Designers have spent decades reimagining the living room staple.
Coffee tables have been around for so long that people dispute their origins. Some note that the term “coffee table” was first used during the Victorian era. Others point out that the coffee table—much like the tea table—didn’t really rise to prominence until the 19th century, when it became an entertaining essential for savvy hosts.
Of course, the coffee tables of yore might’ve looked a little different than the ones we buy today. But over time, the coffee table has become defined by a few key features: its short height, its extended length, and its spacious surface. (Though coffee tables have been narrower and wider at different points in history, they’ve always been big enough to accommodate a range of books and beverages. They were built for entertaining, after all.)
When the only rules are to create something short, long, and functional, there’s plenty of room to have fun. And furniture designers have spent decades—even, centuries—exploring the space between these criteria.
In the process, they’ve blessed us with a vast variety of coffee tables—including a few iconic coffee tables we still covet today. These longstanding favorites win on form and function. But the most exciting thing about them is just how different they are from each other, despite adhering to the same three constraints.
Isamu Noguchi designed the first version of his iconic coffee table in 1939 for the president of the MoMA. He then met furniture designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, who asked Noguchi to design a similar coffee table for him. “I designed a small model in plastic and heard no further,” Noguchi said. When Noguchi saw a variation of his coffee table in an ad for Robsjohn-Gibbings, he confronted the designer. “He said anybody could make a three-legged table,” Noguchi said. So Noguchi made yet another version of his coffee table—this time creating the iconic “sculpture for use” that design fans still covet today.
Plinth Coffee Table
Designed in 2017, the Plinth table is a relatively new addition to design history. But over the last few years, it’s become a fan-favorite—and inspired its fair share of knockoffs. Created by Norm Architects for Menu, the now-iconic marble table draws inspiration from the Ancient Greeks and Romans. “A favored medium of the Greeks and Romans … marble has come to symbolize elegance and sophistication,” Menu says. “The Plinth builds upon and subtly subverts that essence, using marble instead as a means to showcase other items, as well as standing as a sculptural item on its own.” Because each Plinth table is handcrafted from a different piece of marble, no two Plinth tables are exactly alike.
Airy Coffee Table
The Airy Coffee Table is another design history newcomer. But since its creation in 2014, it’s become a focal point in homes and offices across the globe. The table, designed by Cecilie Manz for Muuto, is known for its clean lines, its airy feel, and its striking tabletop—which appears to be hovering above its skinny steel legs. The table is available in four sizes and a few different finishes. But thanks to its iconic silhouette, it’s recognizable in any variation.
Nelson Platform Bench
George Nelson designed his Nelson Platform Bench in 1947. A former architect, Nelson envisioned a new approach to storage furniture—one where a series of versatile pieces could be combined to serve different functions. And the Nelson Platform Bench exemplified this idea. In advertisements, the bench appeared as a base for bookshelves, plants, TVs, and settees. And the Herman Miller team still recognizes the bench’s versatility today. “The aptly named platform bench earns its keep through functionality,” they write on their website. “It can be used as a foundation for the Basic Cabinet Series; a coffee table for books, laptops, and beverages; or a seat.”
Saarinen Coffee Table
When Eero Saarinen designed his Pedestal Collection in 1957, he had a simple goal: He wanted to make the space underneath tables and chairs more beautiful. “The undercarriage of chairs and tables in a typical interior makes an ugly, confusing, unrestful world,” he said. “I wanted to clear up the slum of legs.” So he did. His iconic tulip table—available in coffee table, dining table, and side table form—sits atop a single pedestal. And his tulip chair does, too.