Mid-Century Coffee Table

While reading the entries for Atomic Indy‘s current giveaway, I realized that in all these years I’ve never written about my dearly beloved coffee table.

While I have never physically climbed into a Dumpster, I am not above grabbing interesting things that I can reach from the ground, the two most memorable being a complete Mac workstation (older but functional) and my coffee table. Both came from different apartment complexes in Boulder, CO although neither were anywhere near any of the fab MCM architecture which lurks in that city.

SPOILER ALERT: The following may offend purists. Please forgive me my trespasses, and read on.

The finish on the coffee table was abused, and the legs had been reduced to stumps. But the boomerang shape was wonderful, and I had to try to salvage it! The shape screamed MCM, the Brown-Saltman logo on the bottom was a dead giveaway, but I had no other historical information with which to work. This was 1998, and while the World Wide Web seemed vast at the time, it pales in comparison to the amount of information that’s available now. I may have been able to find the table mentioned in a book at the library, but I pulled it out of the trash. It couldn’t possibly have any significance, right? So why would it be in a book? Nah, that would be a waste of time.

In my under-ventilated apartment, I stripped off as much of the original finish from the table top as I could, leaving the apron untouched. My boyfriend and I then hauled the table up to his parents’ house and sanded the top down to a smooth surface. My intent had been to varnish the top back to the walnut color I found it in, but the grain was so striking that I changed my mind and switched to a tung-oil finish instead. I KNOW, IT’S NOT ORIGINAL. The artist won out over the preservationist. Moving on…

What to do about those legs? When found, the table had three stumpy peg-legs, all pointed straight down, and all sawed off at the same awkwardly useless height of about 5 or 6 inches. I could see where a fourth leg probably used to be, but from the standpoint of physics it seemed gratuitous. My hypothesis was that the three-legged table, even with four legs, had proven unsteady, and the previous owner kept hacking away in an attempt to achieve some stability. It being Boulder, the idea of a table that sat 6 inches from the floor wasn’t the oddity it might be elsewhere. It’s a college town, and a pot-smoke-filled one at that, so it was easy to imagine this table surrounded by oversized floor pillows in a room decorated with gauzy curtains and tapestries. My local hardware store, in exchange for a few dollars, provided me with a set of screw-in replacement table legs in a tapered cylindrical shape that I felt befitted the obvious mid-century heritage of the table. AGAIN, NOT ORIGINAL. But, I thought, probably very close. I tung-oiled the legs to match the refinished table top. To better stabilize the construction, I used the angled option of the legs’ screw-in plates, and voilà! Well, no, it was still pretty unstable. But hey, we have a really snazzy looking coffee table!

I continued to use the table* until, tired of it tipping over, I bought my first bit of Brand New, Real Grown-Up Furniture—a very sturdy, four-legged, Shaker-style coffee table—a few years later. Still, I couldn’t bear to part with my Boomerang, and so it was stored, disassembled, in a closet. When I bought my current home, I reassembled it and used as the table for my rarely-visited basement seating arrangement. In time, it was covered with the assorted rubble typical of a finished basement in a house with no other storage area, and mostly forgotten.

Mostly.

But not entirely.

In November of 2009, I decided to resurrect the Boomerang. I cleared off the layer of office supplies that had settled on top, I brought it upstairs to the living room, I immediately tired of it Tipping. The fuck. Over. I moaned and whined about it. I moved the legs, now numbering four, into what I thought would be a more stable arrangement. It still tipped. I still whined. Nick, who is Good At This Kind Of Thing, rearranged my rearrangement, and for the first time in 11 years, the table doesn’t tip! But how a furniture company could manufacture a table so unsteady didn’t, well, sit right with me. If you’ll pardon the pun. And I once again started researching the table, this time armed with an Internet filled with considerably more information than the last time I looked.

Brown-Saltman Coffee Table, Original Construction

I now know that my Brown-Saltman coffee table dates to 1955, and does appear to have had what was left of its original walnut-colored finish when I found it. It was designed by either Paul Frankl or John Keal; on that, there is some disagreement. And the original (four) legs did indeed go straight down, but those three stumps that my table had been left with used to connect to a base of (three) paddle-shaped feet which would have indeed been less tipsy than the tapered jobbies I had imagined and attempted. To be perfectly honest, I don’t much like the original base, and I prefer the tapered legs that my table now sports. I also found that, were my table restored to its original condition, it would be the most valuable thing in my house. As it is, it’s worth considerably less, but its value to me is unparalleled.

*This is the time period during which a friend managed to somehow scorch a plate ring onto the table’s surface, which bugs the heck out of me but not enough for me to refinish the table again.

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7 Comments

Filed under vintage

7 responses to “Mid-Century Coffee Table

  1. Jimmy Buttcheeks

    I had a second today to come down off the Coker and smoke a cigarette. I found this on Twitter.
    What a cool story!
    Thanks for sharing it with me! :)

  2. michele

    Very cool tale- so are you gonna try and get it back to what it was originally in shape, with the base? That would rock but i imagine need someone with good woodworking skills. Let us know what happens! BTW I love a bit of dumpster diving (if its not too icky), hard rubbish collections etc. You can find the best stuff.

    • Michele – As a matter of fact, a couple of my good friends are dang skilled woodworkers, but I think I’ll leave the legs as they are. If I make the table too nice, I’ll panic about its care even more than I do now! :D

  3. Colleen

    Oh, oh, oh!

    If I sent you a photo, perhaps you could ID my little table for me.

    I have a boomerang end table in a blonde wood that I picked up at the Salvation Army for $6. It has no identifying marks that I can see, but the style is MCM, and my brother who sees a lot of old furniture in his job, has pronounced all of the parts (including the screws) original.

    The finish is good for the most part, with the exception of one edge where it looks like someone’s dog chewed it or something. I’ve been waffling about whether or not to refinish it, and if I did, I think it would be a medium finish. I have a sneaking suspicion that the wood underneath is not as good as yours, and if I refinish I’ll likely need a coloured varnish.

    Anyway, let me know if you’d like to see a photo.

    • Colleen – I’m in no way an MCM furniture expert. If I had any real knowledge on the subject, I might have identified my own table years earlier. As it is, I relied on the Brown-Saltman label underneath, and Googled a few dozen pages of results before finding it. You might be better off submitting photos to RetroRenovation.com or AtomicIndy.com, where there are scads of readers who could perhaps lend a hand. Best of luck!

  4. Great story :) I actually have this exact table with the legs still in tact. You’re welcome to take measurements if you’re interested in restoring it. The legs are very stable and stylish. I’m in LA. Cheers!

    • Dennis—Thank you so much! I have to admit, I sort of like the McCobb-style legs I put on there, but The Boyfriend is interested in doing a proper restoration. We’re in Denver so an on-site measuring is out, but I could make a scale blueprint from clear photos if you have any! And of course, if you ever find yourself in Denver, you should stop by for a cuppa. :)

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