While there exist a number of books dedicated exclusively to a type of furniture—Living with Modern Classics: The Light or Chairs, for example—the coffee table may be the only piece of furniture to have inspired a genre of book. Despite this singular achievement, the coffee table endures a much maligned existence. Neither grand enough for dining nor precious enough for “occasional” use, it dwells in a lowly state of perpetual service, readily offering up a surface for all manner of clutter (though, rarely, coffee): an artillery of remotes, back issues of the New Yorker, or, most ignobly, smelly feet. And yet, despite its diminished stature, or perhaps because of it, the coffee table inhabits the most coveted real estate in the home, strategically placed between the sofa and the television, the Constantinople of the geopolitical living room.
We don’t call it a television table, however, because the coffee table predates TV by over 60 years. It is often viewed as a hybrid of a tea table, which was popular in Britain in the late 18th century, and a sofa table, which came into fashion when low-back sofas began being favored over high-backs. The first coffee table is said to have been designed by E. W. Godwin in 1868 and later serialized by William Watt and Collinson and Lock; at 27 inches high, it was a bit lofty compared to our more dwarfish notion of the modern coffee table. The low-lying character common to most coffee tables is often attributed to Ottoman garden tea tables, as well as Japanese furnishings, which were very popular in Europe throughout the late 19th century. But it is perhaps today that we best appreciate the coffee table’s low profile; instead of gathering around it to sip potables with our entourage, we are instead afforded an unimpeded, high-definition view of Entourage.
But all this television watching doesn’t mean that today’s coffee table owner is illiterate. In fact, many have made a heavy investment in coffee table books. These tomes—large in format, heavy on pictures, light on written content—afford a breezy foray into cultural matters and can be digested intermittently. Some of the more edifying books may even be worth more than the table. Which is why we asked Angelika Taschen to tell us which, if any, of our selection of coffee tables would be fit to hold one of her invaluable volumes.