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The coffee table has only been around since the beginning of the 20th century, but it's hard to imagine today's homes without one.
Where else would people plop a magazine, place a drink or put their feet up?

Like a man's necktie, its design says something about the person who selected it. A glass-top table on an elaborate base sends a different message to guests than, say, a sturdy wooden one with a dent or two. One would hardly expect to find the former in the same room as a basketball fan during the NCAA Tournament, for example.

A coffee table designed by local furniture designer William Herod says something different altogether.

For starters, he avoids rectangles in his designs. "Too pedestrian," said Herod, who instead uses irregularly shaped glass, stone and other tabletop surfaces often supported by steel clamp legs.

"People who go for my work seem to go for an eclectic look in their homes," added Herod, whose furniture is showcased at Planet 56, 940 Elmwood Ave.

Herod likes coffee tables because they're interactive pieces people tend to gather around, he said.

They're also a focal point in a room, which is why some consumers have fun with them.

"The coffee table has become a real signature piece that reflects someone's personality. It's not just a table in your grandmother's house with a doily, ceramic dog and some kind of plant crawling out of it," said Bruce Hirschhaut, a former Williamsville resident now designing furniture in High Point, N.C.

Where he lives, people call coffee tables "bunching" tables.

"We have two 16-inch tables in the family room, so you can nest them together and use one for magazines and one for your feet. They have a wrought iron base; we dropped the glass (not literally) and added slabs of marble," Hirschhaut said.

"Design-wise, I like a coffee table to have a second shelf underneath for books," he said.

In the furniture world, upholstered ottomans double as trendy coffee tables and coffee tables created from "found objects" such as ornate radiator covers also are popular, he added.

Indeed, almost anything can -- and has -- been coverted into a coffee table. Wagon wheels. Lobster traps. And, alas, Coleman coolers.

Buffalo shop owner Joseph Lonzi, for one, recalled one friend who created a coffee table by placing an old door on top of a big piece of metal.

"He was a struggling artist," said Lonzi, owner of McMahon and Tate, 7 Linwood Ave., which specializes in designer furnishings from the 1930s-'60s.

With his interest in midcentury furnishings, it should come as no surprise that Lonzi's coffee table -- a Heywood-Wakefield design -- dates back to that era.

"It's based on a 19th-century table called a hunt table. (The original) kind of curved so that someone could stand behind there and serve drinks before a hunt. This is a '40s version cut low," Lonzi said.

When Linda Newland Soltis was furnishing her first home, on the other hand, she decided not to use a real coffee table at all. Instead, she invested in an antique cedar chest to do the job.

"I looked around at a number of new coffee tables and found them to be expensive. I went to an antique show and saw the cedar chest for $75; it was perfect and in my price range," said Ms. Soltis, director of public relations and regional marketing for the Greater Buffalo Partnership.

Coffee tables actually were preceded by tea tables which, at 26- to 28-inches high, stood higher than today's versions. Like other furniture designs through history, the added height was dictated by women's fashions -- namely corsets.

Of necessity, women had to sit bolt upright on high seats, unable to bend over comfortably, according to House Beautiful magazine.

With the suffrage movement and participation in the World War I effort at the turn of the century, women traded corsets for freedom of movement.

"To capitalize on this turn toward comfort, furniture designers created lower, softer, more informal seating, such as upholstered sofas and chairs; with them came correspondingly low tables, coffee tables above all," the article continued.

In the years that followed, a handful of coffee-table classics were born: Syrie Maugham's white lacquered coffee table and Isamu Noguchi's sculptural table with ebony-finished wooden base and glass top.

Today, furniture companies explore such things as swivel coffee tables and designs inspired by popular hobbies including gardening and boating. Lineage's "Get About Table" -- a 57-by-30-inch glass-topped coffee table -- rests on top of a miniature rowboat base, for example.

And for as long as there have been coffee tables to place in a room, interior decorators have talked about them -- and not always kindly.

Wrote the late Michael Greer in 1962: "The American housewife would as soon be caught without a sink in her kitchen or a bathtub in her bathroom as without a so-called coffee or cocktail table in front of the living-room sofa. These tables are usually long -- sometimes almost as long as the sofa itself -- and have the effect of barricading people on the sofa during parties."

Designers have had other strong opinions on the ubiquitous coffee table through the years:

About cutting down the legs of a high table to create a coffee table: "I wouldn't cut down the legs of a table any more than I'd trim the legs of my dog," Los Angeles designer Van-Martin Rowe told House Beautiful in 1992.

About size: "When the coffee table gets big, it loses its sculptural quality and starts looking like part of the floor," quipped New York decorator David Easton.

And style: "You can always get away with a modern coffee table in a traditional room because there is no such thing as a traditional coffee table," added Mario Buatta.

And, finally, about people talking about coffee tables: "Oh, coffee tables. People are so hung up on them," New York designer Mark Hampton once said.

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