Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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It's only when you have to buy a coffee table that you realise how limited the world of coffee-table design seems to be. For an item of furniture that was only invented in the 20th century (as far as the Western world is concerned, at any rate), there seems to be an amazingly rigid set of rules with which it must comply.

For a start, it appears that a coffee table nearly always has to be rectangular. And if it's rectangular, it must be no longer than 120cms and no wider than 60cms. Sometimes you might stumble across a square model, but the likelihood is that it will be no bigger than 100cms.

As far as styling goes, you have three choices - modern (plain, yes, but always in a wood you don't want, such as cherry if you want walnut, or maple if you want cherry); twee (as in faux Louis Quatorze twiddly bits) or ethnic (such as the Maharani, which has now become a bit of a cliché).

Very occasionally, you come across more adventurous designs, like the 1948 design by Isamu Noguchi, shaped like an amoeba, which is slightly bigger. But then that takes you into a whole new problem: the glass top.

I can quite see why a designer might think that a glass top is a good idea. In a small room, a transparent table gives an impression of spaciousness, while a solid top can look more monolithic. But did Isamu Noguchi ever come home at the end of a frustrating day at the office, plonk himself down in front of the telly and put his feet up on the coffee table? I don't think so. Otherwise he might have come up with a design that looked a bit more substantial.

As any fool knows, a coffee table isn't just for putting coffee on. It is also home in our household to a couple of newspapers, several months' worth of gardening magazines, a dozen books, perhaps a candle or two, the odd DVD, the most recent edition of the Lakeland catalogue and several remote controls. (Interestingly, none of these ever seem to work the machine I am at that moment trying to activate.)

So, as well as a foot-proof top, I want a shelf underneath on which to store all this junk. Which brings us to the next "design solution", the glass-topped coffee table with the shelf underneath. Aaaaargh! Not only does it not look safe enough to put your feet up on, you can also see all the clutter stored underneath.

Of course, if you're a designer you have stylish copies of the Architects' Journal and Elle Decoration arranged in neat, colour-coded piles, but the rest of us have the books, the dog-eared television guide, the candles, the half-eaten bowl of cereal or digestive biscuit and so on.

Then there's the height. Most coffee tables are either too high (40cms or more) or too low (20cms). Too high, and your legs start to ache when you put your feet up. Too low and you might as well put your feet on the floor. In my opinion, 35cms is the optimum height.

And what about the length? Most modern coffee tables are designed to suit a three-piece suite (though most of them are too short to do even that properly, leaving the person at one end with a huge stretch to reach their mug of tea). Who on earth buys a three-piece suite these days? Lots of us have two sofas instead, or even one of those L-shaped things. So what I want is a coffee table with a solid top, AND a solid shelf underneath, that's 35cm high and measures something like 150cm long.

Having exhausted the possibilities of the coffee-table world, I'm now scouring the shops for a long, low audio-visual unit, which I suspect might be a much more practical option. Some styles even have wheels, which makes moving it out of the way to accommodate an unexpected influx of sleeping-bagged teenagers much easier.

Why am I on the hunt for a coffee table? Because ours has collapsed. Outrageous, isn't it? You pay £35 for a coffee table from Ikea, load it up with magazines, catalogues, remote controls, gardening books, storage boxes of photographs and several pairs of teenage feet, push it out of the way every five minutes to accommodate a sleepover, and three years down the track, what happens? A leg falls off.

You know, I think someone's trying to tell me something.