I've been working on a story for the magazine about coffee tables. At the same time I've been devouring every minute of the ITV/PBS costume drama Downton Abbey.
Of course you don't see any coffee tables at Downton Abbey. The drawing room (above), is devoid of the low monolith that acts as the central axis for virtually every furniture arrangement in a modern home.
Coffee tables were few and far between before the Great War. They didn't become a fixture in every home until well into the '20s. What you see instead are tea tables. So many tea tables. Every conversation worth anything on that show takes place over tea served by one of the faithful "downstairs" characters from a tea table. Most tea tables are oval or round and about 29 or 30 inches high. Some are small in diameter — about 24 inches — so that they can be moved around with ease. Some are larger in diameter and have a tilt-top table, so that when they're off duty, the top is tilted up and the table moved to the side of a room. I love a tea table and am happy to join the ranks of those heralding its revival.
Cora, the Countess of Grantham, takes tea in her boudoir served from a petite tea table by O'Brien, her scheming lady's maid.
At Crawley House, where Mrs. Crawley and Matthew Crawley live, the butler Molesley serves tea from a table that remains positioned along the wall.
Matthew, with his middle class uncouth ways, helps himself to tea. Molesley looks on, incredulous.
At Lady Grantham's, home tea service takes on a decidedly more formal character, with tablecloth and accoutrements to match.
One of the most ardent supporters of the tea table in contemporary interiors is Washington, DC, designer Darryl Carter. While I feel sure he'd get hives at the fusty remnants of Victoriana seen in Downton Abbey, he loves a tea table and regularly uses them either in concert with a coffee table (above) or in place of one.
I recently spied this 18th century American tea table (left) on 1st Dibs. It's a Chippendale carved walnut version with a pie crust top, 29" high by 29" in diameter, from Arader Galleries in New York. So pretty. And a contemporary version (right), The Hudson from Hickory Chair. This one is 30" high by 35" in diameter. I love its satiny finish and how the stripe detail punctuates the design.
I've experimented with a tea table as an alternative to a coffee table, too. Here's one in my Toronto living room. It's a small room so I like how the height makes the room seem less crowded with furniture than a lower coffee table does.
I'm in the process of decorating the living room at our weekend place in Tweed, Ontario (hence the lack of window coverings), so I'm not sure if this lovely antique tilt-top table will stay in place, but for now I love it here. It's fun to switch up the accessories on top. Usually I keep it simple — one large design book, a magnifying glass and a decorative box. In spring, summer and autumn I add flowers or branches from the garden.
For more table ideas, see our Traditional Living Rooms photo gallery.