Thursday, April 29, 2010


I get a lot of flack for saying that there are no antique coffee tables.

I get even more flack from "antique" dealers (better known as thrift shop owners) who sell "antique" coffee tables all the time. As much as they dislike the truth, the tables they're selling are at best vintage and never really antique (meaning over 100 years old).

So, to finally put an end to all of those poison pen emails and semi-death threats I get on this topic, here for the first and last time is a history of the furniture form we call the coffee table.

The genesis of the coffee table dates back to the first quarter of the 20th century (get it, VINTAGE). You can see the emerging form here as a tea/serving table in this 1920's dining room photo:

Lore has it that one J. Stuart Foote, the president of the Imperial Furniture Company, invented the modern day coffee table in 1920. It's said that he cut down the legs of a table he had in his warehouse and realized it would be perfect to put in front of a sofa. Kind of like this farm table that's been cut down to work as a coffee table:

Similarly, he felt that this long and low table would be much more convenient than the typical side and tea tables for holding guests' coffee and tea. And he was right!

As importantly, the coffee table's emergence can also be traced to the evolving housing revolution of the '20's where smaller bungalow residences were being built for the middle class.

These homes increasingly had separate and newly conceived "living rooms" and "dens" where people entertained. Plus social entertaining itself was becoming less formal. Up until this time, guests were entertained in the salons, drawing rooms, parlors, and, in the 18th century, even in bedrooms (with the lady of the house lying propped up in bed fully dressed for the occasion and in full makeup). This kind of formal entertaining often had guests resting their cup and saucers in their laps while conversing.

Of course, even in the era of formal entertaining and up through the Edwardian period, homes had higher tea tables (that often tilted so they could be put against a wall when not in use) and lower small teapoys (to hold the silver service and/or the tea/coffee pot) and the guests were served by the household staff (usually the butler plus the first footmen and sometimes the second as well).

You'd be surprised at how many staff persons were employed in the typical manor house of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even a modest middle class home would have has no less than three and as many as ten full time servants at the time.

INTERESTING FACTOID: "Footmen" (which were very high on the pecking order of servants) were hired based on two solid principles: good-looks and height. In fact, to show off their gorgeousity, footmen were dressed in ostentatious livery costumes like these:
In the best households, the footmen were perfectly matched in height and trained to act in unison, knocking on doors or serving dishes with a synchronised flourish.

And just when you think this can't get weirder: It was critical that all footmen have fine and pronounced calf muscles. In fact, it was so important that they often wore ‘falsies’ (kind of like today's Spanks)-padded white hose to make their calves more attractive. Isn't that lovely? Funny to me how these days rear ends have replaced calves in importance. Or have they? Something to ponder.

A variation of the tea table emerged in the 19th century in the form of the tea trolley, a rectangular table on casters. As more people without staff (or limited staff) entertained, the tea trolley made serving easier.

And then we come to the 1920's where the burgeoning middle class began purchasing homes with separate dens and living rooms that had to be filled with furniture for the newly casual entertaining.

The problem the 1920's middle class had was that they had little or no staff at all to serve the coffee and tea.
And so the tea table and trolley naturally morphed (with the help of J. Stuart Foote) into the coffee table.

This new piece of furniture was perfect for "self-serve" entertaining--and as that became the norm, the use of the coffee table became more widespread and popular to where it is today--practically ubiquitous (good word, huh?). Here's a stylish 1920's Cuban mahogany coffee table by Danish designer Johan Rohde:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Thank you Cecilie!

My dear friend and client Cecilie Starin, a familiar name at the San Francisco Decorator Showcases, was featured this week in the San Francisco Chronicle. Cecilie's room at this year's showcase is entitled "Ivory Tower: A Room for Thought." She describes the look as "classic but with a modern twist." Cecilie recommended me in her article and I'm really flattered and appreciative (being the publicity hound that I am). Here's what she said:

"Buzz Kaplan always has fun and interesting information about antiques on his blog. He is an expert in the field."

So make sure and check out Cecilie's room at this year's San Francisco Decorator Showcase, opening this weekend and running through May!

Oh-forgot one thing. Cecilie also has a fun and informative blog, Cecilie Starin Style. Check it out too-I think you'll enjoy it!

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I'm constantly being asked for antique coffee tables. And I always answer: antique coffee tables are like the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy: they don't exist.

Why? Because coffee tables were first conceived as a furniture piece in the 1920's and therefore by definition are at best vintage and cannot be antique (and antique has to be at least 100 years old).

But there are antiques that can be repurposed as coffee tables. The most obvious are trunks or dowry chests like this 19th century Anglo Indian Rosewood one:

Another option is to use an antique Italian wedding chest known as a CASSONE ("kuh SO nay") like this spectacular 18th c. Sicilian polychrome example:

But my favorite antique piece that works beautifully as a coffee table is the humble PETRIN, a French kneading trough for dough that's typically made of fruitwood and has a rusticated provincial look that works for many interiors.

