Your Complete Guide to Trunk Coffee Tables
Once upon a time, steamer trunks were a regular part of daily life designed to transport our belongings and, thus, life from place to place and port to port. Fast forward to the modern era, where a newfound love for a trunk’s beauty has returned., Today's trunks, however, are more commonly displayed front and center versus tucked away in the attic giving birth to the coffee table trunk.
The Origins of the Coffee Table Trunk
While steamer trunks were primarily used for long voyages—though any voyage prior to air travel was long—they also served owners while stationary. While at home, they became storage containers that would keep linens and out of season clothes. As daily life and lifestyles changed, these trunks were relegated to the storage room, whether it be the basement or up in the rafters.
As vintage designs populated homes, something that began to gain popularity in the 1970s, dusty trunks were brought out of storage and used as coffee tables. Their use as furniture didn’t stop there. They came to decorate several pockets in the house, as decorative items in front of a window or a surface to display decorative objet d’art. They make a great place to hold a television, and are practical when placed at the foot of the bed to store extra linens or sweaters—especially, old-fashioned ones like canopies and four-posters.
What Trunks Make the Best Coffee Tables?
There are a few things to consider when looking to incorporate a trunk into one's space, especially if it is a vintage or antique chest. First is the condition as trunks were often made from wood and then covered in leather or canvas, which tends to tear or disintegrate over time. Similarly, metal trunks can require refinishing. too. If you come upon an older trunk in need of work, a furniture or leather restorer can typically return the piece to its former glory. But, remember: Distressed furnishings are en vogue.
To fully ascertain its condition, be sure you do a thorough cleaning. For leather, a saddle soap suffices as a gentle cleanser. Generally, these detergents contain the correct amount of pH to clean the surface safely. The trunk interior, often lined in paper, needs to be cleaned out before storing new items as the paper can trap odors and oils. This task is a careful project since you should not get it too wet or you’ll risk warping the wood. A gentle soap like Murphy’s Oil Soap and a scraper can do the trick. If you are handy, you can use an electric circular nylon brush to remove oxidation on brass hardware and polish it to make it like new again.
One hack for the trunk coffee table is to commission a mirror or glassmaker to create a made-to-measure top to create an even surface and to keep the trunk free from liquid spills, dust, and the like.
Trunk Size Matters
Besides the condition, height is a big consideration. Trunks come in several shapes and sizes, so the size of the room and couch you are presumably placing in front of it matters a lot. A cabin trunk is generally 10-12 inches tall and best for a low sofa. A mail trunk ranges in height from 18 to 26 inches and lends itself to taller, overstuffed furniture pieces.
But trunks come in varying shapes and sizes. At storied French luxury trunk house Moynat, a large circular tire trunk could be used with a base as a coffee table. This style inspired creative director Nicholas Knightly to create a new bag shape called the wheel, which pays homage to the round trunk. Trunks can also come in square shapes and be paired for another unique take on the coffee table. Similarly, a chest with a concave bottom was meant to rest nicely on the top of an antique car. However, some trunks had curved tops to ensure that no one else put their trunk on top.
How to Source a Trunk Coffee Table
If you are not fortunate enough to inherit or discover a vintage trunk within your family, there are places to source these treasures. One is the Puces de Saint Ouen at the Porte de Clignancourt in Paris. The market itself has an interesting story, founded in 1870 as the city banished ragpickers and their accompanying fleas to the outskirts of Paris, giving rise to the term “flea market.” Eugene Poubelle's decree furthered in 1884 that removing household waste was compulsory, creating a recycling center at the Porte de Clignancourt
Today, the Puce de Saint Ouen is home to several vintage trunk dealers and boasts a large variety and selection. Can’t make it to Paris? Consulting a knowledgeable antique dealer or estate sale manager can help you locate solid options. As can referencing websites such as 1stDibs, which has earned a stellar reputation for authentic vintage furniture or Chairish. Conversely, reproduction and new models are found at the same storied houses that made them originally, notably Louis Vuitton, Goyard, Hermes, Moynat, and Au Depart.
The Trunk Coffee Table According to Au Depart Paris
According to Au Depart CEO Gianfranco Maccarrone, there are some things to keep in mind with a coffee table trunk. The French mark was one of the four original trunk makers but was dormant until 2019 when the brand relaunched with a line of leather goods and novelty trunks.
Today, Maccarrone sees trunks as more pieces of furniture than travel pieces. “This concept of differently sized trunks perfectly integrate into apartments,” he recommends. He adds that for smaller spaces where design is emphasized, trunks are practical and stylish storage spaces. “Our contemporary trunks hold whisky, cognac, tea sets, wine, champagne, and a fully multi-functional bar, for instance,” he says. The brand also offers a chic DJ console, too. “When closed, the turntable, vinyl storage, and TV trunks can be used as beautiful coffee tables, especially with low to the ground lounge-style couches or cushion seating.”