to spend a few days in Mid-coast Maine and dropped in for a look at the Messler Gallery at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. I had a wonderful time looking at a collection of student work. You can follow this link for more details on the individual makers. I was especially interested in the interpretations of small low tables or what we often call a coffee table. It was refreshing to see some well executed ideas brought to fruition. For the most part they take a bit more risk than I would, I’m always wondering if it would hold up with screaming grandkids and large excited Labrador retrievers careening around the house. That’s my own bias. I’m fully aware that this is one furniture form open to a huge range of expression.
Frequently when I attend woodworking shows I get the pleasure of talking with woodworkers about their projects. Inevitably out comes an IPod or digital camera to show me progress and get my opinion. Note: you know you’re an avid woodworker when you carry pictures of your furniture projects around with you. I’m never sure what sort of input people want or can take but I normally ask them the same questions I ask myself. What was the original thought or idea that inspired the piece? Was the goal to harmonize with other elements in the room or is this a focal point? Those questions lead to others and often the conversation becomes a great learning experience and time of discovery for both of us.
One furniture project that brings out the most questions is the dreaded coffee table. My own theory is that it’s the one form of furniture that knows no bounds. When I think of a coffee table for some reason my mind always goes back to Chris Farley in “Tommy Boy” where he’s delighted to get a “D” on his college exam and celebrates by passing out onto a rickety coffee table creating a mini earthquake.
Coffee tables can be so many things. For that reason I think they are commonly picked as a student project in furniture schools. They can easily become an artistic expression and a focal point to a room. I have a few thoughts on designing them and I was wondering about your collective thoughts also. Feel free to contribute.
- Height is about the only functional dimension that appears critical. It’s meant to talk over, view over, prop your feet on, hold trays of beer, food, and er… coffee. It should not be higher than chair seat height.
- The room setting should play a role in deciding the shape and size of the top. I seldom use mock ups, but in this case I’d make an exception. Unless you are after an aircraft carrier deck look, it’s probably a good idea to break out the cardboard and try out some top mock ups. It’s important not just visually, but consider traffic flow also.
- Some may disagree but I like a coffee table that’s Tommy proof. In other words, someone should be able to sit on the corner of it and not have the table turn into a catapult that launches beverages into the fireplace.
- Unless you are going to use a glass top, remember that the undercarriage is primarily out of view. Floating tops or fancy joinery will not be seen except by roaming toddlers.
- This is a great opportunity to use that extraordinary monolith of wood you’ve been saving. A coffee table is all about the top. Don’t be bashful about using something that’s eye catching.
I have more to say about designing a coffee table but I’m curious to hear your thoughts?
George R. Walker