What are the secrets behind these intriguing tables?

Throughout the ages, craftsmen have tried to take advantage of the “wasted” space occupied by structural elements and moldings on tables and desks by often including a hidden compartment or a secret drawer.

Still, if you’ve ever actually opened a table with one of these secret compartments on a period piece of furniture, you’d see right away that they were never intended to hold very large secrets. In fact, most secret compartments are actually so small as to actually really be quite useless.

You might ask then, so why did these old-time furniture makers invest so much time and skill into making them? And why do they still fascinate us to this day?

The answer is simple: They’re just plain fun for a client, and, I might add, they’re just as much fun for a designer like myself to plan and execute.

As a custom designer, I too have been bitten by the bug of creating such tables but have never gone so far as to incorporate any trap doors or tricky locks into them. I’ve never added complex parts to my designs but rather looked to create simple, clean designs, beautifully executed. But I like to add a little bit of mystique by incorporating hidden or secret parts that, when revealed, would actually increase a table’s usefulness as well as its beauty and intrigue.

By adding an element that actually slides open to reveal a hidden storage compartment in the middle of the table or a cleverly concealed lower storage level (just as beautiful as the top), an ordinary table design suddenly becomes something more special and desirable to own. In other words, it’s transformed from something unassuming to something eye-opening.

Personally, I’ve always been captivated by furniture that moved in some way — and I don’t mean on wheels. No, rather tables that could slide or rise up in height or contain secret shelves that could pop-out when desired.

Movement allows a piece of furniture to serve an added purpose other than just what was expected of it by virtue of its design as a coffee table, side table and such.

You might think it’s just a “male thing,” but I don’t think so. I’ve had any number of female clients that have expressed great enthusiasm for “tables that do something” just as long as they looked good with a beautiful finish, sleek lines and the right proportions. It seems that women might be more sensitive to these aspects than their male counterparts.

In any case, we’re all well-acquainted with the ubiquitous extension dining tables (with or without hidden leaves) and even glass tops that can move and, of course, night tables and side tables that contain hidden shelves (usually located above the top drawer) that slide out and provide additional tabletop space. We’ve seen these for years.

A little less familiar are coffee tables that can “rise to the occasion” and become dining table height with either a hidden gas lift or the newer (but certainly not new) electric motors. That’s the same principle that has raised our televisions out of beautiful chests at the foot of our beds for years.

These tables can be lifesavers or, at very least, brilliant additions in rooms that need to double as a sitting conversation area and dining space.

Included in the collection are table designs that offer clients additional serving space, not to mention a conversation piece — especially a two-level coffee table with a sliding top. The most popular shape in this style has been the rectangle (with radius or square corners), though clients have also asked for square and round shapes as well.

These tables can sit in the closed position or even slightly open, and when additional serving space is needed the top level can slide open (usually not more than 20 inches) to reveal another serving area below or a space for books and magazines that can be stored on the lower level and hidden from sight when the tabletop is closed.

I’ve also used the same principle of the sliding top in a variation of this style wherein the top level splits in the middle and slides open to reveal a hidden well that can be used to store liquor bottles or serving dishes. Recently this table was ordered by a client in a rich mahogany wood and was a wonderful complement to the simple lines of his late 1940s French furniture.

Another table design that has worked its charm on clients is the pivoting-top side table done in either an oval or egg-shape. These tables are especially wonderful between two chairs or in front of a small sofa so that when the top pivots open there are two serving surfaces that can be used.

When not fully open, such as the sliding coffee table, the top looks best slightly extended and makes for a truly interesting and unusual look. And, like the sliding table, these are jewel-like in a room setting when finished in exotic veneers, mixed finishes or even polished or brushed metals.

I suppose this thing that has fascinated us for so long about hidden compartments might just be chiefly attributed to the ingenuity of the creator. But it’s my belief that when the design goes a step further and offers increased functionality while adding that little bit of mystery and intrigue, then the puzzle that longs to be solved has truly achieved its goal.

Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design (www.soleildezine.com). Questions can be sent to soleildesign@cox.net.

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