I first became aware of a new trend in conversation-piece coffee tables at Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in April, when the Italian furniture maker Moroso unveiled a beautifully ethereal take on the nesting table called Clouds (from about £685). Moroso has a long-held reputation for creating pieces that go beyond the purely functional (in the 1990s it launched Ron Arad’s extraordinary Spring Collection of easy chairs) and Japanese design company Nendo’s delicate-looking statement tables, conceived by abstracting photographs of clouds into a dotted pattern, then laser cutting the result into the table itself, continues this tradition.
By September, the trend was in full swing and the London Design Festival was fizzing with coffee tables of various shapes, heights and sizes that blurred the boundaries between form and function. At the Superbrands show, for example, new Portuguese company Ginger & Jagger launched the playful Pebble, which, with its ultra‑smooth spheres of chestnut, hammered metal and Brazilian cedar, is as much a strokeable installation as it is handy side table (£665). Over at 100% Design, another Portuguese design brand, Boca do Lobo showed a solid block of mahogany wrapped in polished brass – a piece the designers describe as “jewellery for the home” (from £5,480) – while London-based designer Constanze Schweda presented her sculptural Infinity Curl tables (from £543). Inspired by the Japanese art of Kirigami, in which paper is cut and folded into three-dimensional forms, Schweda cut and “drew” sheets of 3mm steel into shape using both industrial manufacturing techniques and traditional craftsmanship.
“The hand ‘drawing’ of the tables into shape is a sculpting process and each piece is fashioned as a one-off,” Schweda says. “Thin sheet metal behaves like paper during forming, becoming rigid in the final stages. It’s like teasing a new form out of flat material.”
All these pieces function perfectly well as tables, but it is their visual impact that really matters. “Collectors do want functionality,” says Ian Stallard, one half of design duo Fredrikson Stallard, whose Detroit coffee table (price on request) formed part of a recent exhibition at the David Gill Galleries in London. “But there are no comfort issues with coffee tables so designers do have a freer hand.”
He and his design partner Patrik Fredrikson have certainly made the most of this freedom: Detroit is a hand-formed, mirror-polished, stainless-steel sculpture that you happen to be able to place a drink on. “We form pieces in an abstract way,” Stallard explains, “and like to allow the materials we use to appear to behave naturally. The aim here, as with all our work, was to make something which looks effortless.” In fact, there’s nothing effortless about Detroit: stainless steel is very tough, and crushing it involves forcing the metal into shape using hydraulic pressure.
David Gill Galleries’ current exhibition, Six Tables on Water, of work by world-renowned architect-designer Gaetano Pesce (which runs until December 22), also features a rather extraordinary coffee table, entitled Puddle. Taking water and the way we treat it as his starting point, Pesce has made a series of six limited-edition tables, each designed to capture the liquid’s natural spirit and beauty in a different state, ranging from the dining-sized Ocean and Lagoon to the diminutive Puddle (prices on request). The five larger are representations of the particular watery form they are named after, but Puddle is a resin cast of an actual section of wet Brooklyn pavement. “I was out walking one day after a rain shower,” Pesce explains, “and I saw this lovely shaped puddle, so I took a relief of the piece of ground in a mould, then reproduced it in resin.” The main structure of the table is made from a rigid polyurethane foam that Pesce has formed into a shape representing the inside of the earth.
Max Lamb is another designer experimenting with new materials. He favours polystyrene, which he chisels into chairs, bookshelves and, most recently, coffee tables (Poly Scrap Coffee Table, from £3,000). Once formed, he sprays it with a fast-drying polyurethane rubber (of the kind more commonly used on lorries), creating something with a solid natural beauty that belies the lightweight, industrial substances it is made from.
French artist Françoise Fredj Weill’s latest work for Collect-xion also plays with our perceptions. At first glance, the branches encased within the metal and glass frames of her Tree table (£17,500) appear totally natural, but closer inspection reveals that the “bark” is made from Asian partridge feathers, each of which has been individually sewn or glued to the felt-backing template. “I like to shock with surprising materials,” she explains.
This interplay of organic and man-made materials to unexpected effect can also be seen in the Series II Infinity table (£66,000), by bespoke furniture maker Studio Silverlining, which uses modern technology with striking results. The structure of these exquisite occasional tables is made from a high-tech, super-light composite material, but its standout feature is the colour of the wood that covers it. The company has developed “Through-dye Technology”, which enables its team to remove the wood’s natural hue and replace it with one of their choice. “We can produce most Pantone shades,” says the company’s founder and managing director Mark Boddington, “and we have also found ways of making the colours virtually lightfast by changing the way the wood and surface-lacquer finish reacts to ultra-violet over time. At the moment, each tone has to have its own separate piece of veneer [there are over 400 on this table] but we’re developing a new technique that will enable us to bleed the shades together like ink on blotting paper.”
London interior design and furniture gallery Keir Townsend is showcasing a collection of solid-wood furniture wrapped in strips of polished steel, natural or burnished brass and copper (from £2,500; brass coffee table). Produced with Italian manufacturer Laurameroni, these pieces have been in demand ever since they arrived in the showroom earlier this year. “The metal finishes reflect the light beautifully,” says Keir Townsend’s co-founder Irina Townsend, “and the coffee tables have proved a big hit with art collectors because they make a statement without dominating the space and fighting for attention with their collections.”
Others are seeing collectors buying show-stopping tables as art works in their own right. “The art furniture being made today incorporates brilliant 21st-century craftsmanship,” says Boddington, “and, compared with fine art, it is incredibly competitively priced, so demand is growing in the same way as it did for studio glass in the United States during the 1970s.”
But whether a table is purchased as a collectible piece in its own right or not, designers and gallery owners agree that it must retain a degree of functionality. As Françoise Fredj Weill says: “Tree is first and foremost a table, so it should be used – although I would, of course, rather that it wasn’t covered with too many books.”