Frank Lloyd Wright would probably be dismayed to see a coffee table built in his Prairie furniture style. In fact, he and his fellow early 20th-century designers all would have been disturbed by the concept of a coffee table. Eating or drinking in the living room? Unheard of! That type of informality in furniture is a product of the latter half of the 20th century. But, there is a fine old Russian proverb that says necessity is the mother of invention. And so I offer you the Prairie-style coffee table. At least it’ll keep my kids from leaving plates, glasses and remote controls on the floor.
This project is an adaptation of a number of Wright’s pieces, utilizing applied moulding to a generally simple design. The shelf is placed high on the legs and extends beyond the base to match the wide and low look of Wright’s Prairie-style buildings and furniture. The construction is simple, with the most complicated joint being a mortise-and-tenon attachment on the legs, which I’ve simplified even further for you.
I started building the table at the base with the four legs. For a larger table I would have used a mitered or lock-mitered leg to make sure the dramatic grain commonly found in quartersawn white oak was visible on all four sides of the legs. But for a table this small, the work really didn’t justify the benefit, so I started with 2″ × 2″ white oak turning blanks, choosing the straightest grain possible.
With the legs cut to length, the first step is to mark the mortise locations and then make the mortise holes. Traditionally it makes sense to make the mortises and then fit the tenon to the mortise. Because I’m short-circuiting the tenon process by using part of the stretcher as the tenon, I needed to make the mortise match the tenon this time.
The next step is assembling the stretchers. This is where the fun starts. The two stretchers are of an I-beam design, with a top and bottom that are horizontal, and a middle piece that is oriented vertically. The top and bottom stretcher pieces are 9-1/2″ long, which is the actual size of the space between the legs. The middle stretcher is 11″ long. When the three pieces are assembled, the middle piece extends 3/4″ on either side, creating the tenons.
It’s important that the stretchers fit tightly against the legs, so I assembled the stretchers while they were in place in the legs. Before you do that, though, sand all the pieces, because it’s next to impossible to sand inside the channel once the stretcher is assembled. By squaring the stretchers to the legs while assembling, everything fits tightly without a lot of extra fitting.
The other part of the support structure on the table is the shelf. Traditionally this would be positioned much lower, but the Wright design dictates a higher shelf. Useless you say? Posh! It’s the perfect height for hiding the remotes and the TV Guide. Maybe they won’t all end up stuck in the couch cushions if they have a proper home.
The shelf is attached to the legs using dowels. I used only one dowel per leg on this version. Because it’s such a small table and the top is attached to the legs as well, one dowel is adequate for a small-scale table.
However, if you look at the drawing, we’ve shown two dowels at each location. One thing that’s nice about this design is if you cared to scale this up to dining table size, all the proportions would still work and it would be an attractive larger table. In that case, two dowels per leg would be recommended.
At this point, leave the stretchers and shelf separate from the legs. We still have some detailing to do on the legs before assembling the base.