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Referred to by designer Kristina Phillips as the “workhorse of a room,” coffee tables serve as everything from a place to put your feet up to a much-needed, lazy spot to eat a meal— and everything in between. Heck, there’s even a genre of book dedicated to this beloved piece of furniture.
Michelle Leduc gives tribute to the coffee table when she describes it as “a fundamental piece that pulls a seating area together... it brings comfort and style to the space, and might also be the most versatile piece in your home.”
As this multifunctional piece is one that we all know, love, and use every day, we want to do it justice by choosing the best coffee table for our space. Though the options may seem endless, Michelle Leduc advises “taking your cues from the room you’re working with to narrow down the possibilities, making the task more manageable.”
We consulted our team of experts for advice on what to consider when purchasing a new coffee table, as well as types of coffee tables and common mistakes to avoid while shopping for one.
Meet the experts
At Living Cozy, we produce our content alongside interior design and home decor experts. In this guide, you’ll advice from:
Michelle Leduc, Co-Owner and Design Consultant at Decorating Den Interiors - LEDUC DESIGNS
Key Things to Consider When Choosing a Coffee Table
While shopping for a coffee table, it’s helpful to know where in your home you’ll be placing it. Placement affects factors such as size, scale, and to some degree, style.
For Michelle Leduc, the key to placing a coffee table is to use the rest of your living room furniture as a guideline. She says, “a good rule of thumb is to center [the coffee table] with the largest seating pieces, usually the sofa.” Leduc recommends choosing a table that is roughly two-thirds of the length of your sofa, which will accommodate comfortable reach from all seats. After all, no one likes to have to get up to pick up and put down their glass of wine!
However, while placing the coffee table close enough to your sofa is important, making sure there’s enough space for people to easily get in and out is also key. Leduc recommends keeping between 16 and 18 inches of space between the table and sofa to let friends and family walk around comfortably, while not creating too much space between sofa and table.
As out-of-proportion tables are a common mistake seen by designers, make table size a priority while selecting your new piece.
Kathy Kuo recommends first taking measurements of your space and of the seating options that will surround the coffee table, as “you want to be sure the height of the table works well with your sofa and armchairs.”
Michelle Leduc agrees, and recommends that the your coffee table height should be between one and two inches higher or lower than your sofa cushions and the furniture it serves to make it play well with the rest of the room.
Once you’ve determined size, it’s time to start thinking about the home decor motif of your family room, and consider which coffee table design details complement it best.
After considering placement and size, it’s time for the fun part (design), right? Not quite. Before getting to design, Michelle Leduc suggests prioritizing function, as “although design is important, the perfect coffee table for you needs to work with your lifestyle.”
“Although design is important, the perfect coffee table for you needs to work with your lifestyle.”
Whether you’re in search of a kid-friendly table that lacks sharp edges or one that provides extra storage, coffee tables are available in countless configurations to meet needs you might not even know you have. Scrolling through the latest styles of table will give you some idea of features available. If you see something you like, add it to your list of criteria!
Last, but certainly not least, consider your budget. Just like when you’re shopping for any other furniture piece, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by variety. Knowing the amount that you’re willing and able to spend on a coffee table will weed out the pieces that won’t work for you, making the selection a bit more manageable.
While coffee tables can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands based on material, size, brand, and quality, there are ways to accommodate any budget. Getting specific on how spendy you’re looking to get will make your search much easier from the getgo.
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How to Choose the Right Style and Shape of Coffee Table
Once you’ve determined your needs regarding size, function, and cost, it’s time to get to the fun part– style. According to Kathy Kuo, “there are no hard and fast rules about shape and style.” Kuo recommends trusting your instincts about what is going to look best with your existing living room furniture, as “the ultimate goal is for you to love the table you choose.”
We put together the below list for more information on the most common types of coffee tables available.
Traditional: Usually rectangular in shape, traditional coffee tables are often low to the ground and stand on four legs.
Storage: Whether it’s pull-out drawers on the side of the table, or a surface that opens to reveal hidden cavities, storage coffee tables provide a little extra space to stash your stuff.
