Crafting a Life – Episode 17

You can also download this episode or subscribe to “Crafting a life” Podcast on iTunes:
Download Subscribe to podcast

Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.
I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 17, “Coffee Tables Frustrate Me”

One of the value propositions of Dunstone Design is the high overall performance of our furniture. This is a fundamental aim for any designer maker. To have any credibility, craft furniture must out-perform ordinary factory made furniture. Our chairs have to be more comfortable, our dining tables more convivial, our drawers and doors smother under the touch, our bookcases more bookcasey, and so on.

Some items, like department store chairs, are relatively easy to improve upon. Finding a bad chair is as easy as walking in to Harvey Norman. Finding a good chair takes a little effort.  We happen to think our chairs are the finest  Australian designed and made chairs available, but even from a non-bias perspective, they out perform a department store chair by any criteria that you choose to measure- even price if you are comparing dollars spent vs. the service life of the chair.

That’s all fine and dandy, until you consider coffee tables. The basic task is to reliably suspend a surface area of some sort at around knee height off the floor. All that the surface is usually required to support are some magazines and coffee cups. At worst, someone might sit on the bloody thing, or put their feet up while watching TV. Coffee tables are just not very technically demanding.

In the West, there was no such thing as a coffee table before about 1880. Prior to that, long low tables that sat in the middle of a room just weren’t a thing. People usually had a little occasional table at each chair for their tea and bickie. The coffee table as we now think of it has really taken off since the Second World War, basically in conjunction with television and lounge chairs and now they are quite a ubiquitous piece of furniture.

For all their ubiquity, their actual function is somewhat ambiguous. Just what is a coffee table for? This might sound like a stupid question, but in fact people don’t use coffee tables in a uniform way. Some people really do use a coffee table to eat and drink off, while others use coffee tables almost exclusively as a display surface. The whole concept of a coffee table book supports this approach. People tend to fall into camps when it comes to coffee table use. There are those who put their coffee table between the lounge chairs and the television, and those who put coffee tables in the middle of a room and surround it with chairs. In essence, Coffee tables are primarily a visual challenge. They are largely a decorative piece.

One of the bummers about a coffee table, from a furniture designer’s perspective, is that they are quite low. This makes it hard to see what’s going on under that low surface. There isn’t much room to move on something that is only perhaps 420mm high.

It’s not surprising that many designers, including me, have resorted to glass tops on coffee tables from time to time. This is an easy way to show off an interesting understructure. The famous Noguchi Coffee Table is a classic example of an interesting understructure that can only be seen because of the glass top. In many ways, the Noguchi is such a strong and distinctive design, not to mention highly manufacturable, that it’s a hard act to follow. It is one of those rare designs that excite furniture historians and the public alike. There was nothing quite like it before, and the design is so strong that it’s sparked a whole new line of exploration. It still looks modern, whatever that means, even though it was designed in 1949. And accordingly, the Noguchi is probably the most shamelessly ripped off coffee table design in all history, precisely because it is so popular.

Now, glass topped coffee tables are not without their critics. They can be noisy with the clink of glasses and cups, and a glass top attracts dust, or perhaps more accurately, shows dust. Irrespective of how often you clean them, glass tops always seem to be covered in greasy finger prints, especially if, like me, you are not a disciplined house cleaner. So it’s easy to see that people who have small children or who, like me, live in a relatively noisy house (we have slate floors) are not huge fans of glass topped furniture.

On the flip side, this glass and timber combination can be a real winner in the right space. One of the strengths of the Noguchi is that it works in domestic, commercial and hospitality settings. The tension between the clinical glass and the sculptural, organic warmth of the wood is very successful. From a designer’s perspective, the Noguchi is an essay on designing for broad manufacture, while retaining the warmth of craft. I think it’s a cracking good design. You can by a cheap Chinese rip-off for about $300 or a proper Herman Miller one for around $1500.

Because coffee table design parameters are so wide open, it is both a blessing and a curse to the designer/maker. I have five coffee table designs in production that try to cover different opportunities, but our best coffee tables are either one-offs or are made to commission to clients who have a clear brief.