Petrin is pronounced pay TRAN (with the N being kind of softly spoken). Another plus about repurposing a petrin as a coffee table is that the top is removable for lots of storage:

Another term for petrin is the HUCHE. I used to call this a HOOCH until I took my French correspondence course. Now I know the correct pronunciation is "oosh". So now when I see a oosh in a friend's living room, I like to ask "May I sit my toosh on your oosh?" Oddly, that never gets a laugh...

Here's a great houche/petrin that would work beautifully as a small coffee table, although perhaps a tad tall:

And here's another small one:

So if you're searching for that perfect "antique" coffee table, consider repurposing trunks, cassones, petrins and huches. They're both functional and antiques.

LATE BREAKING NEWS 8/23/10! I just learned another definition of what would be called a "toosh"--and no, it's not a bumm. A "toosh" is also a fluid used in lithography! Who knew?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Millennium Modernist: GEOFFREY BRADFIELD

My interview

I confess.

I was nervous about interviewing Geoffrey Bradfield. After all, he’s the dimpled darling of interior design for International High Society.

But why would that intimidate me? Well, when you grow up in Van Nuys, California, you’re woefully misinformed as to what High Society means. We all thought high society meant people like Cheech and Chong. Or as my mother put it, “A high society is just a nice word for an underground club where everyone gets HIGH ON SOMETHING. Drugs were a big taboo in our house.

But now I’m older and wiser and realize that high society people don’t live in opium dens. So let’s talk about where they do live. Many of them actually reside in sumptuous Geoffrey Bradfield interiors.

Geoffrey is clearly a design icon. His work is widely respected and very much in demand among those who want the best.

Bradfield specializes in creating elegant, daring, and serene residences and offices for his international clientele. Among his many projects are Gertrude Vanderbilt-Whitney estate in Old Westbury, Long Island and the restoration of the late King Hussein’s mansion in Maryland.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: he’s designed palatial estates, yachts, private jets, and unique offices for clients across the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe and the Far East. Bradfield is currently designing famed Hollywood director Oliver Stone’s New York residence.

Geoffrey’s interior furnishings run the gamut from Louis XIV to African Primitive, High Rococo, Oriental, Neoclassical, Art Deco and downright modern. But what ties all these disparate styles together is Bradfield’s gift for putting exactly the right pieces in exactly the right places to create a comfortable, cohesive, and supremely opulent environment.

So you can imagine my trepidation about interviewing this iconic designer. But here’s the nice surprise: when you meet him, you can’t help but like him: He’s wildly funny, charming, sophisticated, and very down to Earth.

Here’s how our interview went:

Buzz: How did a boy who grew up on a rural South African farm become design icon Geoffrey Bradfield?

GB: If I were being cool, I’d probably say that it had something to do with my destiny… however, in all sincerity, I find it hard to believe myself.

Buzz: When did you first realize that you wanted to be an interior designer and how did you get your first assignment?

GB: I never experienced a Saul of Tarsus conversion on the way to Damascus. I always knew intuitively what I wanted to do. My first major assignment was in Johannesburg. I did the apartment of the Impresario, Pieter Toerien. He was my first celebrity client – I was 23 years old and it garnered me a lot of attention. Of course, everything is relative and I was swimming in a very small pond.

Buzz: I’ve heard that old movies played a key role in your decision to build your practice in New York City. Is that true?

GB: Yes, whilst doing my Army training, on a weekend pass, I saw the film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was Patricia Neal’s role of the rich socialite and her kept boy, George Peppard. –There’s something so extravagant about the scene set in that exquisite love nest and how she played it out… her realization that if she wants to keep the bird in the gilded cage, she would have to cut him some slack. Writing out a cheque for him, her knowing just how he would spend it, made me want to live in a city of that sophistication.

I guess that’s not a particularly old movie, although it does date me – I must have been 18 at the time.

Yes, old movies and old movie sets have played a huge part and influenced my life. I would travel miles to see a Garbo, Bette, Rita film… or the likes.

Buzz: So what movies impacted you the most? As a young man, I was always drawn to Spartacus and other gladiator movies but I don’t think they had any impact on my lofty career in antiques…

GB: I was always rather squeamish around blood and gore. Of course, if it was Tyrone Power, playing a matador, I could stand the hemorrhaging. What one is prepared to endure for beauty!

Buzz: I’ll drink to that.

GB: Probably one of my favorite movies of all time is Visconti’s The Leopard.

Buzz: Really? The Leopard???!! Geoffrey, I can’t believe it – that’s my all time favorite too! Isn’t it amazing we have so much in common?

