The design of the coffee table derives from the tea table. Tea tables, in use throughout Europe as early as the seventeenth century, were tall, round tables set beside a chair or placed in front of a group seating arrangement. The tea service could be placed on the table and served to family and guests. The tea table, during the seventeenth century, was usually a round top table. The top could be folded down and the table stored against the wall until tea was served again. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the tea table evolved into the tea trolley, a rectangular table on casters that was brought out for tea.
Exactly when the tea table passed out of favor and the coffee table took its place is subject to debate. In America, the production of coffee tables increased rapidly in the early twentieth century, and the low, rectangular table was marketed to the average homeowner. The president of the Imperial Furniture Company, one J. Stuart Foote, claimed to have invented the modern day coffee table in 1920. His story was he cut down the legs of a table and when he saw the result it occurred to him that it was suitable for placement in front of the sofa and perfect setting down one's coffee.
Though lower tables placed around seating arrangements can be found in interiors going back to the Victorian era, the table marketed by Imperial Furniture, and others, in the 1920s more closely resembles the low rectangular table familiar to contemporary consumers. The lower height of the table as well as its shape did make it easy for those sitting on a couch to set down their coffee. Coffee was gaining in popularity at this time and was preferred over tea. It's likely this had some influence over the table's name. The repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s brought about another marketable name: the cocktail table.
The coffee table functioned as a centerpiece for casual entertainment. Seating was arranged around the table, with the table placed before the sofa and a chair set to either side to form a "U" shape. This allowed access to the coffee table from all sides. But the coffee table did more than provide a convenient place for guests to set down their beverage. Magazines were becoming increasingly popular and the coffee table provided a place to display the colorful covers. It wasn't long before the coffee table was accessorized with ceramics, vases of flowers and coffee table books.
The coffee table may well be considered a twentieth century invention, or at least its common use in interiors is a result of good marketing on the part of J. Stuart Foote. But hardwood isn't the only material used to manufacture coffee tables, and in the years to come, it's taken on different shapes as well. The glass top and chrome plated legs that emerged in the 1950s was first designed and marketed in 1934 by a department store in Chicago. The style is still a popular choice for mid-century modern interiors. The 1960s brought with it organic shaped tables and twisted legs, made from plastics and metals and glass. The subsequent decades saw mirror topped tables and coffee tables that converted to dining tables, perfect for the apartment dweller.
The coffee table, for all its myriad shapes and materials, still has the singular purpose of being a surface on which to place things. It is transient storage. But Microsoft may change that. With its introduction of the touch screen tabletop, the coffee table may become interactive. The device, called Microsoft Surface, has as its surface a touch screen (see Resources below). Users can group around the table and view photos, play games or catch up on the news. The Microsoft Surface, as of May 2007, is being used in commercial applications in casinos and hotels throughout the United States. Microsoft intends to market the device for consumer applications within 3 to 5 years as a touch screen coffee table.