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DESIGN DISPATCH

Between the sofa and the TV

May 01, 2003|Susan Freudenheim | Times Staff Writer

"HEY, you know what would make a great coffee table book? A coffee table book about coffee tables!" So declared Kramer, the ever-scheming character on "Seinfeld." Then in a later episode, he talked "on air" about the book on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee." His idea was to make a book about coffee tables that also converted into a coffee table. And as he talked, a bell went off in the minds of two real-life viewers -- decorative arts experts James Zemaitis and Alexander Payne, both of the Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg auction house. They knew as well as anyone that no such book on the history of coffee tables existed.

Later this spring, a book titled "The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book" by Zemaitis and Payne is due out from Black Dog Press, a London-based publishing house. This book won't have the Kramer-style legs, however.

"We realized that there are just three major categories of books on 20th century design," Zemaitis said recently from his office in New York. "Overwhelming surveys, monographs on individual designers and, finally, what I call 'the cult of the chair.' " A pivotal exhibition on the history of the chair at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany set the standard for the latter.

But coffee tables, which Zemaitis says are a classic exemplar of 20th century style, tell an equally interesting tale. He will lecture on the topic at 2 p.m. Saturday, at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica in a talk titled "Caffeinated Modernism: The Role of the Coffee Table in Mid-Century Modern Interiors, 1930-1960."

His talk, part of the Los Angeles Antiques show, will focus on mid-century Modernism, which Zemaitis calls "America's moment of cocktail Modernism," the most rapid period of aesthetic development of such tables. The book, however, is broader in its scope. "The coffee table, unlike the chair, is a 20th century form," he said. "There are Turkish coffee tables from the 18th and 19th century, but it wasn't until the early years of the last century that it really started to appear." First, in France, the "table bas" (low table), began to be used as a place to put drinks, although the French placed the table to the side of a room and not as the central focus of seating arrangements as we do today. In 1915, the great French designer Eileen Gray created what may have been the first true example of the form.

During the 1930s, the era of Prohibition and the Depression, the American coffee table as we know it began to truly emerge. "It was the first glorious era of home entertaining," he said, which can be seen throughout popular magazines of the time. For financial reasons and to avoid being prosecuted for drinking, people began to gather more in the home, and this new kind of table quickly began to flourish.

The tables took two distinct forms -- geometric and biomorphic. The flourishing Surrealist movement in the art world greatly influenced top designers such as Gray, working in Paris, Isamu Noguchi, who worked in Japan and elsewhere, and Frederick Kiesler, in New York. The strange, animal-like legs of Gray's "Tempe a Pailla," circa 1935, a table with a compressed-wood carved top, illustrates some of the mystical explorations of this era.

Around the same time, Noguchi made his first prototype for his famous biomorphic IN-52 coffee table, millions of which have since been produced. The enduring influence of this style can be seen in a curved, layered table titled "Mesa," created in the 1950s by the British-born T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, who made his career as a designer and writer and was extremely popular in Hollywood. The table's laminated birch shaped into a flowing form was inspired by the stratified desert landscape of the Southwest.

Zemaitis said that when he and Payne began researching the topic, they found that only scholars had tried to catalog the history of the form. Their goal by contrast was to write "in a lighthearted tone," in the tradition of the classic big-format picture books. The result will be "an A to Z guide, a history of all the great tables."

Designs normally can be separated between the utilitarian "to be placed between the sofa and the TV" and the "object of beauty," Zemaitis says. But in the 1990s and into the 21st century, some designers have taken on new extremes, creating avant-garde designs for the Milan furniture fair and other venues that "force a dialogue about what the coffee table is."

Examples include tables with all sorts of computerized gadgets using the latest technology and green materials. These are the opposite of the mass-produced tables that most people own, but they still fall under the same nomenclature.

"They're thinking so far out of the box, that what they do for the coffee table is more radical than what they do for seating. You get the political statement, and then you get IKEA."

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