Buzz aside: I’VE NEVER HEARD OF THIS FILM IN MY LIFE! I’m going on Netflix tonight and renting a copy. I figure it must be one of those Wild Safari Episodes set in South Africa or something. Or maybe he meant that spicy indie film, "The Leotard," a movie I did see at the West Hollywood Film Festival.

Buzz: How important is it for a designer to get a degree in design?

I think education is extremely important in today’s world. In particular, computer knowledge is invaluable. For my generation, it was far less of a necessity. I personally have very little formal training. For me, it was innate. Having said that, I believe that anyone with true talent and enough passion has a shot at achieving their goals.

Buzz: What new trends are you seeing in terms of interior design firms and their staffs?

GB: The most amusing is the vanishing draft board. My Art Department used to be a sea of this anachronism. Everything today is being produced on a computer screen…Auto cad rules.

Buzz: What do you tell young aspiring decorators or students looking for their first job in interior design?

GB: You have to able to sell yourself and your talent. It’s amazing how important a personality is. I also value honesty and frankness in an interview. I never intentionally hire down… I like to be challenged by my team.

Buzz: Do you think it’s smarter to start with a large design firm or do you endorse students going the “indie” route? And what did you do?

GB: believe they both have merit. I personally began working for a company with a very small staff. It was called the Decorating Centre in Johannesburg. It was owned by a wealthy socialite named Rae Hoffenberg. She had imported all the great European designs of the 60’s and had them in a museum-like display in a white walled, loft-like space. I managed the showroom. Because of her connections, our clients were immensely wealthy and we worked all over the country.

When I first arrived in America, I worked for McMillan Inc. which was a very established and large company. I later partnered with Jay Spectre Inc., which was far smaller.

Buzz: What does it take to start your own firm and succeed as an independent designer?

GB: Clients.

Buzz: Hmmmm. That makes sense. In fact, so much sense that I wish I could withdraw the question. But let’s try another one: What makes for an insanely successful interior designer?

GB: A little insanity.

Buzz aside: Let’s face it, this guy is genuinely clever.

Buzz: Are great designers born or made? Is it nature or nurture?

GB: I believe it’s innate.

Buzz: When I look at your portfolio I feel a sense of calmness and comfort amidst the most opulent spaces. Is that something you consciously strive to achieve?

GB: Yes… although subconsciously. I do seek serenity in my interiors and comfort is an essential factor.

Buzz: What’s your opinion of how a designer should present himself? I’m always stunned when a great designer comes into our gallery looking like a Smurf.

GB: I think I was born wearing a tie…from a school uniform straight into the army [one brief exception being the flower child era]. I have a more traditional dress sense than most. I favor classic navy pin stripe suits. The fellows in my office always wear jackets and ties. I prefer the girls on my staff to wear black or dark colours… this is not regimented, however. When we have client meetings, I do like a sense of unified costume. Many designers are more flamboyant and artsy. I really think it’s a matter of personal preference.

Buzz: Do you have a signature technique, style or watchword?

GB: I am a modernist at heart. Perhaps what sets my style apart is my passion for contemporary art, which is a key ingredient in my interiors.

Buzz: You’ve written four books, one of them entitled Millennium Modern. Love the title but how do you define that?

GB: I coined the phrase “Millennium Modern.” My definition being a term describing a style of interior design of the 1990’s and the first decades of the 2000’s; derived from contemporary art and based generally on the reinterpretation of designs of the 1930’s and 1940’s and applied to furnishings, textiles, and interior and architectural design, etc., on the cusp of the third millennium.

Buzz aside: Wow, I have nothing to say about this answer, funny or otherwise. Another perfect response, huh?

Buzz: I know you’re famous for using modern art in both your modern and traditional interiors. Do you have something against Old Masters?

On the contrary, I love the Old Masters. Perhaps not my first choice, but I have used collections of this nature in several successful interiors. The choice of art is to some extent predicated on the taste of a client.

Buzz: Who are your favorite artists?

GB: My most favorite artists are from the post second world war era – the “Field Colorists” in particular. I was born in the late 40s and there is something about that decade that has always inspired me. Among the artists I favor, are Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, and Louise Bourgeois.

Buzz: You use many fine antiques to create your elegant rooms. Is there a particular period or style that attracts you most?

GB: I am most comfortable using painted furniture from the early 19th century, e.g., Gustavian, Neapolitan, etc… it works so sublimely with the contemporary interior.

Buzz: In less than five words, what is your design atheistic?

GB: “Functional opulence”

Buzz: What the biggest mistake people make when they decide to furnish their own homes without the guidance of a professional designer?

Their inability to see the entire picture.

Buzz: What’s the secret to making a project look like a million bucks?

GB: Spend two million bucks.

Buzz aside: OK, that’s it. This guy is genuinely hilarious. I adore his sense of humor and MUST invite him to one of my dinner parties.

Buzz: Did you ever imagine that you’d be as successful and well known as you are?

