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?


Anonymous said...

I've always been fascinated by coffee tables, because they're so modern, yet today manufacturer tries in weird different ways to apply antique styles to their design. What caused the table to evolve? was it as rooms became more functionally specific? did more people suddenly start clustering around the fireplace? and did this then lead into what we now refer to as the "three piece occasional suite," situated formulaically into most living rooms?

I love this stuff. thanks for adding to the story.

Unknown said...

Hi RK,

You always ask the hardest questions.

The genesis of the coffee table dates back to the first quarter of the 20th century. Lore has it that the president of the Imperial Furniture Company, J. Stuart Foote, invented the modern day coffee table in 1920. It's said that he cut down the legs of a table and when he saw the result it occurred to him that it was suitable for placement in front of a sofa and perfect for setting down one's coffee.

I believe that the coffee table's emergence can also be traced to the widespread use of "living rooms" where people casually (rather than formally) entertained. In these rooms were sofas and chairs and the low rectangular coffee table was much more suitable for this kind of entertaining.

Prior to that (that is, up through the Edwardian period), people used higher tea tables and were often served by staff. A variation of the tea table emerged in the 18th and 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 emerging middle class began purchasing homes on a wide-scale basis and those homes had living rooms. But this middle class had no staff at all. And so the tea table and trolley morphed into the coffee table. This new piece of furniture allowed for casual/serve yourself entertaining--and as that became the norm, the the use of the coffee table became more widespread and popular.

Hope that helps!

Laresa Brown said...

"... my toosh on your oosh..."

You are hilarious and if no one laughed at that you need new friends darling.

Unknown said...

Ain't that the truth? Hehe. Thanks Laresa!