One-off coffee tables are often driven by having just the right piece of wood that demands a special project. George Nakashima, the mid 20th century Japanese American designer maker, was a master of taking a dramatic piece of timber and creating a stunning solid timber coffee table in a distinctive style. Like the Noguchi, the Nakashima style of natural edge slab coffee table has spawned a whole line of pieces inspired by them, but because Nakashima’s work was so driven by the timber, he is usually copied by craft designer makers, not industry.

And there’s a bit of irony here. It’s infuriating that companies like Milan Direct shamelessly rip off the Noguchi, cheapen it in every sense of the word and then jam it down our throats. In researching this podcast script, I made the mistake of jumping on the Milan Direct website and looking at their Noguchi rip-off. Since then, whenever I’ve turned on the internet I’ve been plastered with adds for “replica Noguchi coffee tables for only $289 incl. GST”.

Finding a Nakashima inspired coffee table is as easy as going to Instagram and typing #nakashima. These are not copies in the same narrow sense of the Noguchi, because the Noguchi is a piece of industrial design, not craft design, but they are essentially ripoffs none the less. The important difference is that anyone who really wants an original Nakashima is never going to be swayed by a “near enough” copy off Instagram- they are not even nearly the same thing.

Interesting Coffee tables made by designer makers are often best found at exhibitions or gallerys, or at specialist showrooms like ours.  These are not set designs, but are rather the eye of the maker seeing something in a piece of wood, or perhaps re-thinking the way a coffee could be configured, and having a play. When the function is so ambiguous, then the artist has a lot of scope.

But this runs in to another problem. There is often as much work in a good coffee table as there is in a good dining table. This means that the price of the coffee table is essentially the same as the price of the dining table, less the relatively marginal difference in the cost of the materials.  Remember, we, and almost everyone else in fine furniture, basically price everything as a function of the time taken and the materials used. Industry is slightly different, and they are far more likely to tweak prices to meet expectations. The average person would prioritise their dining table over their coffee table, and  so would expect the price relationship to follow this perception.  Many retailers and manufacturers effectively inflate the price of their dining tables so as to reduce the price of their coffee tables in order to reflect this basic expectation. Makers like us can’t do this, because we essentially sell our craftsmanship on an hourly basis. Because we have a finite number of skilled hours to sell, we must ensure that we get the best return on each hour. We can’t work for a lower rate on an item just because of a pre-conception about relative value.  Now, a retailer who buys and sells is actually focused on generating a return per-square meter of their floor space. They can potentially accept a smaller return per unit if that means a higher turnover of that product.

The only way we can get a similar effect is to become quicker at a particular process, thus increasing our potential return per hour. This is most commonly achieved by making many of the same design in a run, thus getting a batch efficiency. Obviously this sort of batch efficiency is not available when making one-off coffee tables.

So how should you find the right coffee table? Basically, look around with an open mind, or commission one.

If you are going to commission one, develop a brief. Write down how you will use it and how you want it to make you feel.  Imagine how it fits your lifestyle. Describe how it should sit in the space- is it the hero piece or is it part of a wider scheme? Don’t tells us what it should look like. If you do that, you’ll end up with a print, not an original. And give us a budget, a real budget. Don’t get bogged down on what you think it should cost, get excited about how good it could be. Take that notional figure out of your art budget, not your furniture budget. Don’t look at magazines too much, because you’ll be distracted by the setting, the lighting, the photography, the sales pitch. Have some confidence in your own taste and your ability to express it.

I can pretty much guarantee that you don’t need a coffee table, at least, not the way you need a bed or a chair or a dining table. You want a coffee table, so really want it. Make it fun. Make it special. Make it a work of art. Get an original. Give us a challenge. Make us think and draw and experiment. That’s why we are here.

Or you could settle for a nasty copy of a classic design from a chain that doesn’t care.

You’ve been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please consider going to Itunes and giving it a like, it really helps me out. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.