GB: In honesty, no. When I was young, all I asked of my future was to achieve a certain quality of life. And when I moved to New York, all I expected of myself was to survive. I have been so blessed to have achieved what I have. A rather small success in the grand scheme of things; decorating is not life saving.

Buzz: When designing a home, is there a particular room that should set the tone for the entire house?

GB: I like to think that an entrance hall introduces one to the style of a house.

Buzz: What’s more important- comfort or luxury?

GB: Comfort is essential. And for me, luxury is a necessity.

Buzz: How do you feel about mixing antique periods, styles, and countries or origin in the same room?

Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, “All things of beauty belong to the same age.”

Buzz aside: Again, I’m speechless-yet another terrific answer. If I wasn’t older than Geoffrey, I’d say, “When I grow up I want to be as erudite as him.”

Buzz: What tips do you have on decorating a room for a baby or young child?

GB: I have never understood why children should be raised in brightly coloured rooms. It would have unhinged me! I prefer pastels. It would be much more of an adventure for a child to be introduced to the spectrum of colour in a more subtle manner.

Buzz aside: My room as a baby was persimmon. Just FYI.

Buzz: What advice do you have for a young married couple with a new apartment to decorate but only have a limited newlywed budget?

GB: Deaccession all their wedding gifts and purchase a decent sofa.

Buzz: Looking back at your first home, what decorating knowledge do you wish you had back then in designing the interiors?

GB: At the risk of sounding conceited, I have always been able to picture exactly how my personal interiors will materialize. I am 90% visual. My other senses are crammed together in the latter percentage.

Buzz: What do you see happening in colour trends these days?

GB: All colours appeal to me. However, in principal, I do prefer using pungent colours as accents in a room. The lilacs and mauves and celadon greens coupled with pale grays are a current favorite.

Buzz: What do you tell a client who has inherited a piece that’s truly ugly? Do you decorate around it, store it somewhere far away, or accidentally drop a piano on it?

GB: If they cannot live without it, I would probably work around it… hopefully banished to a secondary room, although it would always haunt me and I would never want to photograph the space.

Buzz: Some designers believe that the first piece for any room is a rug or floor treatment that sets up the colour palette and feel for the rest of the furnishings? Agree?

GB: In some cases, the rug becomes the soul of the room. I like designing my own rugs, which certainly introduces a particular signature. But for me, a painting on the wall is invariably my source of inspiration.

Buzz: Can you share with us your thoughts on the “latest” trends in furnishings?

GB: The last decade has wrought an intense infatuation and appreciation for contemporary furniture. It was long overdue. We are living in such amazing times. There hasn’t been a millennium since the dark ages …we should be celebrating our moment in time.

Buzz: What one new twist on decorating would you genuinely call new and cutting edge?

GB: Nothing is more cutting edge than the advent of technology.

Buzz: Tell us about your use of white and off white rugs, chairs and other furnishings. You seem fearless in your use of them.

GB: I realize that white is not an official colour, i.e. the spectrum, but it is for me the happiest and most joyful of all. How could I ever be depressed in a white room? It is all about serenity.

Buzz: What’s the best advice on decorating for small spaces?

GB: Light colours and mirrors.

Buzz: How do you define elegance?

A disdain for fuss and frill.

Buzz: How do you define success?

GB: Never believing your own publicity.

Buzz: What’s your most cherished antique?

GB: My Faberge Easter egg made for the Imperial Russian Family.

Buzz: Hypothetical question: In one hour, some unexpected guests are coming to visit? What’s one thing you can do (other than slit your wrists) to dress up your place for company?

GB: Hire a handsome butler.

Buzz aside: I’m laughing so hard it hurts.

Buzz: “Going green” is on everyone’s mind these days. What’s a good way to be eco-chic in designing an interior?

GB: I love using LED lighting.

Buzz: What’s your one best piece of decorating advice?

GB: When in doubt, don’t.

Buzz: Is it design suicide to do a room that has only brown furniture with nothing painted, gilded, glass or metal work?

GB: Not if it’s a period room in a museum.

Buzz aside: Yet another perfect answer. At this point I’m pea green with envy.

Buzz: What’s your most guilty pleasure?

GB: My Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and my driver, Carlos.

Buzz aside: Make that chartreuse with envy.

Buzz: Old school designers like Albert Hadley (and I believe Sister Parish) were famous for creating binders with all the vital information on each installation right down to where each accessory should go? Do designers still do that and should they?

GB: We always do project manuals if a project exceeds 20,000 square feet. They are especially helpful with global projects.

Buzz: What’s your favorite book on design (other than your own of course!)?

GB: “Essence of Style” by Joan de Jean

Buzz: What are the essential elements of good design?

GB: Scale, balance, innovation, joy.

Buzz: Thank you Geoffrey for one of the most enlightening, entertaining and clever interviews. You made my day.