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Energize Your Coffee Table

The coffee table is dying. In today’s fast-paced world, comfort has become the number-one priority of homeowners. The result has been the gradual replacement of the proud coffee table by the upstart ottoman, more and more of which are beginning to take on the multi-tasking characteristics—hidden storage, quirky design—long owned by our mug-supporting friends. Remember the first coffee table you ever had, the 30-year-old chunk of polyurethaned oak veneer from your grandparents’ attic that you hauled off to college? The one with all the Kool-Aid stains? Ah… nostalgia.

It hasn’t always been this way. The coffee table came into its own in the late 70s in conjunction with that 300-pound gorilla of publishing, the coffee table book. Another boost came after the television show “Friends” premiered in 1994, bringing Central Perk and its well-utilized table into the homes of millions of Americans.

But now those glory days seem to be over, as veteran tables are being retired on a weekly basis during episodes of “Trading Spaces.” I, for one, hope the coffee table strikes back at the ottoman empire, and becomes cool again. While the right coffee table book can certainly up the coolness factor a notch or two (A History of Britain Volume 2: 1603-1776 carries a certain cachet), they usually cost upwards of $40. Your coffee table renaissance can begin less expensively. Here’s how:

[THE TABLE ITSELF]

Want to make your grandmotherly table interesting again? Give it a complete makeover by painting it, and painting it boldly. There is nothing remarkable about a coffee table with the same dark mahogany-stained wood as everyone else. What is interesting is that same coffee table painted orange. Or lime green. Or lilac. Or a rich, golden yellow. Sand it down, clean it up, and color that baby with a nice oil enamel. If you don’t like it, you can always buy another half-gallon of paint. You’ll be surprised how a piece of sensible furniture can become a room’s focal point with a few daring swipes of a paint brush.

[THE SURFACE]

If it gives you the willies to even think about painting over nice, finished wood, then try something else—decoupage. For the unenlightened (which is to say, males), decoupage is just a fancy word for “cut and paste.” Here’s how you do it: photocopy pages from old books, family photographs, children’s drawings, sheet music, newspaper stories, fabric—anything you want—and artfully arrange them on the surface of your coffee table. Most craft stores carry a special glue called decoupage medium, which you’ll use to seal the paper to the surface after you’re satisfied with the arrangement (make sure you like the layout before you start gluing). Once you’ve finished, seal over the paper with extra medium or polyurethane. Finally, measure the dimensions of your surface and have a protective pane of glass cut to rest upon it.

[THE STUFF ON THE TABLE]

The best way, of course, to invigorate your tired coffee table is to put it to use by covering it with cool stuff. If your table is home only to last month’s TV Guide and the remote control, then you have seriously underestimated its capacity for entertaining. Coffee tables aren’t just for coffee—they’re for showing off your personality.

Coffee tables are good for displaying an array of magazines. But as you well know, magazine subscriptions and individual newsstand prices can cost money. If you’re just looking for a few decorative items that might, ahem, make you appear thoughtful and cultured for your next date, there’s a way to get them: Trial subscriptions. Most publications will offer some sort of free trial subscription (details can usually be found on those annoying tear-out cards). The instructions follow along these lines: “Please send me THREE FREE issues of Coffee Table Digest. When I receive an invoice, and if I decide to subscribe, I will pay the $75-dollar subscription price. If I choose not to subscribe, I’ll just write ‘CANCEL’ on the invoice, send it back and owe nothing.”

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Kids, this really does work. I can’t tell you how many one- or two-time copies of good magazines, literary journals, and special-interest newsletters I’ve received using this method. You send in the card, you get the product, and you cancel the bill. A coffee table with the latest issues of The Oxford American, The Skeptical Enquirer, Fast Company, Kitchen and Bath Design News, and Spelunker Flophouse is undoubtedly an attention-grabbing piece of furniture.

[THE COFFEE PART]

Don’t call it a coffee table unless you’re going to actually use it to support coffee mugs. It’s only a matter of integrity (sorely needed after acquiring all those free magazines). Why not use your coffee table to display your most eclectic coffee mugs and coasters? One guy I know habitually takes home one of those promotional cardboard coasters that are regularly stacked on restaurant tables. He has his dining companions sign and date the coaster, then adds it to his huge collection in a coffee table drawer as a memento of his evening.

Coffee tables intrinsically have more character than an ottoman and offer you, as the owner of a piece of fine furniture, countless ways to express your individuality through them. Fire up the coffee pot and put your table to work.

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