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Sophie Dahl on the problem with coffee tables

Sophie Dahl on the problem with coffee tables

Paul Massey

In my early twenties, when I was working as a model, I rented an apartment in New York’s West Village, on the first floor of an old brown-stone, owned by an ancient Italian plumber. It had tin ceilings and, in winter, the pipes were a cacophony of hissing, clattering and thumping – like a brawl between a nest of snakes and a drunken giant. The plumber seemed to be resolutely unbothered by this, which was surprising since he knew pipes – and he lived downstairs.

The apartment came unfurnished and I added bits of furniture on the fly, as and when I had funds. On entering the apartment – long into my tenancy – you walked through a totally barren kitchen and living room (bar a rather chic Murano Thirties chandelier I had found at the flea market and some toile de Jouy curtains that someone’s aunt gave me). The only ‘furniture’ was books. The famine of the kitchen and sitting room was offset by the feast of a bedroom, which groaned with furniture. When not at work, I spent most of my time in there, agonising with girlfriends over affairs of the heart.

During this juncture of my interiors life, I was also channelling Miss Hannigan from Annie, so imagine, if you will, chaise longues, Chinoiserie screens, Venetian mirrors and chipped painted furniture, all bursting from one lone room. The kitchen and sitting room screamed Mary Celeste – if the ghost pirates had made off with the furniture as well as the crew.

I was definitely planning on buying a sofa, a carpet and a coffee table, along with a KitchenAid mixer. But the clients of a suspiciously high-paying job in Dublin had gone bankrupt and Christmas was looking lean.

Thus, the coffee table was the last thing I bought, when the snow melted, a couple of weeks before I moved out of the apartment and in with my then-boyfriend, who was beguiled by the eccentricity of the furniture situation. He thought my lack of tables charming. I didn’t want to tell him it was due to an inability to budget appropriately. Or perhaps I did tell him and he thought that charming, too. Ah, the rose-tinted beginning of a courtship, when a couple’s eyes are dull to one another’s frailties.

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I’m not sure, in retrospect, if we could even call the table I did eventually buy a coffee table, as it was simply a flimsy round of glass that regularly slid off a spiky toleware frame. It followed the boyfriend and me to an apartment in the East Village, and it was replaced by a lacquered linen Seventies Karl Springer table, which I left in situ when we broke up. The lethal non-coffee table followed me home to the UK, where it promptly shattered on arrival.

And here’s the confessional part to the story. Not the Little Dorrit issues around budgeting (in middle age, much improved), nor my enduring style crush on a hooch-swilling orphan neglecter. It is just that I find coffee tables, honestly… a bit dull.

I still don’t have one, exactly. We have an old, narrow Arts and Crafts dining room table, which we cut the legs off and everyone bumps into. My husband thinks I crowd too many books on it: I think they improve the table’s general, lumbering appearance. I’m not sure whether you’re allowed to put your feet on a coffee table, but we do, and the wood is inhospitable and hurts your ankles. There are also what I think are witch marks on the underside of it, which are sinister.

I don’t understand the point of coffee tables in their current incarnation, because they are, for the most part, a foolish height. The Ottomans lounged at them, smoking the hookah, and in 1650s England, a version of them existed, much higher and considerably more practical. They are basically an occasional table having an identity crisis, unsure of whether to commit to alcohol or caffeine. ‘Cocktail’ or ‘coffee’ table? I blame the Prohibitionist puritans persecuting Miss Hannigan for the confusion.

There are a handful of tables that I could happily be converted by: Rita Konig for The Lacquer Company’s ‘Belles Rives’ in bordeaux – a joy; Soane’s cushion-covered ‘Rattan Ripple’ table; and Oka’s ‘Mirrored Solasta Nesting Tables’. Ottomans make far more sense to me (storage and/or softness) and London House Rugs makes ones from antique kilims that are killer.

But, if I have a choice? I’ll have my coffee at the kitchen table, please.

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Published at Tue, 30 Mar 2021 09:24:09 +0000