I have written before (if not on these pages then in the first book) about how it is not the kitchen that is the heart of the home but the kitchen table. By which I mean that this table, which symbolises where a family comes together to eat, to work, to meet – perchance to row – and, at the very least, least to talk of many things (but probably not, these days quite so much of cabbages and kings) is the beating heart of the home. It matters not what the table looks like but more that it exists. The kitchen table is where it all comes together and is perhaps, after a mattress and a sofa, the most important piece of furniture you will buy.
For us, in this period of lockdown, we may not see the teenage boys during the day – they rise late, we rise earlier, they breakfast at lunch, we work all morning but, we have all tacitly agreed, we will meet every evening at the supper table and even if our news of the day is scant we will be together at that point and share the same food (well not the 16yo, obviously, who has never knowingly eaten a green vegetable apart from broccoli and who hates sauce but you get the idea).
However, there is another, often overlooked, piece of furniture on which I place equal importance. And yet, it’s a piece that can be an afterthought, bought for looks rather than practicality. A piece that is time and again the wrong size for the room, the wrong shape and it sits sadly marooned in the middle of the rug like a desert island in a remote sea. There to be gazed at and filled with beautiful books that no-one will bother to read and out of reach to all but the longest of arm. It is, of course, the coffee table.
Now while I think the kitchen table doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing – yes, of course, it’s nice if it is – but it’s mostly about being big enough for everyone to gather round comfortably. Often the older and more battered the better – it tells more stories that way. But the coffee table has a harder role to play.
It must look good. It is, after all a receptacle for all those beautiful coffee tables books. It is often, literally, the centre of the room and, as such, will draw the eye. But so often coffee tables are bought purely for their looks with no thought given to their function. And, for me, the function of that table is as important as its form.
I have no truck with spindly legged occasional tables that wobble as soon as you look at them. I have no time for fussy shapes and fussy woods that mark as soon as a hot drink or a cold aperitif comes near them. I want a coffee table that works for its place in my space.
So, yes it needs to look good. But, above all it must be sturdy. My own is an antique table made from wide planks it was, quite possibly a kitchen table that was cut down to size. Or it might have been made from old, wide floorboards. Yes it fills the space but, now there is not need for train sets and lego, what else is going to happen there?
And that, for me is the key question, why put a tiny table in the middle of a big space? You should be able to reach the coffee table from the sofa and preferably from the other chairs. It should be close enough to the sofa that you can stretch your legs and rest your feet on it when watching a film. Of course there should be books on it but also space for a bowl of pasta for those days when supper on the sofa is the prescribed option. Flowers are nice too. And when my children were young they would sit on it to watch tv. Nowadays it does for puzzles and boardgames and the cat quite likes to lounge there as well to watch the fire.
My coffee table has many functions, all of which are based around the idea of relaxing and lounging and informal sharing of food. As I say, if it wasn’t there we would all be staring at an empty rug and waiting for something to happen.
While mine is rectangular, a round one can be a good counterpoint to the long lines of a sofa and the square of an armchair. Personally I don’t want an upholstered one as a) you can’t rest your drink on it and b) the room is already full of soft furnishings so a bit of wood (or metal or glass) will bring the contrast. I like wood as it’s sturdy, although I would love that marble oblong from the top and, while I’m nervous of glass, it does allow the light to pass through and will therefore make the room lighter and less cluttered. As ever, ask yourself what you need from your coffee table and buy for your reality not mine or someone else’s.
So tuck your spindly tables beside your chairs, move your table closer to the sofa so that you can reach it and if, as is so often the case, it’s too small then buy a couple more and group them together to create a centrepiece in the room. You can buy a nest of tables or three that are joined by material or colour. A low wooden rectangle with a round glass table that is slots slightly over one end. Three round tables of different heights but toning colours. Two matching tables next to each other if the space permits.
And remember that in many languages the word for furniture is derived from mobile – meaning movement – meuble (French) möbel (German) mobile (Italian) and mueble (Spanish) so you can always move it around to suit the occasion for that was probably the intent. Which means that, for now, if you need to move it to make space for PE with Joe Wickes or a random game of Twister then you can do so.