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Glass coffee tables are an elegant, clean option to brighten a living room and create open sight lines. As a material, glass has become a ubiquitous material for many decades. So it may not strike us as belonging to any particular era. But, as is the case with many objects we now consider to be commonplace, glass coffee tables were once a novelty.
Our concept of a coffee table owes its origins to a shift in behaviors around the turn of the 20th century. Where people once drank tea from tall little tables placed next to seating areas, coffee gradually took over as the predominant beverage for Americans. Coffee tables accompanied that switch. Why swapping one hot, caffeinated beverage for another should have led to a change in tables is not entirely clear. But some time in the early 20th century, low, wide tables placed in front of sofas became far more common.
The popular glass with metal frame coffee table really became prevalent in the 1950’s. It’s often associated with mid century modern style. They are transparent and reflective, which aren’t qualities that instinctively sound warm (unlike a wooden table). But glass tables can actually be an integral part of warm minimalist design. It’s all in the particulars, and in how you pair pieces with each other to form a fully realized room concept.
Though once a rare luxury item and a sign of affluence, glass coffee tables grew to be available at a range of price points. There are myriad styles and materials now used. Frames range from brass and chrome (associated with mid century design), to hardwood, to rattan, to acrylic. 3D printed or digitally fabricated styles are also becoming more common. Styles include Scandinavian minimalism, organic asymmetry, and pure glass or acrylic, bent and molded without the use of any other framing materials.
Our use of these tables has also changed over the last century. Where once they were a surface for serving coffee (or tea!) and entertaining guests in a formal capacity, they now hold magazines and books (the aptly named “coffee table books”), vases and trinkets, or even laptops for remote workdays. Needless to say, they are also a popular landing place for appetizers during TV viewing parties, like the World Cup or Superbowl.
Our notions of living room use have shifted and the coffee table has shifted with us. But despite relaxing societal mores in our living room conduct, we can still have elegance in our design. The glass coffee table, once a sign of upward mobility, still has the power to dazzle and pull a whole room together as its centerpiece. The right table paired with the right sofa, chairs, rug and lighting, can be a spectacular focal point in a room, AND a functional surface for entertaining your guests and your family.
As I’ve said before, great design is timeless. What made glass coffee tables great in the first place has not changed. It’s a transparent surface that allows more visibility through the space. Your eye doesn’t stop at the top of the table, but can travel through to the floor beneath. (This is an excellent excuse to purchase a show stopping rug, by the way!) And the clean lines and gleaming surface instill a modern, or even futuristic, feel to the space, while maintaining whatever color temperature you prefer, from warm to cool.
Glass tables have a strong presence without overwhelming the pieces around them. They are easy to maintain, and offer a contemporary vibe to your home. A perfectly placed glass coffee table can anchor your living room so strongly and subtly that you almost won’t notice its power. But rest assured, it is doing its job perfectly, and could not easily be replaced.
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