Though almost all living rooms have one, coffee tables aren’t often used as a visual focal point. On the one hand, this is a very strange thing, since coffee tables occupy primo real estate: they’re placed literally right in the center of the room. At the same time, though, coffee tables fall firmly in the realm of practical furnishings – they’re used for setting down drinks and food, displaying magazines, or as a resting place for remotes or sometimes feet. They’re meant to do a job first, and look good second. That said, if you’re looking for a coffee table that does both equally well, consider opting instead for an even more practical piece of furniture: vintage factory carts.
Vintage factory carts are relatively simple in design: a flat wood surface affixed to four or more large metal wheels. Way back when, these were used for (literal) heavy lifting: you put something heavy on top, like a large box, crate, or shipping pallets, and the wheels allowed you to move them easily. Usually the wheels are designed to turn freely for a greater range of motion, and sometimes come in odd numbers, weird positions, or unusual mountings to help make sure the cart (and anything on it) moved smoothly.
So what does that have to do with coffee tables? Well, first of all, these vintage factory carts are exactly the perfect size and shape to stand in for a standard coffee table. More importantly, refurbished, restored carts can be absolutely gorgeous, with rustic, natural wood tops that are so popular right now, and a rugged character that you won’t find on a basic wood table. Add to that a set of whimsical antique metal wheels, and you’ve suddenly got a fully functional coffee table that’s also a pleasure to look at.
Authentic vintage factory carts that have been salvaged and restored have amazing character, with subtle imperfections and wear and tear that only come from years of use. But even modern replica versions are designed with that old fashioned, slightly weathered, rough-hewn style in mind, and often use less-than-pristine planks (or even reclaimed wood) to create a coffee table surface that’s more interesting to look at than a simple finished slab of wood.
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Depending on the style you prefer, you can find vintage factory carts that are either polished up and sealed, or ones that are left with totally raw, natural, unfinished wood. The latter is more traditional, of course, and has the added advantage that the wood used will naturally continue to gray and weather as it ages, so that it will slowly develop its own natural character, even if the piece itself is a replica. But a more finished cart will have a smoother surface and burnished finish that are slightly more traditional for a living room.
Having a coffee table that’s highly mobile can also be advantageous, particularly if you have a large living room or a sofa that reclines or converts into a bed. Because the table is mounted on wheels, it’s easy to move out of the way or around the room, even on plush carpet, and they’re much less likely to scratch a hard floor than conventional table legs. On the flip side, if you’re worried about the stability of your coffee table, check to make sure that at least one of the wheels has a locking mechanism. This is a common feature, but not all tables have it, so if you want to be certain your coffee table will stay put, double check to make sure.
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Most vintage factory carts consist of a single flat board mounted on wheels, but as this particular type of furniture is becoming more widely used as a coffee table, the table portions are starting to become thicker and more table-like, with non-traditional features like open shelves for books or even built in drawers. This type of table is obviously less authentic, so you won’t find an original antique cart that looks like this, but modern replicas are made with the same attention to detail – they’re just designed with a little extra added functionality.
What do you think of using these old fashioned workhorses as decoration – or of the recent surge in popularity of reclaimed wood furniture in general? Let me know in the comments!