Lift Top: In the work from home era, the lift top coffee table has garnered a lot of attention. These tables are usually sturdy, rectangular, and constructed from wood, with a top that lifts up to become a workspace. As a bonus, these tables are known to offer storage under the surface– perfect for those in need of extra space.
Nesting: Two smaller tables– one that slides under the other– are called nesting coffee tables. With their differing heights, nesting tables are often a focal point in the room while serving as a practical way for multiple people to put up their books, drinks, or feet in a small space.
Ottoman: Ottoman coffee tables provide extra surface area for those looking to put their feet up– as well as an opportunity to add elements such as color or texture through fabric.
Round: Round coffee tables are available in a variety of materials and configurations, and are favored by parents due to their absence of sharp corners.
Think About the Rest of the Room
When deciding on the shape of the right coffee table for your space, consider the furniture that will surround the table. According to Doreen Amico-Sorell, an L-shaped sectional or a U-shaped sectional does well paired with a round table. “Conversely, for a sofa, a rectangular coffee table is preferred because of the complementary geometry,” says Amico-Sorell.
Heather Mastrangeli agrees, and suggests selecting a coffee table after other seating in the room so that you can see what you’re working with. “The table shape should be dictated by the furniture arrangement,” Mastrangeli says. “If you have a sectional sofa with chaise, a round coffee table will make it easier to walk around it. But standard sofas lend themselves well to rectangular or square coffee tables.”
Consider Who Will be Using the Space
While shopping for your coffee table, think about who, what, and how the table will be used. Does the table need to be kid-friendly? Ideal for entertaining a large group? Or, will you be placing food and drinks on the table?
The above questions usually provide answers when considering style, shape, and material.
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Which Materials are Right for Your Room
Functionality is important to keep in mind when making decisions regarding materials. For example, as parents of small children already know, avoiding tables with glass tops will prevent the future frustration that comes with cleaning smudges from the surface.
Kristina Phillips recommends factoring in usage before anything else. “If you’re primarily using the table to rest your feet, consider an upholstered coffee table,” Phillips says. “But if you plan to display books, board games or decorative trays for loose items (think: remote controls or coasters), a solid surface will serve your needs better.”
The material also depends what style of coffee table you’re looking for. If the rest of your furniture follows the mid-century aesthetic, it’s likely that you’ll want a mid-century coffee table. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a table that will match the industrial vibe you love, consider a metal table. The same goes for contemporary materials such as tile, glass, or lucite.
For those with a dark sofa or chairs, Phillips recommends opting for a lighter, or even transparent table to avoid too many bulky looking pieces in a space.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Picking a Coffee Table
As with any larger pieces of furniture, it’s always risky to buy without taking measurements first — especially if you’re working with a smaller space. Remember, measuring tape is your friend, and the minute it takes to measure your space will likely save you time (and frustration!) down the line.
To clearly see how the coffee table will fit in your living space, many choose to create an outline with masking tape before purchasing. This makes it easier to visualize how the piece will work with the seating you already have. Trust us, there’s nothing worse that bumping your shin on a table that’s too large for your space.
A common mistake when choosing a coffee table is using incorrect proportions. Melissa Read says that creating a balance is vital, as she’s “seen coffee tables that are either too small, which can only accommodate half the seating configuration, or pieces that are far too dominating and heavy looking in a space.”
While sticking to your budget is important, Read advises those working with smaller budgets to pay close attention to the height of the table. “More often than not, inexpensive coffee tables are extremely low, creating an unbalanced look,” says Read.
Choose materials carefully
While it may be easy to choose a coffee table that you love and be done with it, the table that you’re choosing may not fit in stylistically with the rest of your furniture. While shopping for your ideal coffee table, choose a material that matches the vibe of your space. For example, if your living room is filled with classic leather sofas, this may not be the right opportunity to throw a contemporary wavy coffee table into the mix.
That being said, there’s much more available material-wise than the traditional wood coffee table. If you already have hardwood floors or other wood furniture, adding a wooden table might be too much. Consider material like marble or concrete to add light colors to the space.
Sasha Weilbaker is a freelance writer with bylines in Thrillist, Business Insider, and The Vegetarian Times. She's particularly interested in the intersection of sustainability and materials. In the wild, she can be found cycling around New England, scouting coffee shops, or obsessing over new podcasts.
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