A coffee table is many things: a place to set your drink, a footrest, somewhere to stash the remote and — of course — a beautiful decorative addition to your living room. Or, at least, it has the potential to be all of these things. Your coffee table can also become a cluttered mess if you aren’t careful, or a drab disappointment if you’re scared to get a little creative. To help you achieve style success, I’ve put together some helpful guidelines with specific situations so you can master the art of decorating a coffee table.
If your coffee table has a lower shelf, you don’t have to fill both levels, but if you choose to, try lining up the items on each tier. Use two pairs instead of threes, and don’t forget to play with heights. A lidded storage box or small basket can help keep the bottom level looking sharp while giving you a place to stash items like remote controls.
First think about what you need your modern coffee table to do for you, or what your room is missing, then pick a walnut coffee table that provides the solution. Before buying a table, mark the footprint with painter’s tape so you can see the scale of the piece in the room and how that affects the surrounding furniture. If you have a very large room and a large coffee table, you can break up the scale of the table by flanking it with pairs of ottomans or benches, as in this example. When there’s a party, they can be moved out of the way for better circulation, but for everyday use these extra seats help connect the sofa at one end and the pair of chairs at the other end. Be sure to use a pair of ottomans — not just a single one.
Sometimes a coffee table that isn’t the standard height or width is exactly what a room needs. In this instance a very low coffee table creates a crisp horizontal plane in the foreground, offsetting the long horizontal line of the credenza in the background. A higher table would have blocked the view of the credenza and competed with it; the varying heights add interest.
If you get a tufted ottoman, consider the depth of the tufts — especially if you expect to eat on it. Crumbs will find their way into the tufting and are not always easy to get out. Round coffee tables aid circulation, especially where there are many available seats, as in this example. If not every seat can reach the table, make sure there’s another surface at hand.
Another consideration is how it will sit on your floor or rug, and if it will damage those surfaces. Splintered table legs or rusty metal bases can scratch or stain the flooring. Secondhand stores sometimes leave those areas unrefinished, so be sure to check. Sculptural wood coffee tables tell their own story and can add a natural element and warmth to a room with multiple upholstered pieces. Sealers and, of course, coasters can help protect the surface from water damage.
A coffee table does a lot of work. It needs to hold books, magazines, drinks, food — even games on game night. You might want to put your feet up on it, or the kids might need a place for coloring. Plus it’s usually smack dab in the middle of the room, where you cannot miss it — so make sure it’s a good one for small glass coffee tables.
Choose your fabric wisely, since people may want to put up their feet (and shoes). Outdoor fabrics can be smart; steer clear of linen and fabrics with high amounts of rayon or viscose. Take a swatch home and test it out with dirt, red wine or whatever you think your coffee table will encounter, to make sure your fabric choice can handle it all. Keep an upholstered ottoman 18 inches from a sofa or chair, so you can easily put up your feet, and make sure the height is consistent with the surrounding seats.
Using a vintage object for a coffee table adds a bit of history — a story — to a room, and is one of my favorite things to do. Make sure the piece is stable and all the connections are secure. If you need to refinish the piece, ask the vendor precisely what it’s made from, as this will help in the refinishing process.
Old pallets or crates are a fine alternative to the traditional coffee table and are incredibly versatile too. The ones here have simply been turned upside down — but you could screw yours together if you tend to move your furniture around a lot. You could also stack them or cut them down to size, or use one pallet and elevate it with small apple crates, for example. A coat of paint will transform the trusty courier once again.