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No living room arrangement looks quite finished without a coffee table. The coffee table first made its official debut in the Victorian era in England, though it had probably been custom for a long time to put low tables near to sofas and settees where those seated could put down their drinks. The first official appearance of a table specifically designated as a “coffee table”, though, was a table designed by E. W. Godwin and manufactured in large numbers by William Watt. In a classic case of form following function, the coffee table was long, low and often heavy to prevent spills if someone bumps against it.
Since the late 1800s, there have been thousands of designs for the humble coffee table, many of them elevating the little piece of furniture to art form. Because it usually sits at the center of the living room, the coffee table has become a means of expressing personal style. Most fit with the design of the living room, but there are offbeat and whimsical coffee table styles that make a clear statement of their own. One of the most obvious examples of this is the aquarium coffee table, which is manufactured in dozens of styles and by dozens of companies. You’ll even find a healthy helping of how-to articles telling you how to make your own coffee table aquarium.
The coffee table aquarium is only one example of ways to decorate your coffee table to express your personal style. You can also buy or make a coffee table with an inset or painted chess or checker board, or create a one of a kind display with a glass topped coffee table as a base. There are coffee tables created with a glass top and a shelf beneath where you can arrange a collection to display it. If you don’t have a collection of your own, you can even purchase a coffee table that includes a display – often of sea shells and other memorabilia.
More commonly, though, people use the top of their coffee table as a display place. In the 1950s, David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, hit upon the idea of creating books specifically designed to be left out on a coffee table. In 1960, the Sierra Club published the first coffee table book, “This is the American Earth”, with photographs by Ansell Adams and other photographers, and text by Nancy Newhall. The new idea was a huge success. Coffee table books usually feature beautiful artwork and photography in an oversized format. Because they’re meant to sit on the coffee table rather than be carried around to read in the comfort of your bed or armchair, they’re often enormous. LOOK magazine published its own coffee table books of famous photographs from its covers, as did LIFE. Possibly the most notorious coffee table book of all time, though, is Madonna’s coffee table book, Sex. It was released in 1992 to accompany her album Erotica, and features such famous faces as Naomi Campbell, Vanilla Ice, Isabella Rossellini, and of course, Madonna.
For many newlyweds, their coffee table book of choice is their wedding album, but the internet and the ease of push button publishing has given way to a new coffee table trend – design your own coffee table books. For as little as $30, you can create a coffee table book of your own photos and text, and have it printed on high quality paper. You can even opt for a leather cover for another $10 or so. Apple’s iPhoto service, Shutterfly and Kodak Easyshare service all offer web-based publishing software that lets you design your own book and order a copy, but there are other, less well-known options. Corel, the makers of Paint Shop Pro photo editing software, even offer a step-by-step tutorial on creating your own coffee table book and uploading it to mypublisher.com for printing.