There was a time when coffee tables held the central place in our living rooms. Upon them rested the symbols of our lives. Scattered in plain sight, the magazines, books, and nick knacks of our interest quietly broadcast the message of who we were. You could tell a lot about us by our coffee table tops.
My childhood coffee table was made of 1970’s metal tube legs and glass. The top was a framed glass panel, revealing what appeared to be a star-burst pattern of small, rectangular tiles. The ‘tiles’ were actually a plastic sheet, molded and dyed to the pattern. We kept National Geographic magazine’s 3 or 4 most recent issues fanned out on the table. A center piece of plastic fern in a gold wooden dish was always slightly askew from the bumps and table top activity of us kids. If no guests were around, you would have seen the current homework project tossed into the mix. It wasn't uncommon to find green toy soldiers tucked into the fern or climbing down the metal gold legs. If company was expected, the soldiers and homework were always replaced by Better Homes and Gardens and a sculptured ceramic ash tray. Ours was a coffee table that told the story of a modest family, intrigued by learning and with aspirations of being normal. My grandmother’s coffee table wasn't the same.
My grandmother’s living room (and it was her living room, even though my grandfather was allowed in to sit in his chair and watch the nightly news) sported a large, round cypress coffee table. Always on the top of it was a bowl of artificial fruit and a combination ash tray-candy dish. The ash tray was never used and the candy was off limits except to guests. You were not allowed to lean on, write on, put anything on top of or run near the table. Once a year, at Christmas, the center piece was replaced by a bowl full of gold and white ornaments. The table told a story of constant order, measured hospitality and fragile balance.
From what I can remember, the coffee tables of old served as statements – sometimes intended, often unconscious – of who we were. I don’t see as many coffee tables in living rooms today and lately have wondered if we might have found something else to take their place. When I look around I see a number of coffee table tops: Facebook, Pinterest, blogs, websites…. On these spaces we can broadcast much easier our likes, wants, feelings and interests. Posting a photo on Facebook, an emotive 140 characters on Twitter or a personal story on a blog all give us a means to set the table for others to see. So, today I’m wondering – what do my digital coffee tables tell about me? What do you see in the things spread before you on your friends and families spaces? How do you present yourself when you know friends are coming by your digital place?
Random thought: Is there a coffee table app? A virtual table with digital objects we could display to tell our momentary mood or story? Should there be?